AHA’s Vs. BHA’s: How To Exfoliate With Acids According To Your Skin Needs

Julia Sachs

Tags exfoliate

how to exfoliate

Perhaps one of the most misleading terms in the skin care world is the use of the word “acid.” We notice a lot of fear surrounding the term, as most newbies to the world of acids tend to assume that it equates to rubbing battery acid on your face. We can assure you that this could not be further from the truth, but the world of acids in skin care is a broad one, and to truly get into it we should start by touching on a couple of the most common acids to skin care products: AHA’s and BHA’s (and, sometimes, PHA’s). 

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA’s) are both exfoliating acids that have separate uses but each work great in their own regards. They work slough off dead skin cells—which increases cell turnover and results in younger looking skin—and to help combat the presence of acne in different ways. Depending on how sensitive your skin can be and what your needs are, though, is where you will decide whether AHA’s or BHA’s (or both!) are right for your skin care routine. 

All About AHA’s 

Alpha hydroxy acids generally come from the breakdown of fruit, sugar, or milk and are, therefore, naturally derived. In skin care, these products work to gently remove the outermost layer of the skin to reveal younger, smoother looking skin from beneath. AHA’s are water soluble, and target the top layers of the skin to increase cell turnover and promote the appearance of smoother, younger looking skin. 

Use This Ingredient If: Because AHA’s work to remove the outermost layer of the skin, they rapidly promote the growth of new skin cells. This can help your skin if you are looking to smooth over the appearance of wrinkles, get rid of hyperpigmentation in the form of things like age spots, melasma, and scars caused by things like acne. Further, the rapid turnover of new skin cells will help prevent the blockage of pores, which can cause acne and blackheads. Essentially, AHA’s are an all-encompassing element of a great skin care routine. 

Know Before You Buy: Most AHA products are advertised as being safe for all skin types, but those with sensitive skin should take extra care because AHA’s can sensitize even the toughest skin. Beyond that, anything that exposes new skin can leave your face extra prone to UV damage. Those using an AHA should be extra careful if spending time in the sun, in addition to wearing an SPF of at least 30 every single day. 

What To Look For: Those with sensitive skin should stick to products that contain lactic acid and malic acid because each of these acids contain larger molecules that are more gentle on skin. We recommend products like Sunday Riley’s Good Genes treatment because it acts fast to gently remove dead skin, brighten the appearance of age spots or melasma, and promote the turnover of new skin cells to create a more plump appearance. 

Anyone looking for something more potent will enjoy the Foaming Glycolic Wash from Neostrata. This cleansing product is a first-step product that helps balance the pH of your skin, gently clean pores, and prepare your skin for the rest of your skin care regimen. Glycolic acid is made up of smaller molecules that can deeply penetrate the outer layers of the skin, making them slightly more harsh but that much more effective. 

How To Use: We recommend easing into AHA’s because they can increase the sensitivity of your skin, especially at first. Incorporate these products into your skin care routine by applying them once per week, easing your way into eventually using them a couple of times per week for best results. 

All About BHA’s

While AHA’s do help target and treat acne, they’re not specifically meant for it in the way that BHA’s are. Beta hydroxy acid refers to one very useful ingredient for those with acne-prone skin: salicylic acid. If you are familiar with acne treatment products you probably recognize this ingredient because it tends to be the most common (for good reason) in skin care products that treat acne. This anti-inflammatory ingredient targets acne by penetrating the outer layers of your skin, removing the clogs within pores that cause zits and blackheads. 

Use This Ingredient If: We recommend using salicylic acid products if you have acne prone skin. The anti-inflammatory elements of salicylic acid will help target and treat clogged pores and the buildup of natural oils while also treating hyperpigmentation and discoloration left over from old blemishes. 

Know Before You Buy: Salicylic acid products can be a bit drying, so they should be paired with a moisturizing product and oil serum even if you have naturally oily skin. 

What To Look For: Many BHA products are combined with AHA products to both exfoliate and treat the presence of acne together within one product. Renew Serum from Glo contains both salicylic acid and glycolic acid to treat acne and remove dead skin to increase the appearance of younger, smoother looking skin. Products that are advertised as “clarifying” often contain salicylic acid. Such is the case with Sunday Riley’s U.F.O, a medicated face oil that contains 1.5% salicylic acid. 

How To Use: Much like AHA products, we recommend using a BHA as part of the early stages of your skin care routine a couple of times per week. Start by using the product once per week to test how your skin will react, eventually working your way up based on what your needs are. Use salicylic products after removing your makeup, but before using any serums, oils, moisturizers, or SPF’s. 

Other Famous Acids: 

PHA’s: Poly hydroxy acids are also common to many exfoliating skin care products. As the second generation of AHA’s, PHA’s have a different molecular structure than their close counterparts. Because of this, they work directly on the surface of the skin and deal only with the outermost layer of skin cells, which are often the dead skin that your body could do without to begin with. This makes them much more gentle—particularly for sensitive skin types—as they do not disrupt the deeper layers of your skin. 

Hyaluronic Acid: Perhaps the most misleading cosmetic ingredient in the skin care world, hyaluronic acid acts like anything but an acid. As a natural humectant, this holy grail ingredient helps water molecules bind to your skin more easily, making it appear more supple and hydrated. Hyaluronic acid is a must-have ingredient for any good skin care routine, as it can help restore and maintain your natural moisture barrier. We even wrote a whole blog post about it. 

But What About Physical Exfoliants?

Physical exfoliants—which include things like walnut scrubs and other products labelled with the word “scrub,” should be used carefully on your face. This is because many of these products include harsh ingredients that can cause micro-tears on the surface of your skin, particularly around the eye area where your skin tends to be the most sensitive and delicate. Avoid physical exfoliants that make use of fruit pits. These ingredients will be listed as things like walnut shell powder, though anything with plastic microbeads is also a definite “no no” from us. 

 If you must use a physical exfoliant (we understand, they just feel good), we recommend products that use sugar granules such as this one from Basq NYC or enzymes and jojoba beads, like in this yummy scrub from Glo

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