AHA Versus BHA Exfoliants - The Dermatology Review

AHA Versus BHA Exfoliants



Exfoliation is key to a radiant complexion. In fact, did you know many dermatologists believe exfoliation is the most important part of a skincare routine? If you’re not already exfoliating, you should start – especially if you’re looking for smoother texture, less acne, fewer wrinkles and more radiance. And honestly who isn’t looking for that?

If you’re confused about the types of chemical exfoliants out there, particularly when it comes to alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), you’ve definitely come to the right place. We break down the difference between AHAs and BHAs, while also educating on their many benefits.

AHA Versus BHA Exfoliants

The Difference Between AHAs and BHAs

Alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids have much in common. Both work as exfoliants to help unclog pores (by “unglueing” the sebum and bonds that hold skin cells together) and slough away dead skin cells to promote smoother, more beautiful skin.

They can both:

  • Smooth and soften rough texture
  • Reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Provide hydration
  • Brighten and even out skin tone
  • Unclog pores

The main difference between AHAs and BHAs is that they are water-soluble and oil-soluble, respectively. Neither is necessarily better than the other – it all depends on what you’re looking for in terms of treatment.

AHAs are generally more often used for anti-aging benefits, despite the fact that they can effectively treat acne as well. AHAs are recommended for normal to dry skin types, because they have more moisturizing ability than BHAs.

Alpha hydroxy acids include water-soluble acids like glycolic, citric and lactic acids. Though “acid” can be an intimidating term, these are safe to use on the skin to help unclog pores, fight acne, restore radiance, fade away dark spots and acne scars to even out skin tone and improve overall texture, making skin feel and look smoother and less dull.

AHAs are mainly used for:

  • Fading away hyperpigmentation
  • Reducing surface wrinkles

Since AHAs are water-soluble, they tend to work more on the surface of the skin. This is also why they are recommended for dry to normal skin types. BHAs are oil-soluble and work deeper inside the pore to remove sebum and dead skin cells (they can go deeper into the pore than alpha hydroxy acids). They are recommended for combination to oily skin that is prone to acne and enlarged pores.

Beta hydroxy acids include salicylic acid, an acid commonly found in many anti-acne products. Sometimes citric acid can also be classified as a BHA, though it is less common. Moreover, unlike alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids can reduce inflammation and calm reddened, angry skin. This is an ideal ingredient to be used for sensitive skin or rosacea, because it is rather gentle overall.

BHAs are mainly used for:

  • Fighting acne
  • Reducing inflammation

If you happen to have acne and signs of aging, you can alternate between AHAs and BHAs for best results. Layering them on top of one another may occasionally lead to irritation if not used correctly.

However, some skincare products are specifically formulated with both AHAs and BHAs for a truly powerful combination that is nonetheless not irritating. If you’re looking for a great chemical exfoliant, you can try Formulyst’s Retexturing and Perfecting Serum. This liquid serum was specially formulated with an AHA/BHA plant extract complex to gently but efficiently remove dead skin cells for a more refined complexion.

AHA Versus BHA Exfoliants

The Details On The Different AHAs and BHAs

Glycolic Acid (AHA)
Glycolic acid is typically derived from sugar cane. It has the smallest molecular size of all the acids (meaning it can penetrate skin very efficiently), and it has a reputation for working really well. For this reason, it is also the AHA most often found in anti-aging beauty products. It’s even the most studied of the acids.
Chemical peels done at dermatologist’s offices usually feature glycolic acid.

It works by basically removing the “glue” that holds skin cells together. This “glue” is essentially just built-up sebum (oil) and other lipids that attach dead skin cells to each other and cause clogging. By removing these dead skin cells, glycolic acid helps the products that you’ll layer on later absorb better. On top of that, glycolic acid has been shown to stimulate collagen production. In dermatologists’ offices, glycolic acid peels can be used in concentrations as high as 70 percent. In over-the-counter products, you can expect to find concentrations between eight and 30 percent. Thirty percent is considered pretty high but still safe to use. However, it can be rather irritating.

Now as to who can or should use glycolic acid, sensitive skin types and those with rosacea are cautioned against it. Moreover, it’s best to avoid sun exposure, or at least be generous with sunscreen, if you are using glycolic acid regularly. Glycolic acid can further dry out skin, so follow up with a moisturizing to counteract this. Finally, you should note that it’s okay if you feel a tingling sensation when you use products with glycolic acid, but if you’re feeling a burning sensation rather than a tingling, you should stop using the product.

Citric Acid (AHA)
Citric acid is naturally found in citrus fruits. It is mainly used to adjust the pH in certain products to keep them from being too alkaline. It’s not as well studied or nearly as popular as glycolic acid, though it can be combined with glycolic acid and other acids to promote a deeper exfoliation. Like glycolic acid, it also works by removing the binding between dead skin cells to help to loosen them.

Citric acid can help fade discoloration to even out skin tone. It can help fight blemishes by unclogging pores, and it can help smooth away fine lines. Deeper wrinkles, however, would need more serious treatment like injections or laser treatment.

Citric acid is also used for its ability to lighten skin (thanks to its vitamin C content) and work as an astringent. It can cause mild side effects like redness and peeling, with a tingling sensation being common upon application.

Lactic Acid (AHA)
Lactic acid is naturally found in milk. It is also rather popular as a skincare ingredient in exfoliating masks, lotions, creams, toners and cleansers. Unlike glycolic acid, it is more moisturizing and therefore less irritating for those with sensitive skin. However, higher concentrations of this acid can still be irritating. If you’re unsure if it’s right for you, do a patch test on the inside of your arm first.

It sloughs away dead skin cells to reveal brighter, more radiant skin, and like the preceding acids, it can also have a positive effect on acne, discoloration, texture, dullness and fine lines.

Other AHAs include mandelic acid (made from almond extracts), malic acid (made from apple acids) and tartaric acid (derived from grape extracts). These are less well-known, but can improve the effectiveness of the more powerful, better known acids when combined with them.

Salicylic Acid (BHA)
This acid may definitely ring a bell if you’ve ever used an over-the-counter acne product. It is often found at concentrations between 0.5 and 5 percent. It is most commonly found at 2 percent in over-the-counter formulations for acne products.

Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, making it perfect for oily and combination skin. It works on the skin’s surface to exfoliate, but also moves deeper into the pore to break up sebum and help unclog it. In addition to helping unclog pores to fight acne, salicylic acid can help calm redness and inflammation. This ability to calm inflammation also allows it to fight against inflamed pimples and lesions that have become infected.

Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum

If you’re looking for a great chemical exfoliant, you can try Formulyst’s Retexturing and Perfecting Serum. This liquid serum was specially formulated with an AHA/BHA plant extract complex to gently but efficiently remove dead skin cells for a more refined complexion.

Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, “Glycolic Acid Peel Therapy – A Current Review”; Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, “Salicylic Acid As A Peeling Agent: A Comprehensive Review”;




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