Should You Use an AHA or BHA Exfoliant?

Woman enjoying a gentle facial scrub at spa
Should You Use an AHA or BHA Exfoliant?
5 (100%) 1 vote[s]

Exfoliation is key when it comes to healthy skin, and this is something that your skin does do naturally. Each and every day, your skin sheds its dead skin cells, enabling the younger and fresher skin cells beneath to shine through. In fact, it is estimated that the average person loses between 30,000 and 40,000 dead skin cells every minute

You are probably thinking…

If my skin exfoliates on its own, why do I need to exfoliate too?

Because the rate at which your skin sheds its dead skin cells rapidly declines with age. This then means that dead skin cells build up on the surface of the skin, resulting in a rough and dull complexion, along with clogged pores.

When it comes to exfoliation, there are two main styles that you can choose from…

Physical Versus Chemical Exfoliation 

While both physical and chemical exfoliation methods clear away dead skin cells, the way in which they do so is quite different:

  • Physical Exfoliation – makes use of abrasive particles to physically slough away dead skin cells from the surface of the skin
  • Chemical Exfoliation – makes use of certain acids that dissolve the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells to the skin, enabling them to easily be shed or washed away

Which method is better?

It depends on your skin type, as well as the skin concerns you may be dealing with. However, many would agree that chemical exfoliation is actually far more gentle than physical exfoliation, but just as, if not more, effective.

Wondering which chemicals and acids are used for chemical exfoliation?

This is where AHAs and BHAs come in…

What Are AHAs and BHAs?

AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid and BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid.

Different acids fall under each category, giving you even more choice when it comes to choosing a method of exfoliation. The individual AHAs and BHAs will be discussed further on.

Do AHAs and BHAs Do the Same Thing? 

In a way, both AHAs and BHAs do the same thing.

After all, they both dissolve the glue-like bond that holds on to dead skin cells, enabling them to then be shed.

They also bring about some other fantastic skin benefits, such as:

  • Minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • Hydrating the skin
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Giving the skin a firmer and smoother feel, thanks to an increase in collagen production
  • Brightens the skin and evens out skin tone 

You’re probably thinking…

If AHAs and BHAs do the same thing, then it probably doesn’t matter which one I use!

Well, although both AHAs and BHAs do share some similarities, there are also quite a few differences between the two. It is important to understand these, as this will enable you to choose the best chemical exfoliant for your skin type and skin concerns.

How Do AHAs and BHAs Differ?

There are a few differences between AHAs and BHAs. Although the two share quite a very similar molecular structure, they do slightly differ when it comes to the positioning of these molecules, and this is enough to bring about their differences.

The main difference is that AHAs are water-soluble acids, while BHAs are oil-soluble.

What does this mean in terms of your skin?

It means that BHAs will be able to penetrate deeper into your skin, since they will be able to get through the layer of sebum that sits in your pores. This is great for people with oily, acne-prone skin, but not so great for those who have dry skin, which is why it is important to understand the differences between both types of acids.

Since AHAs are water-soluble, they can’t really get very deep into your pores. However, this isn’t a bad thing, as it means that the AHAs can tackle all of the issues going on on the surface of your skin instead.

AHAs are fantastic for minimizing fine lines and wrinkles, while also fading dark spots and acne scars. While BHAs are best used by those with oily skin, AHAs are suitable for pretty much every skin type, even those with sensitive skin.

Choosing an AHA

If you’ve got normal, dry or sensitive skin, or are looking to minimize the visible signs of aging, then you’ve probably decided that AHAs are a better option for you than BHAs.

So, now that you’ve made this decision, it is time to choose an AHA.

As mentioned earlier, there are several different types of AHAs out there, and each one will have their own unique advantages.

Infographic on the different types of AHAs

Some of the most common AHAs include:

  • Glycolic Acid – this is probably the most popular AHA, and is made from sugar cane. It is fantastic for exfoliating and, since it also boasts antimicrobial properties, could help with acne breakouts too. Of course, it won’t clear out the oil from deep within the pores in the same way as a BHA would
  • Lactic Acid – derived from the lactose that is found in milk, lactic acid is known for its exfoliating and anti-aging benefits. It is extremely gentle, making this the AHA of choice for those with sensitive skin 
  • Tartaric Acid – derived from grape extracts, tartaric acid is not quite as common as glycolic and lactic, but has a few distinct advantages. It is great for tackling acne breakouts and blemishes, while also minimizing the visible signs of sun damage
  • Citric Acid – as you can guess from its name, citric acid comes from citrus fruits. This AHA is fantastic at neutralizing the skin’s pH level, therefore preventing a whole host of skin issues from arising. Citric acid is also effective at evening out roughness and skin tone
  • Malic Acid – made from the acids in apples, malic acid isn’t a very effective exfoliant when used on its own. However, it does a great job of increasing the effects of other AHAs when it has been combined with them 
  • Mandelic Acid – made from almond extracts, mandelic acid features quite a large molecular size. It is good for evening out skin texture and reducing pore size, but not quite as effective at exfoliation when used on its own. This is why you will often find mandelic acid combined with another AHA. A good example is the 24K Multi-Vitamin Deep Peeling + Mandelic Acid, which is gentle enough for easily irritated skin, and also contains vitamin C and bamboo stem powder to brighten the skin and give it a luminous glow

One more thing that you should be aware of when choosing an AHA…

Make sure that the AHA concentration in the product is no more than 10% to 15%.


Because this is already strong enough to provide powerful exfoliating effects. Any more than this, and your skin could react negatively.

Is this your first time using an AHA?

If so, you will still need to start off slow, even if you go for a 10% concentration. Use this to exfoliate slightly less frequently than you normally would. This will give your skin the chance to grow tolerant of the acids.

Wondering how you would be able to tell if you’re exfoliating too much?

The symptoms of over-exfoliation include:

  • Skin irritations and peeling
  • Redness and inflammation
  • A burning sensation
  • Breakouts, especially in the form of small spots
  • Increased sensitivity to other ingredients and products

Keep in mind that AHAs also make the skin more sensitive to the sun. You will need to be extra-diligent when it comes to sun protection when you are using AHAs. If you are worried, save their use for the evenings, but make sure that you still wear plenty of sunscreen the next day.

Choosing a BHA

If you’ve got oily, acne-prone skin and regularly have to deal with clogged pores, then you have probably decided that a BHA would be best suited to you.

Well, your life just got a whole lot easier, because, unlike the many different types of AHAs out there, there is only one main BHA.

This is known as salicylic acid, and is a popular treatment for acne.

What exactly does salicylic acid do?

It is a fantastic anti-inflammatory, helping to quickly reduce the redness that comes with acne. It is also able to tackle pimples and blackheads, making these far less noticeable. 

Of course, salicylic acid exfoliates the skin too. Unlike an AHA, which only targets the surface of the skin, salicylic acid delves deep into the pores, clearing out your pore linings of any dirt, oil, dead skin cells and bacteria. As you can imagine, this goes a long way in reducing the frequency and severity of breakouts!

Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, there is a downside to salicylic acid…

Due to the way in which it clears out oil from within the pores, salicylic acid can often lead to dryness.

What should you do about this?

Make sure that you always moisturize immediately after using salicylic acid on your skin. While this is important with any type of exfoliation, it is even more so when you are using an exfoliant that is known to lead to dryness. 

Can AHAs and BHAs Be Combined?

Want to know if you can combine AHAs and BHAs, so that you can enjoy the benefits of both?

You can, but you shouldn’t do this at the same time. Layering an AHA and BHA over the top of each other will only be too much exfoliation for your skin. This will more than likely end up causing irritation and dryness.

Wondering how else you can combine the two?

By using them on alternating days. This will enable you to experience the effects of both, without overloading your skin with acids.

Young woman applying skincare with a cotton pad

What About PHAs?

If you’ve been reading up on chemical exfoliants, then you have probably heard of PHAs too.

PHA stands for polyhydroxy acids, and have only really become popular in the last year or so.

What exactly are PHAs?

They’re actually very similar to AHAs, which is why no one really paid much notice to them before now.

However, research has shown that there are a few differences when it comes to the molecular structure of both acid types…

PHAs are made up of molecules that are quite a bit larger than those that make up AHAs.

What does this mean for your skin?

It means that PHAs are even less capable of penetrating into your pores than AHAs, and they come nowhere near comparing to the pore-penetrating properties of a BHA.

However, this can be very beneficial for some…

Some people with ultra-sensitive skin find even the gentlest AHA to be too harsh. This is especially true for people who suffer from the following skin conditions:

  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Atopic rosacea

Since PHAs feature quite a large molecular size, they work well on the skin’s surface, but without disrupting any of the skin’s delicate layers. They are great for resurfacing the skin, and clinical studies so far have found them to be a good match for those with the above skin conditions. 

What makes this even better is that PHAs also work as humectants.

What does this mean?

It means that PHAs are able to draw in moisture from the air and bring this to your skin. This is ideal for those who have dry or dehydrated skin, as it gives the skin an extra dose of hydration.

As an added bonus, PHAs are also a potent source of antioxidants. This is great for healing and regenerating the skin, while also tackling the visible signs of skin aging.

Wondering which specific PHAs you can choose from?

The most common type is gluconolactone. You may also come across lactobionic acid and galactose. They all work in very similar ways, so you can pretty much opt for any one of them if you have decided that PHAs are the best option for you.

Chemical exfoliants can make such an incredible difference to your skin – so long as you are using the right one! Whether this may be an AHA, a BHA, or even a PHA, make sure that you spend some time choosing the most suitable chemical exfoliant for your skin type and your skin concerns.