AHA vs BHA are exfoliating acids that help to gently exfoliate built-up dead skin cells. Also known as Alpha Hydroxy Acid and Beta Hydroxy Acid. They are generally safe to use in topical skin products because of the way they are manufactured. If irritation does occur stop using them at once and see your doctor
When we’re young, our skin naturally sheds off dead skin cells daily, giving us a beautiful, healthy-looking complexion. This exfoliating process gradually slows down as a result of age and sun exposure. This slow down leads to dead skin cells accumulating on the surface of our skin making it dull, dry and flaky. If you want to avoid dull skin with clogged pores, wrinkles, and an uneven skin tone, then you should include AHAs and BHAs into your skincare routine.
You will notice that these types of acid exfoliants are showing up in more skincare products than ever before . That’s because these acids target different skin types and needs. They improve skin tone, texture, and overall skin condition. When combined they can also tackle various skin issues at once.
Knowing about these exfoliating acids and their benefits, you’ll be able to choose an ideal product for your skin type. This will help you tackle any specific skin concerns and make a dramatic improvement to your skin’s appearance.
Both exfoliating acids are highly beneficial in their own way, and neither is better than the other.
By the end of this article you’ll know:
- What AHAs and BHAs are
- Their benefits
- In what ways they’re similar and how they differ
- How to choose whether your skin needs an AHA product, a BHA, or a combination of both.
What are AHAs?
AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid. It’s a type of acid that’s derived from plant and animal sources such as sugar cane, fruit, or milk.
Products that contain AHA help exfoliate the uppermost layers of the skin, the extent of which depends on the concentration of the acid, its pH, and other ingredients. These skin care products also help reveal fresher skin that looks much softer and hydrated, and over time becomes firmer too.
You’ll find different types of AHAs in skincare products — glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic, malic, tartaric, and citric acid.
The most widely used AHA type is glycolic acid, which is derived from sugarcane. Its small molecule size makes it the strongest but also the most irritating as well.
In general, AHAs are most beneficial to normal, dry, and sun-damaged types of skin, due to their characteristic quality of moisturizing the skin.
Benefits of AHAs
AHAs, when used correctly, provide amazing benefits to your skin because they:
- effectively exfoliate dead skin cells
- visibly brighten skin
- promote collagen production
- target all areas of the skin
- reduce surface lines and wrinkles
- treat and prevent acne
How to use AHAs
Look for AHAs in your skincare products if you have dry or sensitive skin, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, and fine lines. Your selected product should have a concentration between 8 and 15 percent maximum.
To reduce side effects like irritation, try using the product every other day until your skin gets used to it.
Because of the effectiveness of AHAs to exfoliate dead skin cells, your skin becomes more sensitive to sun exposure so make sure to wear sun protection every morning to avoid burns and age spots.
What are BHAs?
BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid. It’s found in wintergreen leaves, willow tree bark, or sweet birch bark.
These types of acids work beneath the skin’s surface to unclog pores, reduce excess oil, and target blackheads. They are also oil-soluble which makes them a great choice for normal and oily skin that’s more susceptive to clogs, bumps, and blemishes.
BHA products can penetrate deeper into the skin, dissolving keratin plugs and removing dead skin cells and sebum. They also have anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce breakouts on acne-prone skin.
You will find skincare products with these main BHA exfoliants: salicylic acid, betaine salicylate, tropic acid, and trethocanic acid.
The most prominent BHA that’s commonly used in cosmetics is salicylic acid.
Even though it’s the strongest type of acid due to its large molecule size, it’s not as irritating as glycolic acid. Its anti-inflammatory properties help reduce acne by effectively exfoliating the skin and reducing clogged pores. It also helps reduce general redness and inflammation.
Benefits of BHAs
BHAs can dramatically improve the condition of your skin through the following benefits:
- they effectively shed dead skin cells (keratolytic)
- anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties
- they reduce redness or rosacea
- treat calluses
- they have photoprotective properties
How to use BHAs
BHA can be used as an exfoliator, spot treatment, or face wash as part of your cleansing routine.
BHA-containing-products can be used daily. But just like AHAs, you’ll need to apply them a few times a week in the beginning, just so your skin gets accustomed to your new product.
Compared to AHAs, BHAs don’t make your skin sensitive to the sun, but that doesn’t mean you can skip the sunscreen. Sun protection is always recommended as it helps prevent damage from free radicals.
If you have sensitive or oily skin, acne, or pigmentation, it’s best to choose skincare products with BHAs. Look for 2% salicylic acid or 4% of betaine salicylate.
How Are AHAs and BHAs Similar?
There are plenty of benefits that AHAs and BHAs have in common.
- Exfoliating: They both have the ability to ‘unglue’ the bonds that hold used-up skin cells on the surface. Then the skin naturally sheds off these cells making the skin feel smoother and hydrated.
- Enhance glowing skin: By reducing the thickness of the skin’s top layer that’s consisted of dead skin cells, they allow the skin to reflect more light, giving it a natural glow.
- Reduce pigmentation: Both AHAs and BHAs help fade pigmentation (dark spots) and diminish dull, uneven skin tone as a result.
- Diminish fine lines and wrinkles: By increasing the density of collagen in the skin they can improve skin firmness.
- Hydrating: They are both humectants, so they keep the skin hydrated by attracting water molecules and retaining moisture in the cells.
- Clearing acne: AHAs and BHAs both help reduce acne by exfoliating the skin’s old cells, cleansing clogged pores and blackheads.
While they have so many beneficial qualities in common, they also have unique traits that make each one ideal for different skin types and needs.
How Are AHAs and BHAs Different?
- Solubility: AHAs are water-soluble, while BHAs are oil-soluble which means they can pass through sebum (an oily substance found on the skin).
- Concentration: AHAs should be used in higher concentrations of 8 to 10 percent to be effective, while BHAs only needed a 2 percent concentration.
- Effectiveness: AHAs do their work on the epidermis — the top layer of the skin. BHAs work both on the skin surface and beneath it. Also, AHAs cause cells to self-destruct (apoptosis) whereas BHAs simply loosen bonds between the skin cells.
- Oil production: BHAs can slow down sebum production reducing excess oil, whereas AHAs don’t have any effect on this.
- Acne and clogged pores: AHAs help with mild forms of acne but BHAs are more effective in this regard as they work on a deeper level. They can clear sebum captured inside the pores — making them look smaller — and prevent clogs from forming. They can also target blackheads and slow down oil production.
- Irritation: AHAs and BHAs can be irritating if you use them too frequently, or at the wrong pH concentration. But between both, BHAs are less often associated with irritation and redness, that’s why they can be used on sensitive or acne-prone skin types.
- Photosensitivity: AHAs make the skin more vulnerable to sun exposure which can cause damage and premature ageing. On the contrary, BHAs have photoprotective properties. Even so, they can’t be used as a sunscreen on their own
Can I Combine AHAs and BHAs?
You may be wondering if it’s possible to combine both AHAs and BHAs for optimal results.
Well, it’s not necessary!
Both exfoliating acids can offer amazing benefits on their own and have impressive results for your specific skin type. Some dermatologists even say that if you have a good BHA product (with salicylic acid especially), you don’t need AHAs.
If you still want to use both to see which one works best for you, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you choose well-formulated, gentle exfoliants that won’t cause irritability to your skin when used together.
- Incorporate them into your skincare routine gradually
- Do a test patch to see how your skin responds and adjust accordingly
- Use BHA in the morning (since it isn’t photosensitizing) and AHA in the evening, or on alternate nights
- Use AHAs and BHAs on alternating days
- If you have combination skin, you can apply BHA on your oily skin areas (T-zone) and AHA on dry areas
- Look for moisturizers that already have a well-formulated combination of both acids
The only reason to keep using AHA and BHA exfoliants together is if your skin needs thorough exfoliation or if you have multiple skin concerns. If you have advanced signs of sun damage, stubborn clogged pores, bumps, deep wrinkles, or flaky skin, you can do well with a combination of both.
How to Choose Between AHAs and BHAs
Now that you know a lot more about these exfoliant acids, it’s time to choose which one would be ideal for your skin type. It basically comes down to what skin concerns you wish to target with these skincare products.
If you have sensitive or oily skin, or you’re dealing with issues like cystic acne or pigmentation, then BHAs would be your best choice.
However, if you only have dry skin or age-related skin concerns, then you can just go with an AHA-containing product.
In case you have more than one skin issue, you can combine both AHAs and BHAs, but use them with caution. Excess use of both can cause irritation or dryness. Try using BHAs daily — such as a toner with salicylic acid — and an AHA skin peels once a week.