Exfoliating your skin regularly is a must do for healthy, dewy glow. Likelihood is when you first started, the only options you thought available were the kind you need to get scrubbing with – muslin cloths, face scrubs, konjac sponges, exfoliating brushes.
Then you were warmly welcomed into the world of chemical exfoliants. AHAs vs BHAs.
The kind of exfoliants that don’t ask you to buff, scrub or gently move in circular motions.
The kind which exfoliate gradually instead of all in one hit.
The kind which take less than 10 seconds to apply and continue to work for hours after.
But which do you use? Should you use an AHA exfoliant or a BHA exfoliant? What even is a BHA? Heck, what’s an AHA?
If you my friend are in an AHA vs BHA pickle, come learn all…
What Is BHA?
Just like cakes come in a rainbow of tasty flavours, so do chemical exfoliants. Where chocolate cake has just the places it hits the spot, strawberry cake fills in for the ones it can’t. If you’ve had a stressful day, you might want chocolate. If you’re having a summer lunch outside, it might be strawberry all round.
AHA vs. BHA exfoliants is the exact same situation.
AHAs are best for some skin types. BHAs are best for other skin types.
When you see the word BHA on a face wash, toner or moisturiser, you’re seeing the abbreviation for beta-hydroxy acid.
BHAs are 1 type of chemical exfoliant with the most common type of BHA being salicylic acid.
Almost all BHA exfoliants in the skincare world are based on salicylic acid. Meaning, most of the time, BHA, beta-hydroxy acid and salicylic acid mean the exact same thing.
So when should you use a BHA? Which skin types work best with BHA exfoliants? How do you know which to choose: AHA vs BHA?
What’s the Difference Between BHA and AHA?
BHA and AHA exfoliants have very similar benefits for different skin types. Use the wrong one for your skin type and it won’t be doing much. Use the right one for your skin type and you’ll see a fresh, clear, even, smooth skin tone in no time.
While you now know BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid, what you might not know is that AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid.
— Cheryl Woodman (@HonestyForSkin) 17 November 2017
The 2 have very similar names, because they’re very similar skincare ingredients.
One thinks of itself as an alpha dog and the other a beta test phase.
If you want to get super savvy about the science, know this, alpha and beta are exactly like a postcode, they tell scientists where a certain part of the molecule lives. In space 1 aka alpha or in space 2 aka beta.
Why does it matter? Because different postcodes aka locations of hydroxy acids dissolve differently in different liquids.
This my friend is the key to your decision of AHA vs BHA.
AHAs dissolve best in water and BHAs dissolve best in oil.
Meaning… and i bet you’re here already: AHAs are best for normal to dry skin types and BHAs are best for combination and oily skin types.
AHA vs BHA bottom line: If you have a dry to normal skin type, AHA exfoliants will work best for you. If however you have a combination or oily skin type, BHA exfoliants will work best for you. Keep reading for the best AHA and BHA exfoliants for your skin type. Using them this way around allows AHAs more time to get to where they need to be.
Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid
When choosing a liquid exfoliant the products you’re looking at may not be labelled up as simply as AHA and BHA. Instead you might see a salicylic acid mask or a glycolic acid face wash.
These 2 types of chemical exfoliant are the most common types used.
And all you need to know is this;
- Glycolic acid is an AHA and is therefore best for dry to normal skin types
- Salicylic acid is a BHA and is therefore best for combination or oily skin types
AHA vs BHA bottom line: If you have a dry to normal skin type, choose glycolic acid. If you have a combination or oily skin type, choose salicylic acid.
AHA or BHA for Acne?
Exfoliating regularly is a great way to help fight away acne, spots and pimples. When you develop a spot, dead skin has become trapped in your pores. Usually your skin exfoliates itself almost fully every 30 days, but as you get older this slows. As more and more dead skin gets trapped in your pores, spot causing bacteria (which live on your skin anyway) get a chance to breed… and boom! Spot city.
Acne happens in the same way but because it’s a clinical condition it gets a fancy name – hyperkeratosis. A word which describes your pores inability to exfoliate properly.
But guess what… skincare can help!
Using a liquid exfoliant can happily speed up your skin’s natural exfoliation rate helping stop dead skin from becoming trapped in your pores. When spot causing bacteria have no food, they have to pack up and go hibernate.
In the choice of AHA or BHA for acne, the answer is simple. Do you have it already? Spots happen in your pores and your pores are where sebum aka oil is created. This sticky mixture of dead skin and oil is the reason why oily and combination skin types are prone to spots, acne and pimples.
…and the reason why BHA or beta-hydroxy acid exfoliants or salicylic acid exfoliants aka the kind which dissolve in oil are the best at helping treat your spots or acne.
Can I Use AHA and BHA Together?
…Can I use BHA and AHA at the same time? Can I combine AHA and BHA?
Now my fellow skin savvy, some skincare products combine AHAs and BHAs. Take this AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution for instance.
In case you where wondering this is a high, high strength product. 2% is the maximum safe amount of salicylic acid allowed in the EU and 30% is the maximum salon safe dose of glycolic acid advised in the EU.
Using AHAs and BHAs together in general is not advised because you’re using too many ingredients which have a similar effect and when you do this, skin can get itself in a pickle. Imagine waxing your legs once, only to do it again 10 seconds later. Imagine eating dinner to then have to eat the same sized portion for dessert. Imagine doing a body attack class to go do a body pump class after.
It’s going to hurt… and doing the same to your skin will hurt too, not as pain, but as inflammation, redness and irritation. Which is ageing – not good.
Word to the skincare wise: In general It is not advised to use AHA and BHA products together and if using pre-prepared AHA and BHA products it should be occasionally and with caution.
AHA or BHA First?
However, if you have lower dose AHA and BHA product and wanted to use BHA as a spot treatment, this is the order to do it in; AHA first, BHA second. Why? Because AHA is most soluble in watery layers aka the deeper layers of your skin and BHA is most soluble in oily layers aka the top layers of your skin.
Best AHA Exfoliant
Now my friend, time for the exciting part, to choose a best AHA or BHA exfoliant for your skin type
Best Buy: The Ordinary’s Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution – 240ml/£6.80 – This is a nice moderate strength AHA toner. The maximum safe advised AHA dose for normal use is 10% making The Ordinary’s 7% a happy higher end, low tier price point exfoliant. If however you have dry and sometimes sensitive skin, opt for The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% – 30ml/£5.50 – lactic acid is a great pick for dry skin types as it can also help hydrate in ways glycolic acid can’t.
Drugstore: Nip+fab Glycolic Fix Liquid Glow 6 percent – 100ml/£19.95
Premium: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel – 30ml/£9.45 – can be used in place of a serum.
You’ll notice all of these are leave on products which are best used over an AHA facial cleanser or AHA mask as the active alpha-hydroxy acid ingredient gets more contact time with your skin. Remember alpha-hydroxy acids don’t work instantly like a physical exfoliant will.
Best BHA Exfoliant
If you’re clear that AHA exfoliants are not a fit for your skin type, then BHA exfoliants are your oily/combination/spot prone skin staple, which will you choose?
Best Buy: The Ordinary’s Salicylic Acid 2% Solution – 30ml/£4.20
Drugstore: Neutrogena Visibly Clear® Spot Proofing™ Purifying Toner – 200ml/£5 – estimated at 1% salicylic acid.
Premium: Paula’s Choice Resist Anti-Aging 2% BHA Exfoliant – 30ml/£12
Note: All of these picks are also alcohol free aka free from alcohol denat. on the ingredients list. This kind of alcohol is very drying to skin which is bad for even oily skin types. It’s very common to find this on the ingredients list of spot treatment BHA pads and in some BHA toners. Beware!
AHA vs BHA are you clear on the difference? Know which is perfect for your skin type? Have more questions? Come chat to me in the comments below…
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.