If chemical exfoliation isn’t a staple in your skin care routine just yet, it’s certainly worth learning about! Unlike physical exfoliants that manually remove dead skin cells, chemical exfoliants dissolve those cells from the surface of your skin (and even below it).
Two main kinds of chemical exfoliants are alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acid. When researching AHA vs. BHA, understand that both are effective at what they do: removing dead skin cells. Alas, they each have different properties that might make one or the other better for your skin.
Your ideal choice in the AHA vs. BHA discussion depends entirely on your skin type, concerns, and sensitivity.
4 Key Differences
While both types of chemical exfoliants improve your skin texture, remove dead skin cells, and unclog pores, there are a few key differences. They might affect your position in the AHA vs. BHA debate!
#1 – Effective concentrations
AHAs and BHA are both highly effective, but at different percentages. AHAs work best between 5 - 15%. BHA works best between 0.5 - 5%.
#2 – Solubility
BHA is oil-soluble, meaning it can easily penetrate oily pores. AHAs, on the other hand, are water soluble. This means they won’t penetrate oily pores as deeply.
#3 – Range
You have multiple options when it comes to AHAs in skin care. They include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, and so on. There’s only one widely used BHA in cosmetics though - salicylic acid.
#4 – Targeted concerns
AHAs work well on the surface of the skin since they don’t penetrate oily pores as deeply as BHA. They work best for skin concerns like hyperpigmentation and anti-aging.
One of the main causes of acne is excess oil. Since BHA is oil-soluble, it’s great for getting rid of acne and keeping your skin clear.
Pros and Cons of Alpha Hydroxy Acids
To find out where your skin stands on AHA vs. BHA, you need to know the advantages (and disadvantages) of AHAs. Let’s find out if they’re a good option for your skin.
Here are the pros:
Some kinds of AHAs can be much gentler for sensitive skin types. These gentler exfoliants include lactic acid, mandelic acid, and tartaric acid. Their molecules are bigger, which means they don’t penetrate the skin as deeply as an AHA like glycolic acid.
They stimulate collagen production in the skin, helping to reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
Enhance hydration power
Their water solubility means AHAs are humectants - they draw moisture to your skin. With consistent use, your skin takes on a more hydrated, glowy look.
Here are the cons:
You may need more time to see results with the more gentle AHAs. While they’re just as effective as glycolic acid in the long-term, you may not see results immediately.
Some AHAs aren’t super effective exfoliants on their own. These include malic and mandelic acids. You might need to find a product that combines different kinds of AHAs to get significant results.
An AHA like glycolic acid has a small molecule that can penetrate the skin more deeply. This can cause irritation for dry or sensitive skin types.
Pros and Cons of Beta Hydroxy Acid
If AHAs so far don’t seem to suit you in the AHA vs. BHA discussion, you might find that BHA is a better option for your skin.
Here are the pros:
BHA doesn’t make your skin as sensitive to the sun as AHAs – though sunscreen is still needed!
BHA is great at clearing away the build-up of oil or dead skin cells within your pores. This makes it possible to control oil production in the skin and reduce acne.
Less skin irritation
BHA is anti-inflammatory so it may be less irritating to the skin than an AHA. This makes it great for calming down redness and inflammation in the skin.
Here are the cons:
No humectant properties
BHA is not a humectant like AHAs so they have a tendency to dry your skin out more. On the BHA side of the AHA vs. BHA debate, more hydration might be necessary for you.
Irritating for some
Since BHA clears out the oil in your pores, it’s not as good for dry skin types. This skin type instead needs to stimulate oil production.
Choosing by Skin Type and Concern
With these pros and cons in mind, we can begin to uncover where in AHA vs. BHA discussion your skin type and concerns fall.
AHAs would work best for dry skin because of their humectant properties. They don’t remove the oil necessary to keep skin moisturized.
AHAs work best for sensitive skin, but be sure to choose one with a large molecule, like lactic acid. This will help avoid the irritation you might get from glycolic acid. With any kind of acid, it’s important that sensitive skin types patch test before using.
AHAs work best for aging skin because they stimulate collagen production without removing oil. Plus, they increase cell turnover, which tends to slow down in the aging process.
AHAs work best for skin struggling with hyperpigmentation. They help remove the top layer of dead skin cells, revealing the smoother, lighter skin underneath.
Oily or acneic skin
A BHA would work best for oily or acneic skin because of its ability to penetrate oily pores and remove build-up.
Combination skin may need to use both an AHA and a BHA. An AHA might not be enough for the oily parts of your face. But a BHA might remove moisture from the already dry parts of your face.
At the end of the day, both sides of the AHA vs. BHA debate are right. When it comes to AHA vs. BHA, each one provides similar benefits – with definite unique differences.
No matter which side you choose in the AHA vs. BHA discussion, you should customize your exfoliation routine to your skin. How frequently you can exfoliate depends on your skin sensitivity and reactions. Even better, your skin may actually benefit from using both chemical exfoliants – just make sure to alternate between the two. Happy exfoliating!