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What are AHA and BHA acids?
AHA and BHA acids are not just a trend – they’re the cornerstone of an effective skincare routine. However, if you use them incorrectly, or use the wrong acid for your skin type you’ll end up with angry, irritated skin.
In this article, we’ll ensure that doesn’t happen to you by guiding you through the science behind AHA and BHA acids, their profound impact on skin health, and how to safely incorporate them into your routine for maximum results and minimal irritation.
Whether you’re battling dullness, acne, or signs of aging, understanding and utilizing AHA and BHA acids can be a complete game-changer for your skin.
What Are AHA and BHA Acids?
AHA (alpha-hydroxy) and BHA (beta-hydroxy) acids are chemical exfoliants used in skincare to gently break down and remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells from the surface of your skin.
Unlike physical exfoliation, which involves physically removing dead skin cells with abrasive products, chemical exfoliation works by dissolving the bonds that hold your dead skin cells together.
This encourages the natural shedding of these cells and helps reveal fresher, smoother, and more evenly toned skin.
The Types of AHA and BHA Acids
While the main benefit of AHA and BHA acids is that they help exfoliate your skin, they actually have a far wider range of benefits that vary slightly depending on the type of acid.
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
AHAs are water-soluble acids made from sugars and fruits that are often used to treat wrinkles, uneven skin tone, rough skin texture, and enlarged pores. They’re generally suitable for all skin types but should be used carefully if you have sensitive skin.
There are a number of different AHAs used in skincare products, including:
- Glycolic Acid
- Lactic Acid
- Malic Acid
- Tartaric Acid
- Mandelic Acid
- Citric Acid
Glycolic acid is made from the sugar cane plant and has the smallest molecular weight of all the AHAs which means it finds it easier to penetrate your skin. Whilst this makes it more effective, it also increases the likeness that it will irritate your skin.
Lactic acid is made from the sugars found in milk and is a slightly gentler alternative to glycolic acid. It’s naturally found in your skin where it helps keep your skin hydrated as part of your skins natural moisturizing factors (NMFs).
Malic acid is made from the acids found in fruits like apples and, although it’s less effective than both glycolic and lactic acid, it can enhance the effects of other AHAs when used in combination with them.
Tartaric acid is made from acids found in grapes and has excellent antioxidant properties but there isn’t much research behind it so it’s not as frequently used in skincare products.
Mandelic acid is made from bitter almond extracts and has a particularly large molecular weight which makes it particularly suited to anyone with sensitive skin. It also helps reduce bacteria and inflammation which makes it useful for treating a number of different skin conditions.
Citric acid is made from citrus fruits and has the largest molecular weight of all the AHAs. You’ll see it towards the end of the ingredients list on a lot of skincare products as it’s often used to bring the products pH closer to your skin’s natural pH. However, it’s rarely used at strengths high enough to effectively exfoliate your skin.
Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
BHAs are oil-soluble acids that can get into your pores to help exfoliate dead skin cells and reduce oiliness.
Usually, BHA refers specifically to salicylic acid but it can also include derivatives of salicylic acid like:
- Lipohydroxy Acid
- Willow Bark Extract
- Betaine Salicylate
Salicylic acid is made from the bark of willow trees and is often used to treat acne due to it’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects. It’s also oil-soluble which means that it can easily get inside your pores to exfoliate and unclog them
Lipohydroxy Acid (LHA)
Lipohydroxy acid was developed by L’Oreal and is currently only available in brands and products owned by the company. It doesnt penetrate your skin as easily as salicylic acid but the slower delivery allows cell-by-cell exfoliation to take place.
Willow Bark Extract
White willow bark extract contains salicin which is what salicylic acid is derived from. However, unlike salicylic acid, salicin is gentle even at high concentrations and rarely causes skin irritation.
Betaine salicylate is made from sugar beets and could be a gentler alternative to salicylic acid. However, there isn’t much research behind it and it’s unlikely to be as effective as salicylic acid iteslf.
Benefits of AHA and BHA Acids For Skin
While each type of AHA varies in its effectiveness, they all have similar effects when it comes to your skin.
The main benefit of AHA acids is their exfoliating effect which can help improve skin texture, even skin tone, and reduce the appearance of pores.
They can also boost collagen production which improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Due to their low pH, AHA acids can help keep your skin microbiome healthy by keeping your skin’s pH slightly acidic. This allows the good bacteria on your skin to thrive and reduces the growth of the bacteria that cause inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
Like AHA acids, BHA acids help exfoliate skin and improve skin texture.
However, one of the main benefits of BHA acids over AHA acids is that they’re able to penetrate your pores and control oil production. They’re also antibacterial and anti-inflammatory which makes them a great option for treating acne.
BHA acids are also able to improve the signs of aging, like wrinkles and uneven skin tone, but only if used at higher strengths than you can buy over the counter.
Best AHA and BHA Acids For Your Skin Type
Now that we’ve explained what AHA and BHA acids are and what they can do for your skin, it’s time to work out which acid is right for your skin type!
There are four main skin types:
Some people also have sensitive skin which is usually due to a damaged skin barrier and/or skin conditions like rosacea.
If you have normal skin, which is not particularly dry or oily and isnt easily irritated by skincare, the best aha and bha acid for your skin is probably glycolic acid.
This is mainly due to the fact that glycolic acid is suitable for all skin types and is the most effective chemical exfoliant. It also treats a wide range of skin concerns.
If you have oily skin, your skin overproduces oil which can lead to a shiny or greasy appearance. You’ll usually produce lots of oil in your t-zone (forehead, nose, and chin) and may experience regular or hormonal breakouts.
Salicylic acid is the best choice for oily skin as it helps control oil production and prevent breakouts. If your skin is sensitive or irritated, you might want to consider using a gentler derivative like lipohydroxy acid instead.
If you have dry skin, your skin isn’t producing enough oil and your skin might be rough and/or irritated. You should avoid BHA acids altogether and choose a hydrating AHA acid like lactic acid instead. Lactic acid can help increase the water content of your skin while also providing gentle exfoliation.
If you have combination skin, your skin is dry or normal in some areas (like your cheeks) but oily in other areas (like your t-zone). You could use AHA acids in your normal areas and BHA acids in your oily areas but it would be easier to use a gentle AHA like mandelic acid that also helps with acne breakouts.
If you have sensitive skin, you can still use AHA and BHA acids, but you need to choose them carefully. The safest option would be to choose a low molecular weight AHA acid, like mandelic acid, or a BHA derivative, like willow bark extract, depending on what skin concerns you’re trying to treat.
Still not sure what your skin type is or what acid is best suited to your skin? Check out the Caarisma app for a personalised skin assessment and product recommendations.
How To Use AHA and BHA Acids
Even if you choose the right AHA and BHA acid for your skin type, you still need to use it the right way to get maximum results with minimal irritation.
Unfortunately, AHA and BHA acids are renowned for causing skin barrier damage and irritation and it’s usually due to the fact that they’ve been used too frequently.
Most chemical exfoliants should only be used one to three times per week, although this is dependent on the strength of the acid, the pH of the product, and the other ingredients it’s been formulated with.
AHA and BHA acids are also best used at night as this is when your skins natural exfoliation process is at it’s highest.
AHA acids also increase how sensitive your skin is to sun exposure so it’s safer to use them at night. Research has shown that BHA acids actually help protect your skin from sun damage. However, whether you’re using AHA acids or BHA acids, you need to make sure you’re wearing sunscreen every day to protect your skin.
At-Home vs Professional AHA and BHA Acid Peels
At-home AHA and BHA acid peels typically contain lower concentrations of the active acids and are designed for safe and regular use without the supervision of a professional. They are convenient and cost-effective, allowing you to maintain a consistent skin care routine.
In contrast, professional AHA and BHA peels, administered by dermatologists or licensed estheticians, contain higher concentrations of these acids and often penetrate your skin more deeply.
This makes them more potent and effective at addressing more significant skin issues like deeper wrinkles, stubborn hyperpigmentation, and severe acne.
While professional peels deliver more dramatic results, they also require a longer recovery time and carry a higher risk of side effects, so it’s important to make sure you find a provider with the right expertise and training.
You can find trusted providers via the expert finder in our Caarisma app.
Chemical exfoliation with AHA and BHA acids is a key part of any skincare routine but it’s important to make sure you’re using the right acid for your skin type. If you’re using AHA and BHA acids at home, you should only be using them one to three times per week unless the product uses a very low strength acid.
Want to Learn More About Your Skin Health?
Do you want to learn more about your skin type and how to get a perfect finish? The Caarisma app not only offers you a tailor-made analysis of your potential, but also shows you which treatment measures are suitable and where you can find an expert in your area.