AHA vs BHA: What's the Difference?
Everybody wants clear, smooth skin. Sometimes it feels like you will never be able to achieve the skin of your dreams even if you think you’re doing all of the right things. One step that people often get wrong or misjudge is exfoliation. It can be an intimidating and tricky aspect to skincare, but it is the key to baby smooth skin. AHA and BHA are both exfoliants, but what is the difference between AHA vs BHA?
- AHAs and BHAs are both chemical exfoliating acids whose purpose is to break down excess sebum, dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells leaving the skin smoother and brighter.
- While both AHAs and BHAs are from the same family, BHAs loosen the bonds between skin cells and AHAs slough away the dead skin and excess oil and bacteria. Because of this, AHAs and BHAs can be used together and in fact work well together.
- If you have extremely sensitive or dry skin, it may be best to use one exfoliating acid per day a few nights a week to reduce the risk of damaging your skin’s natural moisture barrier.
What is AHA vs BHA?
You may have heard the term AHA and BHA thrown around in skincare conversations. But for those who don’t know exactly what that means, I’m here to give you the breakdown. AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids and BHAs or beta hydroxy acids are both chemical exfoliants that help to remove debris, oil build-up, and dead skin cells from the epidermis or the surface layer of our skin.
Like any chemical exfoliant, AHAs and BHAs’ main purpose is to smooth out the skin by eliminating things like dirt, bacteria, and dead skin cells. They can be used to treat many skin concerns including:
Many people associate the word “exfoliate” with scrubs. But, not all exfoliators are physical scrubs. Physical scrubs have recently been exposed for being extremely harsh and abrasive to the point that they damage the skin’s natural moisture barrier and create microscopic tears in the skin which allows for dirt and bacteria to penetrate, leading to breakouts and scarring.
Physical scrubs are also not ideal for the environment. Those tiny microbeads that create the “scrub” feeling are made of plastic. Because of their plastic makeup, they don’t decompose, leading to long term waste for our planet.
Chemical exfoliants are the preferred alternative to scrubs favored by dermatologists and aestheticians across the globe. Chemical exfoliants actually are able to penetrate into the deeper layers of skin due to their smaller molecular weight meaning they are more effective. They also pose no threat to our environment, and they don’t have the physical abrasiveness to tear the skin’s moisture barrier.
AHA vs BHA: similarities and differences
While AHAs and BHAs are similar in a lot of ways, they are most definitely not the same.
Let’s begin with how they are similar. Both alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids are known for their ability to improve skin that has been damaged by the sun’s UV rays.
Regardless of whether you're talking about AHA vs BHA, the skin will slowly begin to shed its surface layer after continued use. Both AHAs and BHAs also come in similar forms. Most products containing the two types of chemical exfoliants come in the form of a cleanser or a liquid exfoliant similar to a toner.
Types of AHAs:
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Citric acid
Types of BHAs:
- Salicylic acid
- Tropic acid
- Trethocanic acid
Although the two hydroxy acids come in the same form, they work on the skin in different ways. Alpha hydroxy acids work by reducing the number of calcium ions in the skin, which in turn encourages the epidermis to shed its layer of skin. Beta hydroxy acids work as a peeling agent that ultimately produces the same goal but doubles as an antibacterial agent as well.
In addition, BHAs are generally less irritating to the skin than AHAs due to their molecular size. So, if you are someone whose skin is more on the sensitive side, using a beta hydroxy acid may be a safer option to avoid further sensitizing your skin and risking damage to your skin’s moisture barrier.
Can you use both AHAs and BHAs?
You can absolutely use both alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. Now, it may not be best to use both exfoliating acids together in the same morning or evening skincare routine if you have sensitive or dry skin, but you can use a combination of both acids and many people do.
The biggest advantage to using both an alpha hydroxy acid and a beta hydroxy acid in separate routines is you get the benefits of both. You get an AHA that will exfoliate the dead skin and sebum at the more superficial layers of skin, and you get a BHA that will penetrate deeper into the skin to break down build-up.
Using both acids will provide you with more benefits. However, because both are acids, naturally they can be irritating and dehydrating to the skin. It is recommended to use a moisturizer after any exfoliating treatment or product but especially if you are using both in the same day or the same routine.
Experts and dermatologists say that it is safe to use an AHA and a BHA in the same routine if you have moderate to oily skin that is not necessarily sensitive. Because the acids target different things, most people will not have adverse effects from using both hydroxy acids at the same time or on the same day.
Remember, BHAs break up the connection or the glue that holds our skin cells together, while AHAs cause the dead cells to be removed from the skin entirely. Essentially, BHAs get dead skin cells loose and AHAs finish the job by sloughing them away and off of the skin revealing a newer, healthier, and smoother skin layer.
There are so many amazing chemical exfoliants these days that there is simply no excuse for still using physical scrubs that do nothing but provide immediate satisfaction without long term benefits. Here are some of my personal favorite and highest-rated AHAs and BHAs:
- Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
- Skinceuticals Glycolic Renewal Cleanser
- Biossance Squalane + Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum
AHAs and BHAs have some incredible properties to them and are useful in almost anyone’s routine. Ditch the scrubs! If you have any skin concern that you’re dealing with whether it’s acne, scarring, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, or roughness, incorporating an exfoliating acid like an AHA or BHA will greatly improve the condition of your skin.
Written by Jordan Hammaren