What exactly are AHAs and BHAs?

AHAs and BHAs are two forms of the active compounds known as Hydroxy Acids which basically act to dissolve the “glue” that holds together your old skin cells and thus forcing them to turn over more rapidly. They are highly effective at brightening the skin, improving acne, reducing discoloration, and reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles.

AHAs and BHAs are both forms of chemical exfoliation (as opposed to scrubbing, which is manual exfoliation). Using AHAs and BHAs clears the way for your other anti-ageing creams to be more effective, because they slough away the old skin cells.

AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids, are derived from plant, milk, and fruit sugars. You may sometimes see them called one of the following: glycolic, lactic, citric, or mandelic acids. They operate at the top skin cell level.

BHAs, or beta hydroxy acids, are man-made acids. They may also be called any one of the following: salicylic acid, benzoic acid or buteric acid. They operate at below skin level and can penetrate grease and oil.

Poly-hydroxy acids (less common) combine some man-made and some naturally-derived AHAs and BHAs in one product, so you get a host of treatment benefits at once.

Which do I need – an AHA or a BHA?

Use AHAs if:

  • You have dry skin (AHAs are humectants – they attract moisture to the skin)
  • Your main concern is sun damaged skin, sun spots, fine lines, or general dullness of tone
  • You don’t have particularly sensitive skin, or rosacea

Use BHAs if:

  • You have oily, acne-prone skin
  • You need to get gunk out of your pores
  • You have sensitive skin or rosacea

Of course, you can always combine AHAs and BHAs (or opt for a poly-hydroxy acid) if you have a combination of skincare needs to address – just be sure to introduce one at a time and to vary the doses to see how much your skin can take. Since both AHAs and BHAs expose new skin cells, remember to wear sunscreen when using them!

Where do they fit in my skincare regime?

Acid toning should be done directly after cleansing your face thoroughly. AHAs and BHAs usually come in the form of a liquid, or pads that are already infused with the liquid, so swipe it gently over all areas of your face and neck. Follow up with a spritz of moisturizing facial toner to get the PH level of your skin back to normal levels, and then your face treatment if using one (such as a Retinol), a serum, and finally finish by applying a day or night cream (or oil).

You can also buy AHAs and BHAs in the form of moisturizing creams and serums, providing a sort of two-in-one benefit (exfoliation and treatment/moisturizing), and these can be used in the place of your regular serum, or day or night cream.

Gentle forms of acid toners can be used twice a day, but stronger forms should be used twice or three times a week at max (check the bottle to be sure).

Top performers

AHAs for Daily Use

Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA, $32

Dennis Gross MD Alpha Beta Pads, $84 for 30

Pixi Glow Tonic, $18

Olay Regenerist Night Resurfacing Elixir, $30.58

AHAs for Weekly Use

Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA, $35

Olay ProX Anti-Aging Nightly Purifying Micro-Peel, $35.99

BHAs for Daily Use

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $28

Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion, $14

Philosophy Clear Days Ahead fast-acting salicylic acid acne spot treatment, $19

Stridex Daily Care Acne Pads with Salicylic Acid, Maximum Strength, $4.99

Poly-hydroxy acids (combination of AHAs and BHAs)

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50v, $59, only available in the U.S. by direct order from Rescue Spa, Vicki Morav, and Toska Spa

Clarins Gentle Exfoliator with Tamarind and White Nettle, $39

Do you use AHAs or BHAs? What are your favorite products?


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