Insights

What's the Difference Between AHA vs. BHA Exfoliants?

Ashley Brooks17 Aug 2021

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) are water-soluble chemical exfoliants, aiding in removing dead skin cells. Beta-hydroxy acids (BHA) are oil-soluble chemical exfoliants, meaning they can penetrate the skin through sebaceous glands. Emphasis on skincare and the many products that exist have seemingly taken over the Internet. Products such as AHAs and BHAs are great ways to exfoliate your face, but you should use them with caution. AHA and BHA are exfoliants.

Talking with your doctor about your skin type and skin goals can help you find the best products and routines. You have discounted doctor’s office and urgent care visits with Mira and even affordable rates on over 1,000 prescriptions. Sign up for Mira today.

What are AHA & BHA

Our skin naturally exfoliates and replaces our dead skin cells daily, but this process can slow down over time due to sun damage and symptoms of aging. Adding a chemical exfoliant, such as AHA’s and BHA’s, to your skincare routine can help maintain this process and keep your skin clear and glowing. 

We spoke with Dr. Ailynne Marie Vergara-Wijangco, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Writer for Thank Your Skin, and Frida Pigny, Organic Cosmetic Formulator FRIDASKINCARE, for insight on everything AHA and BHA.

AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid, and BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid. Both of these products are great exfoliants for the face and achieve different benefits. As a word of caution, you should these types of products with good sunscreen as they can increase your skin sensitivity to the sun. Listed below are the shared benefits of AHA’s and BHA’s according to Dr. Vergara-Wijangco: 

  1. Decrease inflammation - a key market of acne, rosacea, and other skin concerns
  2. Decrease the appearance of large pores and surface wrinkles
  3. Remove dead skin cells
  4. Unclog pores to prevent acne

Differences Between AHA vs. BHA

While AHA and BHA have some similarities, there are many differences that are important to be aware of. 

AHA

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are water-soluble chemical exfoliants aiding in removing and replacing dead skin cells. AHA’s are derived from sugar cane and other plant sources and boost the effectiveness of other skincare products by removing excess dirt and oil and dead skin to allow other products to penetrate the skin better. The extent of exfoliation from an AHA depends on the type and concentration of the AHA, its pH, and other ingredients in the product. 

When it comes to cost, products can range in price depending on the concentration.

Benefits of AHA

Alpha-hydroxy acids support skin cell turnover as a chemical exfoliant leading to numerous benefits. While many types of AHA products exist, they generally aid in the following processes:

  1. Minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  2. Improve the appears of mild hyperpigmentation such as age spots and scars
  3. Reducing pore-size

How to Apply AHA

While AHA’s can be used for all skin types, those with more sensitivity or extremely dry should use with caution, says Dr. Vergara-Wijangco. You may want to try gradually working your way up to daily use to avoid irritation by using every other day. All AHAs achieve significant exfoliating effects, but a general rule is that your AHA should have a concentration of around 10 percent.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more serious adverse reactions of AHA are from products titled “skin peelers” because they deliver the greatest exfoliation. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel indicates AHA’s are typically safe for consumers if: 

  1. The AHA concentration is 10 percent or less
  2. The product has a pH at or above 3.5
  3. The product is formulated to protect from increased sun sensitivity or directly tells consumers to use a daily sunscreen.

Types of AHA’s

As briefly shown in the table above, many types of AHA’s and BHA’s exist, offering various benefits. Below are a list of some of the most popular forms of AHA and what they are used for.

Healthcare you can afford.

Insurance: expensive, confusing, unreliable.

Mira: not insurance. 😄

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid comes across on many skincare labels as it is one of the most popular and well-studied. According to a 2011 study, a 10 percent glycolic acid emulsion was shown to improve mild acne. But the benefits go beyond treating acne - it also helps with antiaging and moisturization. Glycolic acid can range in price, being more expensive when used in higher concentrations for skin peeling. 

Citric Acid

A popular AHA, citric acid, is found in both plants and animals, shares similar exfoliating properties as glycolic acid, and helps improve the skin's natural moisture. Citric acid improves the thickness of the skin, but studies suggest more research is necessary to understand the benefits fully.

Mandelic Acid

Mandelic Acid is useful for producing many pharmaceutical products, but it offers numerous benefits when it comes to skincare. Mandelic acid is said to help even skin tone and reduce age spots - even freckles. As an antibacterial agent, mandelic acid also fights acne breakouts and tightens skin and pores. 

Lactic Acid

Another AHA, lactic acid, exhibits exfoliating properties and skin-strengthening making it a great option for treating areas of hyperpigmentation. It also provides skin hydration, antimicrobial activity, and skin lightening. Lactic acid is naturally found in the human body, making them a safe product to include in cosmetic formulas.

BHA

Beta-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble chemical exfoliants, meaning they can penetrate the skin through sebaceous glands. Sebaceous glands secrete oils to lubricate your skin and hair. With BHA’s, less is more. BHA’s are typically more beneficial when in lower concentrations, so that is preferred if you see them at the bottom of the ingredients list. 

Benefits of BHA

BHA’s are great for balancing oil and calming your skin because they penetrate deep into your hair follicles to dry out excess oils and remove dead skin. While BHA’s are most suitable for combination or oily skin types, they can be used at lower concentrations to avoid irritation for those with more sensitive skin. BHA’s assist in improving:

  1. Acne
  2. Blackheads
  3. Whiteheads
  4. Sun damage
  5. Rosacea-related redness

How to Apply BHA

BHA’s do not make your skin as sensitive to the sun as AHA’s but should still be used in moderation to start. While BHA’s are designed for daily use, you may also want first to try applying just a few times a week, as you would with AHA’s. The FDA suggests testing any product that contains BHA on a small area of skin before applying it to larger skin areas. BHA-containing products should also be avoided on infants and children.

If you experience skin irritation or prolonged stinging, you should stop the product and consult your doctor. For information on where to implement BHA’s in your skincare routine, check out How to Build a Simple Skincare Routine. 

Types of BHA’s

Just like AHA’s, BHA’s also come in different forms, offering various skincare benefits. Salicylic acid, tropic acid, and willow extract are some of the most popular forms of BHA. Continue reading for more information on these varieties. 

Introducing Mira

Imagine Costco but For Healthcare. $45/month. No catch.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is the most common BHA and is found in numerous skincare products. It is great for oily skin types and is used in many over-the-counter acne treatments. At various concentrations, salicylic acid has been used for treating other dermatologic concerns such as dandruff, psoriasis, and warts. 

Tropic Acid

Tropic Acid is a common ingredient in products listed as BHA’s but is not frequently studied in skincare use. Check with your dermatologist on the benefits of this product and how it will affect your skin and complexion.

Willow Extract

Willow Extract, also known as Salix alba, is the natural form of salicylic acid, offering numerous benefits. While it also provides gentle exfoliation like its other BHA members, its anti-inflammatory properties help alleviate conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea.

How to Use AHA and BHA

We received expert advice from Dr. Ailynne Marie Vergara-Wijangco, who says you don’t want to layer AHAs and BHAs on top of one another. These are both exfoliators, so using both individually can cause dryness and irritation. Using them in products that combine these ingredients safely can improve the fullness of multiple layers of your skin.

Products containing both AHA and BHA yield fuller skin but should be used only for occasional use. If you have both products, you can alternate by using one type in the morning and another during a nighttime routine or on alternating days. You may even use these acids on certain parts of your face only, applying AHA to dry areas and BHA to oily areas if you struggle with combination skin.

AHA and BHA Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

We have answered some commonly asked questions below for more information on how to use AHA and BHA products. 

How do I choose between AHA and BHA?

You can always decide to use products that combine these two ingredients safely, but if you want to use them individually, you’ll need to understand your skin type and skincare goals. If you are apprehensive of visiting a doctor, you can take tests online to determine your skin type, but an expert opinion is always supported. Mira offers affordable doctor’s office visits to help get you that specialist opinion. 

Who should not use AHA’s and BHA’s?

According to Frida Pigny, Organic Cosmetic Formulator and founder of FRIDASKINCARE, these products can be irritating for skin with sensitivity, dryness, and thin and thinning skin conditions. AHA’s and BHA’s should also not be used on skin lacking regular sunscreen use.

How much and how often should I use each product?

Pigny suggests that it depends on a variety of factors. AHA and BHA are both skin peeler agents. Using AHA and BHA in skincare routine should follow one skin cycle phase, which is also different due to hormonal conditions and menstruation cycles, age, pre-existing skin conditions, genetic inheritance, and skin thickness. To be safe, stick to an AHA concentration of 10 percent and a BHA concentration of 1 percent. To check your skin type, check out this FRIDASKINCARE calculation tool.

What are alternatives to AHA’s and BHA’s

While the many types of AHA’s and BHA’s provide you with various products to try, polyhydroxy and bionic acids. These formulas offer similar benefits to AHA’s without irritation, making them a more suitable option for sensitive skin, rosacea, or cosmetic procedures. They also provide antioxidants, skin barrier-strengthening, and antiaging benefits.

Bottom Line

AHA’s and BHA’s provide similar skincare benefits, and you can obtain sufficient chemical exfoliation from both. Each product is used to achieve different skincare goals but used safely together, can increase the appearance of fullness and achieve numerous benefits. Talk to your dermatologist to answer any questions regarding specific ingredients or recommended products for your skin type.

Getting an expert opinion from a doctor can be expensive. With Mira, you get discounted rates for several services, including visits to a doctor, preventative lab screening, and more. Learn more about how Mira can make your healthcare more affordable.