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AHA vs. BHA: What’s the Difference?

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If you’re on the hunt for healthy-looking, radiant skin (frankly, who isn’t?), exfoliating should be right up there on the list. However, we’re not talking abrasive scrubs here, which can do more harm than good, we’re talking about hydroxy acids. If there were ever a skincare superstar that deserved a prime spot in your skincare routine, this is it. The benefits of using one run deep, from unclogging pores to evening out skin tone to helping combat premature skin aging1, and so much more. 

So how do you know which one is right for you? Read on to find out.   

What Exactly are AHAs and BHAs?

The hydroxy acid family includes alpha-hydroxy (AHA) and beta-hydroxy (BHA). These chemical exfoliants work to wipe away the dead skin cells from your complexion2, while not irritating the life out of your skin in the process.  And while neither one is better than the other, they do target different needs and skin types. To make things even more interesting, some exfoliants actually combine both so you can take on more than one skin concern at a time (more on that later). To get a better understanding of what they can do for you, let’s take a look at what they’re made of.

AHAs

  • Derived from sugar cane or other plant sources
  • Usually comes in the form of glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid and citric acid
  • Water soluble (small particle size)3

BHAs

  • Often derived from willow bark
  • Usually comes in the form of salicylic acid
  • Lipid soluble (large particle size)4

What Are the Similarities Between AHA and BHA?

As we now know, AHAs and BHAs come from the same family of hydroxy acids. Beyond that however, their similarities are few. Though they can both be used to help address a number of skin conditions and both work hard to slough off dead skin cells, unclog pores and improve skin’s texture, they do it all in very different ways.

What Are the Differences Between AHA and BHA?

The main difference between the two hydroxys is how deep they’re able to penetrate your skin.

AHAs – Because alpha hydroxys are water-soluble, they only penetrate the top layer of the skin (or the epidermis). Often referred to as “fruit acids”, AHAs are helpful in treating superficial concerns like mild acne, fine lines and wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. That’s because they help stimulate collagen by increasing the collagen-producing cells in the skin. These are ideal for those with normal to dry skin as they have greater moisturizing ability than BHAs5.

BHAs – These lipid-soluble hydroxys are oil-based so they’re able to penetrate deeper into the epidermis through the oil-producing glands (otherwise known as sebaceous). The result? They can actually influence oil production. Meaning they clear away the cells AND they unclog the pores for a true de-gunking experience, making BHA's an ideal acne-fighter. The interesting thing is that even though they’re skin sloughing machines, these acids are very gentle which makes them effective for sensitive skin types (including those prone to redness or rosacea)6.

Choosing the Right One For Your Skin

When it comes down to making a decision on choosing between AHA and BHS, the answer lies in the skin condition. If your issues are only skin deep, like you have dry skin or you’re only looking for a mild exfoliant, AHA is your best bet. If you need something to dig a deeper, go for the BHA. Here are a couple of the most common types of each.

Common AHAs

Glycolic acid – This is one of the more popular AHAs, and for good reason. Typically derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid has a reputation for being one of the best anti-aging ingredients on the market. It works by removing dead skin cells and helping stimulate collagen production, which in turn makes your skin smoother and your skincare products penetrate better7.

Citric acid – Another popular AHA, citric acid works similarly to glycolic acid, in that they both work to remove dead skin cells. The difference is what comes after. While glycolic stimulates collagen, citric is known to help fade discolouration (or hyperpigmentation) while evening out skin tone, treating blemishes, unclogging pores and softening lines8

Common BHAs

Salicylic acid – This acne-fighting powerhouse is without a doubt the most popular BHA out there. Commonly seen in over-the-counter acne medication, it works on the skin’s surface to exfoliate but also moves its way deeper into the pores to breakdown excess sebum. In addition to unclogging pores and attacking acne, salicylic acid also helps calm redness and inflammation9.

Betaine salicylate – Derived from sugar beets, betaine salicylate is a gentle alternative to salicylic acid, but it can be argued that it is equally effective. It too resurfaces the skin while improving skin tone and texture.

Can You Use Both AHA and BHA in Your Skincare Routine?

Why, yes you can! It’s just not recommended that you use them at the same time unless you select a formula that gently blends them together. If you do want to incorporate both in your skincare arsenal, you should alternate their application, so use AHA one day and BHA the next. You may also want to pull back on the amount you use them as most people don’t need that level of exfoliation.

And there you have it. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids are clearly a welcome addition to any routine, the key is choosing the right one for you and your skincare needs. As always, do your homework, even take it one step further and consult with a qualified dermatologist to be on the safe side. 


References

  1. Tran, D., Townley, J. P., Barnes, T. M., & Greive, K. A. (2014). An anti-aging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 9–17. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S75439
  2. Clark CP 3rd. Alpha hydroxy acids in skin care. Clinics in Plastic Surgery. 1996 Jan;23(1):49-56. PMID: 8617030. Retrieved from: https://europepmc.org/article/med/8617030
  3. Tang, S. C., & Yang, J. H. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(4), 863. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23040863
  4. Moghimipour E. (2012). Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur journal of natural pharmaceutical products, 7(1), 9–10. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941867/
  5. Packianathan, N., Kandasamy, R. (2011) Skin Care with Herbal Exfoliants. Retrieved from: http://www.globalsciencebooks.info/Online/GSBOnline/images/2011/FPSB_5(SI1)/FPSB_5(SI1)94-97o.pdf
  6. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod.2012;6(2):9-10. DOI: 10.5812/kowsar.17357780.4181 Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Eskandar-Moghimipour/publication/260761651_Hydroxy_Acids_the_Most_Widely_Used_Anti-aging_Agents/links/00b7d5360a24655e10000000/Hydroxy-Acids-the-Most-Widely-Used-Anti-aging-Agents.pdf
  7. Sharad J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy - a current review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 6, 281–288. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S34029
  8. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (2005) Citric acid: An A and B hydroxy acid for antiaging. Retrieved from: https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(04)03128-7/fulltext#relatedArticles
  9. Arif T. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 455–461. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S84765