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The Difference Between AHA and BHA Exfoliants

The Difference Between AHA and BHA Exfoliants

Without question, a leave-on AHA (alpha hydroxy acid, such as lactic or glycolic acids) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid, which is salicylic acid) exfoliant can make a world of difference in your skin’s appearance. We’re often asked which one is best, and the answer is less complicated than you might think. But first, let’s answer the question, "Why exfoliate?"


Benefits of Exfoliation

Our skin naturally exfoliates copious amounts of dead skin every day, but over time this shedding process slows, or may stop altogether. This unwelcome slowdown occurs primarily due to years of unprotected sun exposure, but also can result from having oily, dry, clog-prone, or combination skin, as well as going through mid-life changes.

The not-too-pretty results include dull, dry, or flaky skin; clogged, enlarged pores; bumps, wrinkles, loss of firmness; and uneven skin tone. In short, without this natural exfoliation, your skin begins to look much older, much faster.

Helping your skin gently exfoliate this buildup of dead skin—the way it did when we were young—noticeably diminishes all of the issues mentioned above, sometimes as soon as overnight. Gently removing this dulling buildup of surface dead skin reveals the beautiful, soft, hydrated skin hiding beneath. That’s what AHA and BHA exfoliants do!


How AHAs and BHA Work

Both AHA and BHA exfoliants work in a similar manner to reveal smooth, radiant, hydrated, youthful-looking skin. When in a proper formulation, AHAs (e.g., glycolic acid and lactic acid) and BHA (salicylic acid) act to unglue the sticky bonds that are holding the dull, dead skin on the surface longer than it needs to be there. Once those bonds are broken or unglued—gently and evenly—skin sheds naturally and imperceptibly. So, although you won’t actually see your skin shedding, you will soon see the smoother, younger-looking skin hiding beneath!

What do we mean by a "proper formulation"? To work effectively, an AHA or BHA exfoliant must be formulated within a narrow pH range, between 3 and 4. Paula’s Choice Skincare is aware of the research around this issue, which is why all of our exfoliants are formulated within this pH range, and, as with all of our products, they also contain unique blends of skin-soothing ingredients.


How AHAs and BHA are Different

First, before we explain how AHA and BHA exfoliants differ, let us explain what both do for your skin:

  • Both AHA and BHA diminish the look of lines and wrinkles.
  • Both AHA and BHA can make skin look and feel firmer.
  • Both AHA and BHA hydrate and increase skin’s smoothness.
  • Both AHA and BHA improve dull, uneven skin tone and rough texture.

As we said, AHAs and BHA are different, and their different properties make one or the other preferred for different skin types:

  • AHAs are water soluble and are preferred for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin due to their ability to enhance natural moisturizing factors within skin.
  • BHA is oil soluble and preferred for normal to oily, clog-prone and bump-prone skin, and enlarged pores, and can clear pores deeply, even those with hard, tiny, white bumps on the cheeks and face. BHA is even suitable for those prone to milia.
  • AHAs and BHA work on skin’s surface; but BHA also works inside the pore lining, where clogs begin.
  • BHA has natural skin-calming properties, which make it preferred for sensitive, redness-prone skin. It's great for sensitive skin, even for those with rosacea.


Do You Need Both?

With so many overlapping and unique benefits, you might feel like you’re missing out if you use only AHAs or only BHA. We’re routinely asked: Should I use both to get the best results? Do you need both? In short, no; either will provide remarkable results for various skin types and concerns. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with using both or experimenting to see which one works best for you, which is what most of us at Paula’s Choice Skincare do!

A quick note to further dispel confusion: Most people do not need to apply both an AHA and a BHA exfoliant at the same time. Doing so could tip the scales toward overdoing it, and that is never the goal.


Alternating Between AHA and BHA Exfoliants

OK, so you’ve decided to use both an AHA and a BHA exfoliant. Here are some tips on how to maximize the benefits:

  • Apply one type of exfoliant in the morning and the other at night, both times after cleansing and toning.
  • Alternate days: Use an AHA once or twice daily on Monday, a BHA once or twice daily on Tuesday, and so on.
  • You do not need to wait for your toner to dry before applying your exfoliant, and you don’t have to wait to apply the next product in your routine after applying your AHA or BHA exfoliant.
  • If you have combination skin, where the T-zone is oily and clog-prone with large pores, but the cheeks are dry, experiment by applying a BHA exfoliant to the oily areas and an AHA exfoliant to the dry areas.
  • Don’t forget your neck and chest! AHA and BHA exfoliants can exert their skin-renewing, texture-improving benefits there, too!

For more information about how Paula’s Choice AHA exfoliants work, click here. Check out this article to find out which Paula’s Choice Skincare BHA exfoliant is best for you.

References for this information:

Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, August 2015, pages 455–461
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, ePublication
Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, July 2012, pages 488–491
Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, June 2011, ePublication
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135–142
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651–663

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!