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How to Choose Your AHAs and BHAs

Woman applying cleanser and cleansing her face in the bathroom

If you’re serious about taking good care of your skin, then more than likely you’ve already incorporated exfoliation into a regular skin care routine.

You may also be aware that to get the best results, you need to go beyond the basic fruity face scrub to exfoliate deeply and penetrate pores with anti-aging and skin-renewing ingredients.

And even if you already have a go-to exfoliation method, it’s often a good idea to have a range of different exfoliation options in your skincare arsenal. 

Without a doubt, in order to take your skin to the next level, you absolutely must use a quality AHA or BHA.

But if you’re just starting out, knowing your BHAs from your AHAs and how to use them can be hard to figure out.

Luckily, AHAs and BHAs aren’t actually as complicated as they may sound, and choosing the right products for you can actually be quite easy.

Chemical Exfoliants

First things first, what do all these letters stand for anyway?

  • AHA stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acid
  • BHA stands for Beta Hydroxy Acid

Both AHAs and BHAs are types of chemical exfoliants used to gently and effectively remove dead skin cells, unclog pores, and leave you with a healthy and smooth complexion.

Many of us will cringe a little at the term “chemical exfoliant,” but these aren’t scary mystery chemical substances at all. “Chemical” simply refers to the fact that they exfoliate by soaking into your pores and slowly breaking up the “glue” between skin cells. Once some of this glue-like substance is dissolved away, old skin cells and other dirt or debris can be lifted away or fall off.

This is different from the more traditional physical methods we usually associate with exfoliation. Physical exfoliation includes scrubbing cleansers that contain microbeads, sugar, or fragments of natural items like shells or seeds. Even an ordinary washcloth or towel can be an exfoliating tool. Physical exfoliation happens when you rub any abrasive substance against your skin, thereby “rubbing” off old skin cells and any other gunk stuck to the surface of your skin.

Both chemical and physical methods of exfoliation work well to remove the topmost layer of skin and therefore can improve your skin’s texture.

But chemical exfoliation usually offers a few benefits that physical exfoliation typically does not.

Infographic on physical or mechanical exfoliation

For example, physical exfoliation can be harsh on your skin. This is especially true if you scrub your skin with a heavy hand, or simply if your skin tends to be sensitive or acne-prone.

Chemical exfoliants can actually be a much gentler approach, as they loosen dead skin slowly. Although the results are not as instantaneous as physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliants may be able to reach deeper into pores, unclogging more stubborn blackheads and pore congestion.

And as we are about to find out, specific chemical exfoliants such as AHAs and BHAs can also benefit your skin in other ways besides exfoliation alone.

What’s the Difference Between AHAs and BHAs?

So now that we’ve straightened out the differences between chemical and physical exfoliation, you may be wondering what exactly is an AHA or BHA, and are they the same thing?

While their names are quite similar, AHAs and BHAs are not the same thing at all. While they both function as exfoliants, they affect the skin in very different ways.  So it is important to know what each one does and does not do so you can choose what’s right for your skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

This complicated sounding chemical is actually derived from some pretty ordinary and natural items. In fact, you may have more than a few of them in your kitchen right now!

Alpha hydroxy acids come from plants such as citrus fruits, grapes, apples and tomatoes, and even sugar cane and dairy milk. While they are derived from things you can find in a typical grocery store produce aisle, the alpha hydroxy acids you find in skincare products are specially chosen and formulated to be applied topically.

These acids exfoliate by removing the top layers of skin. They actually remove the some of the “glue” that keeps dead skin cells adhered to skin’s surface, revealing the newer cells beneath. It also seems that AHAs may help your skin keep water from escaping, thus maintaining a healthy and strong moisture barrier for a hydrated complexion.

This unique combination of hydrating and exfoliating features make AHAs a miracle ingredient for those who suffer from dry or combination skin. It means that any flaky or scaly patches can be effectively sloughed off, all without further drying out or roughing up the skin.

Perhaps one of the reasons AHAs are highly valued over other exfoliation methods is that it provides anti-aging effects that go beyond simply polishing away old skin. If your skincare concerns go further than just routine exfoliation, alpha hydroxy acid also has the ability to work deeper, staving off more stubborn signs of aging.

In fact, AHAs have been shown to thicken the underlying layers of skin that we can’t see. This plumping below the surface equates to a firmer complexion, and over time could potentially reduce wrinkles and fine lines.

It has also been shown to promote an even skin tone by reducing acne scars and sun damage. And it seems that AHAs contribute to the production of collagen and elastin. These elements are vital for keeping skin from sagging and discoloring with time.

All in all, AHAs produce younger looking skin by addressing a variety of factors that can prevent your skin from looking its best.

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

While beta hydroxy acids have some similarities to alpha hydroxy acids, they differ in important ways. The beta hydroxy acid used in skin care is often referred to as salicylic acid. On top of its excellent exfoliating ability, this salicylic acid has a long list of uses in caring for skin conditions and concerns.

Salicylic acid is naturally sourced from the bark of the willow tree. It is interesting to note that the willow tree is also where aspirin was originally derived, and both salicylic acid and aspirin share some of the same medicinal benefits. These include having both anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.

While salicylic acid not only promotes exfoliation by speeding up the shedding of skin cells, it also reduces inflammation and bacteria. For this reason and more, it is commonly recommended for treating acne in all its forms, from tough blackheads and whiteheads to painful and swollen breakouts.

You will also find that BHA or salicylic acid is usually preferred to AHAs for oily skin. This is because unlike AHAs, BHAs are oil soluble and therefore able to get past an oily surface in order to reduce shine. This feature also means that it can effectively break down any built up sebum to clear clogged pores.

Infographic on different skin issues

Another wonderful feature of BHAs is that compared to many alternative acne treatments, BHAs will not usually cause redness and irritation. On the contrary, they can actually reduce any redness already present in your skin and improve skin tone.

Choosing an AHA or BHA

Typically, you will want to consider your skin type first if you are deciding between an AHA and BHA.

You should try an AHA if…

…your skin is very dry or has a lot of age spots or sun damage.

AHAs come in a number of different varieties, and each is suited to different skin needs. Here are a few of the more common forms of AHAs and what they are best for.

  • Look for lactic acid if your skin is especially sensitive. This milk-derived acid is absorbed very slowly by the skin, helping to prevent any potential irritation.
  • Glycolic acid is definitely the most popular of the AHAs. This is because its tiny molecular structure can work deeper and faster than the other acids, providing the most dramatic results. The downside of this is, however, that it is more likely to cause irritation.
  • For a compromise between the power of glycolic acid and the gentleness of lactic acid, try malic acid. This potent acid offers antioxidants and the ability to restore damaged skin but is less irritating than glycolic acid.
  • An option for those with oily skin that want to use an AHA is mandelic acid. This is an anti-inflammatory acid that can help slow down oil production in the pores.

You should try a BHA if…

…your skin is oily or prone to breakouts.

Those with excess oil production will probably be happier with a BHA rather than an AHA exfoliant. Remember that AHAs cannot break down oil, therefore they are not ideal for combatting acne and other oily skin issues.

Additionally, BHAs are often considered a “safe” option for any skin type. Some people may find that their skin has trouble tolerating an AHA, and even the more gentle options like lactic acid are too much for them. BHAs are less likely to cause inflammation or redness than AHAs.

When looking for a BHA, you will usually find this ingredient labeled as salicylic acid or simply beta hydroxy acid. BHAs don’t have a variety of forms like AHAs.

Or, try both!

While you don’t need to use both an AHA and a BHA, there are some definite benefits to carefully incorporating both into your skincare routine, no matter your age or skin type.

In fact, since these acids offer different benefits, some sources recommend using both to get the full anti-aging effects. It has been shown that alternating an AHA and BHA can improve skin more than using one alone. This combination approach boosts collagen and cell turnover for incredible results.

However, you will want to be strategic when using the two acids together. You shouldn’t apply an AHA and a BHA at the same time, or even one right after the other.

This is because both are exfoliating agents, and using them at the same time or too close together can over-exfoliate your skin, causing irritation and dryness.

Since you don’t want to layer them one on top of the other and over-power your delicate facial skin, here are some recommendations for using AHAs and BHAs together, the right way.

  1. Introduce one product to your skin at a time. Start with only applying once every one or two days at first to make sure your skin isn’t sensitive to a new ingredient. Some reactions can happen after several applications, so wait at least a week.
  2. Alternate using a BHA or an AHA on different days.
  3. How often you exfoliate depends on your skin’s condition and how much exfoliation it can handle. You may have to experiment a bit.
  4. Choose products with a low percentage of acid to start out. Even 1-2% is effective for most skin types. When your skin is first adjusting to acids, it will probably need some time to acclimate. Higher concentrations may cause irritation and redness.
  5. Look for formulations that match your skincare needs. BHAs and AHAs often come in leave on lotions that are good for dry or normal skin types. If you have oily skin, a liquid or gel may be more appropriate.
  6. If your skin starts to become too dry, try to reduce how many days a week you exfoliate. While some people do fine to apply exfoliants every day, more sensitive skin may find once or twice a week enough.
  7. If your skin becomes very inflamed, or if you are just not sure what’s right for your particular  condition, it’s always a good idea to check with a dermatologist.

Don’t Forget Sunscreen!

Unknown woman applying sunscreen on shoulder

Finally, no matter if you are using an AHA, a BHA, or some combination of the two, it is essential to take sun protection seriously. Both types of acids make your skin more vulnerable to sunburn and sun damage.

While it’s always important to protect your skin from the sun, it’s doubly as important to wear sunscreen while using these products. The last thing you want is to undo all the work of your AHAs and BHAs by creating new sunspots and wrinkles!

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