There’s a word you often hear thrown around in the beauty world: exfoliation. And there are seemingly so many ways you can exfoliate – the old fashioned loofah, many a sugar or salt scrub, etc. But then there are ingredients like AHA, BHA, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid. So, just what are those ingredients?
Well, the latter of these exfoliants are considered chemical exfoliants. Don’t be thrown off by the word “chemical”. In this context, it simply means they use either an acid or enzyme-based formula to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, rather than buff them away with a physically abrasive substance (like a loofah.)
So, are these chemical exfoliants better for your skin than physical exfoliants? Well, first things first…
Now, your skin is constantly shedding skin cells, to make way for new skin cells (and smoother skin). But, as you age, this shedding process starts to slow down, causing your complexion to look older, duller, drier, and uneven.
But simply moisturizing over the top of these dead skin cells doesn’t remove them.
It also prevents your moisturizer from working as effectively.
Enter exfoliation, a way to “manually” remove those dead skin cells that lie across the surface of your skin, leaving you with a younger-looking, brighter, and more hydrated complexion.
Let’s take a look at the two big names in chemical exfoliation: AHA and BHA.
AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid. AHA’s can be naturally occurring or synthetic.
Basically, AHA is an umbrella term for a few other terms you may know: namely, glycolic acid and lactic acid. Traditionally, glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and lactic acid from milk.1
Now, AHAs work by dissolving the “glue” that binds your skin cells together, so dead skin cells can easily fall away, revealing smoother skin. AHAs can also improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles without buffing your skin with an abrasive scrub.2
You can find AHAs in lots of products – face and body washes, serums, and moisturizers. Serums are often a great choice, as they remain on your skin longer than a wash, and they absorb better than moisturizers. But you can use multiple products containing AHAs, as long as they don’t irritate your skin.
BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid, otherwise known as salicylic acid. You’ve probably noticed these terms on the labels of many an anti-aging or dry skin product. Salicylic acid occurs naturally in fruits and plants, and it’s also made synthetically.
A BHA exfoliant really does do the same thing as an AHA exfoliant by gently breaking apart the bonds of those dead skin cells. But there are two distinct reasons why you may prefer salicylic acid over an AHA:
1. BHA can penetrate deeper and unclog pores, so it’s a favorite ingredient in products designed to help ease breakouts.
2. BHA is wonderful for soothing irritated skin, especially for those who suffer from recurrent blemishes, or who have chronic dry skin conditions.3
Fun Fact: Aspirin is created by a chemical reaction between salicylic acid and acetic acid. And, salicylic acid is responsible for the anti‐inflammatory action of aspirin.4
AHA vs BHA
So, as you can see, chemical exfoliators can be a much better choice than loofahs or scrubs, because they can gently, effectively help clear away congestion on (and below) your skin’s surface. They can also help calm your skin, rather than aggravating it with vigorous scrubbing.
So, who wins the AHA vs BHA competition?
Well, there is no clear medallist here. In fact, they’re both winners. The simplest way to figure out which one gets the gold when it comes to your skin is to look at your personal needs:
AHAs work on the skin’s surface; they’re highly effective for normal to dry skin.
BHA works both on and deep within the skin’s surface and is highly calming. So it’s best for oily, blemished skin, sensitive skin prone to redness, or dry skin that needs a little more help unclogging congested skin cells.
Can I Use Both an AHA and a BHA?
While this isn’t necessary, as both are exceptional stand-alone ingredients, it’s not forbidden. You could certainly experiment with a variety of products, and see how your skin behaves. Don’t overdo it. Many people will find that overuse of a chemical exfoliant will irritate their skin.
On that topic, sometimes irritation can occur from chemical exfoliants on very sensitive skin. So, it’s always best to start with a lower-concentration (percentage) of an AHA or BHA and build your way up.
Chemical exfoliants can also make your skin more susceptible to sun photosensitivity, so always wear sunscreen when using them.
Natural Acids, For the Win!
Whether you decide on beta hydroxy acid or an alpha hydroxy acid, there’s no wrong answer.
The AHA vs BHA question really does come down to your own personal skin issues and which of these seem to make the greatest difference for you. The best thing you can do is experiment with different products and see what your skin loves the most.