The ABCs of AHA and BHA Exfoliants

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Cosmetics Cop Paula Begoun and the Paula’s Choice Research Team explain the differences between AHAs and BHAs.

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“Using an exfoliant gets rid of built-up skin cells so you can unclog pores, stop breakouts, smooth out wrinkles, reduce brown spots, and get your healthy glow back.”

Aside from using a sunscreen before stepping outside, a well-formulated AHA or BHA exfoliant can be an important step in most skin care routines. A brilliant AHA or BHA is an astounding way to generate smoother, even-toned, and younger-looking skin.

Many people wonder about the differences between AHAs and BHAs. They want to know which one to use - or if they should use both and when to use them. Well, Cosmetics Cop Paula Begoun and the Paula’s Choice Research Team have the answers.

Why Exfoliate?
Skin naturally sheds billions of cells each day. When this natural shedding slows or stops due to sun damage, dry skin, oily skin, genetics, or skin disorders such as seborrhea, the results aren’t pretty. Dull, flaky skin, clogged pores, blemishes, white bumps, and uneven skin tone can occur. According to Begoun, “Using an exfoliant gets rid of built-up skin cells so you can unclog pores, stop breakouts, smooth out wrinkles, reduce brown spots, and get your healthy glow back."

Choosing Between AHA and BHA
The best way to exfoliate skin isn’t with a scrub, which can create micro-tears in the skin’s outer barrier; rather it’s with a well-formulated AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliant. Knowing which type of exfoliant is right for you comes down to understanding the unique traits each has:

  •     AHAs include ingredients like glycolic and lactic acids and are best for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin. They exfoliate the surface of skin while working to improve its moisture content.
  •     AHAs cannot penetrate oil to unclog pores very well, which is why they aren’t the best choice for those with oily or breakout-prone skin.
  •     BHA is another name for the ingredient salicylic acid. It’s perfect for skin that’s prone to breakouts, with blackheads, white bumps, and enlarged pores. BHA helps normalize the pore lining as it breaks up substances in the pore that cause it to become clogged and enlarged.
  •     BHA has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial action so it’s ideal for those struggling with acne or sensitive, reddened skin—including the skin condition rosacea.
  •     The best news is that both AHA and BHA offer anti-aging benefits that include stimulating collagen production.

Bottom Line: For skin that’s sun-damaged and struggling with acne or clogged pores, a BHA exfoliant is best. Concerned about sun damage and dryness but not breakouts, redness, or bumps? Go for an AHA exfoliant.

What Strength of AHA or BHA is Ideal?
AHAs, such as glycolic acid, work best in amounts of 5–10%, while BHA (salicylic acid) works best at concentrations of 1–2%. If skin is sensitive, go for the lower strength of AHA and consider adding a higher strength after several weeks. It’s also fine to alternate between two strengths, perhaps using the lower strength once daily and the higher strength once per week.

Deciding which BHA strength to use should be based on skin type and the stubbornness of breakouts. 1 % BHA is a great starting point to see how it can improve the skin’s condition. A 2% concentration can then be used if skin isn't responding after a few weeks using the 1% concentration.

Are BOTH an AHA and BHA Needed?
Only one form of exfoliant is needed for great results, but some people do like using both AHA and BHA, so it’s an option to consider. When using both, apply one in the morning and the other at night, or on alternating days. Base this decision on experimentation and how skin responds to both, then adjust the routine from there. Check out our top picks for AHA and BHA exfoliants here.

How to Use an AHA or BHA Exfoliant
•Apply an AHA or BHA product once or twice a day after cleansing and toning.
•AHA or BHA exfoliants may be applied around the eye area but not on the eyelid or directly under the eye.
•Once the AHA or BHA has been absorbed, apply other products, such as moisturizer, serum, eye cream, sunscreen, and makeup.
•Those using a topical prescription product such as Renova, other retinoids, or topical prescription products for rosacea should apply the AHA or BHA first.

For more skin-care advice and product recommendations, visit

Led by best-selling author and beauty expert Paula Begoun, the Paula’s Choice Research Team evaluates and reviews hundreds of skin-care and makeup products, in books such as Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me as well as online at Combining cosmetics industry knowledge and expertise, Paula and her team have developed the Paula’s Choice line of state-of-the-art formulations based on reliable, published skin-care research. Products include skin-care, makeup, body and hair-care products, beauty tools, and accessories. All products are fragrance-free, cruelty-free, and environmentally friendly.

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