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AHA vs. BHA: Everything You Need to Know About Chemical Exfoliants

by YEOUTH Team 31 May 2019 14 Comments
AHA vs. BHA: Everything You Need to Know About Chemical Exfoliants

Exfoliating is good for the skin, but the new trend of chemical exfoliators can be intimidating. Learn more about chemical exfoliators and the benefits they can offer your skin.

We naturally shed skin cells. In fact, we shed billions of skin cells daily. The proof is in the dust we find around our homes. A good percentage of all that dust buildup that accumulates - no matter how much we clean - is in fact, dead skin cell particles.

This is completely normal and part of the natural shedding process that keeps our skin young, healthy and beautiful. However, a lot of contributing factors such as genetics, skin-aging and sun damage, can slow down and eventually stop this natural process. When we do not shed enough of these dead skin cells, it can cause a variety of unwanted skin problems such as clogged pores, blemishes, dry skin, uneven skin tone, wrinkles and fine lines.


Why Exfoliate?

In order for your skin to rid itself of dead skin cells, you need to exfoliate! Regular exfoliation does not only remove skin buildup, but it also improves the skin’s texture and appearance. This also reduces your chances of breaking out and helps improve your skin’s ability to absorb other skincare products better. In essence, exfoliating regularly will help reveal newer, smoother skin.

There are two ways to exfoliate the skin: Physical Exfoliants and Chemical Exfoliants.


Physical Exfoliation vs Chemical Exfoliation

Physical Exfoliation

Physical or manual exfoliators are the classic face scrubs. These contain small particles that buff away the top layer of dead skin cells and often leave skin feeling squeaky clean.

A lot of these physical scrubs use microbeads, which are tiny balls of plastic that are great at exfoliating, but not so great when it comes to being biodegradable. Because these scrubs contain micro-plastic particles, these teeny tiny beads end up down our sink and into open water which harms the environment and marine life.

These types of microbeads specifically have recently been banned by the FDA, but there are still other more environmentally friendly options that use sugar or chunks of walnut and other natural fibers. However, these particles tend to be coarse and jagged, which ends up being too harsh and irritating for the gentle skin on our face.

Results from physical exfoliation are often immediate but it is important to note that they can only remove dead skin on the surface.

Chemical Exfoliation
An alternative to physical face scrubs is chemical exfoliation. These are compounds that can be found in skincare products such as cleansers, wash-off peels, serums, peel pads and even in moisturizers.

Applying chemical peels to your skin mimics and speeds up the body’s natural exfoliation process. It is an effective method to reduce skin imperfections. Unlike scrubs, chemical exfoliants work by weakening the lipids that bond the upper layer of the skin. This process effectively removes the dull and dead skin that we want to get rid of and promotes healthy cell regeneration to reveal younger, healthier-looking skin.

There are two main categories of chemical exfoliants: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs).

Each have unique properties that make them suitable for certain skin types and skin concerns. They also have similar benefits and the abilities to:
  • Diminish the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines
  • Decrease the appearance of large pores
  • Make the skin look and feel firmer
  • Improve dull, uneven skin tone
  • Smoothe the skin’s overall texture

AHAs vs BHAs

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are water-soluble acids that naturally occur in substances such as milk, grapes and sugar cane. These compounds have really tiny molecules that work by penetrating the skin’s surface and melting the intercellular bonds that hold it together, helping the skin’s natural shedding process.

AHA Benefits

AHAs are best recommended for normal to dry and sun-damaged skin as they are proven to enhance the skin’s moisture content, reduce the visible signs of sun damage, and aid in getting rid of dead skin cell build-up. AHAs are also great for rejuvenating the skin and erasing the signs of skin-aging as it excellently promotes cell regeneration giving way for younger, smoother skin with an even color.


The Different Types of AHAs

Glycolic Acid

The most popular AHA used in skincare products is glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is naturally derived from sugar cane. It has the smallest molecules out of all AHAs giving it significant exfoliating abilities that treat a lot of our skin concerns: hyperpigmentation, scars, sun damage and skin-aging. Aside from all that, it also has impressive antimicrobial properties that help prevent acne breakouts.

YEOUTH Glycolic Acid 30% Gel Peel 1oz ($24.95)

Read more: A Comprehensive Guide on How to Use a Glycolic Acid Peel

Lactic Acid

Another common AHA used in skincare is lactic acid. Most AHAs come from sugary fruits but unlike all of them, lactic acid is actually made from the lactose found in milk. It is a milder AHA that is used to treat hyperpigmentation and reduce pore appearance, wrinkles and other signs of skin-aging.

Tartaric Acid

Tartaric acid is the main acid found in most wines. It is derived from a number of plants and fruits like grapes. Although it is not as popular as other types of AHA, tartaric acid is an amazing antioxidant that helps heal signs of sun damage and acne.

Citric Acid

Citric acid, as the name suggests, is derived from citrus fruit extracts like lemons and limes. This AHA can be found in toners intended to neutralize the skin’s pH. It is often an ingredient found in serums to help smooth the texture of the skin.


Malic Acid

Malic acid comes from apples and is considered to be both an AHA and BHA. It hydrates and soothes the skin while increasing respiration. However, compared to other AHAs, malic acid is not as effective when used on its own. It should be used in combination with other acids to boost its efficacy and maximize results.

Read more: Why you Have Dry Skin and How to Correct It?

Mandelic Acid

Mandelic acid comes from bitter almond nut extracts and contains larger molecules compared to other AHAs. Often, it is combined with other acids for maximum exfoliation but it could also be used alone to improve the skin’s overall texture, pigmentation and pore size.


Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs are naturally-derived acids that are oil-soluble. They contain oil-loving molecules which give BHAs the ability to penetrate deeper into the skin’s surface and clean right into your pores, removing excess sebum and dead skin that are deep-seated below the skin’s surface.
BHA Benefits

Since skincare products with BHA unclog the pores of oils and dead skin, they are best in treating oily and acne-prone skin types. BHA effectively gets rid of unwanted whiteheads and blackheads and it also aids in normalizing pore lining which contributes to acne. It also has strong anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that also aids in keeping the skin blemish-free.

Read more: Do's and Don'ts about Home Acne Treatments

BHA is also recommended for people struggling with rosacea. However, it should be noted that some people who suffer from this condition cannot tolerate exfoliants. It is critical to slowly experiment with BHA products to know how your skin will react. If successful, the redness caused by rosacea will be much more subdued, you will have less breakouts and the skin texture in general, will be much more even and smooth.


The Different Types of BHAs

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is the most popular BHA found in skincare products. It is naturally derived from the bark of the willow tree. Its light surface exfoliation improves overall skin texture, while the deeper penetration action effectively treats skin problems such as whiteheads, blackheads and deeper cystic acne. Salicylic Acid also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that help maintain and keep skin acne-free.

YEOUTH Salicylic Acid Face Peel 20% 1oz ($24.95)


Read more: How to Use a Salicylic Acid Face Peel

Citric Acid

Although citric acid is included in the list above as one of the primary types of AHA, some formulations are considered to be BHAs as well. These exfoliants are derived from citrus fruits and can be used to dry out excess oils in the skin and also to remove dead skin cells that are buried deep inside our pores.


Combining AHA and BHA Products

Now that you know the amazing benefits that AHA and BHA can offer your skin, you may be wondering how you can incorporate them into your skincare routine. 

Can you use both at the same time?

Yes, you can use both AHA and BHA together, as long as they are coming from the same product. Products that have both AHA and BHA in their formula usually contain a balanced percentage that is generally safe for all skin types and with low risk of over exfoliation.

However, If you’re getting your AHA and BHA from two or more different skincare products, take caution or best consult your dermatologist on how to proceed.

Finding the perfect balance when combining these acids can be quite tricky so you need to fully understand how your products will react when used together. Factors like the pH levels, the percentage of the acids in the products, the timing of application and your skin’s sensitivity should all be taken into account.

If you’re using an at-home chemical peel, it likely contains a high percentage of acid that sloughs away the dead skin deeper compared. Layering another exfoliating acid over the raw, delicate skin can overdo the exfoliation and likely result in dryness, redness, irritation, and quite possibly, even burn the skin.

Keep in mind that everyone’s skin is different. Using chemical exfoliants together may work for some and not for others. When starting out with the use of chemical exfoliants, check your skin for signs of over exfoliation such as stinging, tightness or redness. If these signs don’t go away even after 24 hours, take a step back from products that contain AHA and BHA, and instead use hydrating and nourishing products.


Can I use YEOUTH Salicylic Acid Peel and Glycolic Acid Peel together?

No, You can NOT use both of these YEOUTH products together. Both of these products are formulated with a high percentage of low pH acids which deeply penetrate the layers of the skin to promote rapid skin cell turnover.

One peel session with either of these can take the skin 4-6 weeks to fully heal and rejuvenate. If they are used together, the likely result would be very irritated, red skin.

Some people’s skin responds better to one over the other. If you would like to try both YEOUTH products, we recommend using one for two months and then the other for the next two months, to see which one yields better results for you.



How To Use AHA and BHA

How to use a product that contains AHA, BHA or both can vary depending on the type of acid and the concentration in the product(s). 

Both AHA and BHA can be found in several types of skincare products — cleansers, toners, masks, peels, and others. Some products with low percentage AHA or BHA can be used daily while others with higher concentration, such as our Glycolic Acid Peel and Salicylic Acid Peel, should only be used at least every 4 weeks.

How to use can differ from each product so make sure to follow your product’s instructions carefully, know how often you can use the product,  and understand what other skincare active can and cannot be used along with it.

Read more: How to Layer Acids and Other Ingredients in Your Skincare Routine

If you are a beginner, it is also highly suggested that you acclimate your skin to the chemicals slowly. 

Try using the product in less time than suggested then very slowly increase usage if you do not experience adverse reactions. This will help your skin adjust to the newly introduced chemical exfoliant and will greatly reduce your chances of experiencing negative side effects, such as redness and irritation.

If you are pregnant, it is not advised to use BHA skincare products. Studies show that oral use of this acid leads to certain birth defects. It is best to err on the side of caution and avoid BHA products altogether if pregnant or nursing for your child’s safety.

Also, note that AHAs and BHAs can increase your skin sensitivity to the sun so it is an absolute must to wear a high SPF at all times.

Tips in Combining AHA and BHA

Exfoliating acids are now available in different skincare products on the market — cleansers, toners and chemical peels. When using products that contain exfoliating acids together, keep in mind the percentage and pH of the products that you are using.

Hydrate and protect
The stronger the acids that you are putting on your skin, the drier and more irritated it can potentially become. Support your skin with the hydration and nourishment it needs. Your skin also becomes more vulnerable to UV radiation from the sun after using chemical exfoliants, so be sure to always use sun protection.

YEOUTH After Peel Care Bundle ($53.85)


Your skin is very delicate after a chemical peel treatment so it is important to use the right products post-peel to help your skin recover.

YEOUTH After-Peel Care bundle consists of soothing, hydrating, and regenerative products that will effectively balance your skin after using a chemical peel.

Recommended for use after our BHA and AHA skin peels: Glycolic Acid 30% Gel Peel and Salicylic Acid 20% Gel Peel. The After-Peel Care bundle is a must for your next at-home chemical peel treatment.

Use on different areas
If you have a combination skin type, you can use different types of acids on different parts of your face. You can apply BHA like salicylic acid on your oily and blemish-prone areas, while using an AHA like glycolic acid on the drier areas.

Don’t forget the neck and chest
When you use exfoliants, do not forget your neck and chest! Be sure to extend the AHA and BHA to these areas to improve the skin’s appearance on these parts of your body as well.

Do not over exfoliate!
Even though chemical exfoliants can do a lot of good to your skin, AHAs and BHAs are both very strong and using them too frequently can cause extreme dryness and irritation.

Make sure that you do not over exfoliate and read your product’s application instructions CAREFULLY. Be sure to pay extra attention to your skin once you alternate between the two acids to observe how it reacts.

Aside from minor peeling, stinging or redness, if your skin has an overly tight feeling - no matter how much moisturizer you put on - consider this a sign that the chemical exfoliation was too harsh. If you experience this, stop exfoliating and focus on repairing your skin by lathering on the moisturizer and giving it time to rest and heal.



Neither AHA or BHA are necessarily “better” than one or the other. They have similar skin benefits but can help you achieve different results depending on your skin concerns. AHA is recommended for dry, aging skin while BHA is recommended for clogged, oily skin.

If you are still not sure which one best suits your skin needs, consult your dermatologist.

Now that you know more about these amazing chemical exfoliants, use them according to your own skin concerns and exfoliate your way to blemish-free, clear, beautiful skin!

Have you ever tried using AHA and BHA together? Which one is more favorable for your skin type? Got more questions about the use of AHA and BHA? Let’s discuss and comment down below!
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12 Oct 2020 Briana Gamm

So helpful. I’m in esthetician school and this did a much better at explaining to me the acids.

31 Aug 2020 Ritvik

I have had acne problems all my life. Now that active acne has cleared up, I have a bad case of acne scarring and PIH. I am using an AHA cleanser (1%). Also, a zit zapping serum(2% BHA). Can I use these two together because at night I am using a retinol cream (0.1%)for some signs of early ageing. What is the regime that you would recommend for these problems. Would you like me to change anything? Do I need to weekly exfoliate as well or this is enough? Also, are are these ingredients enough for acne prone skin? Last question . Nowadays entire sets come with same actives like aha toner, aha peel and aha cream or retinol serum, retinol cream. How do you find out what active should be used in what form for your skin and don’t these sets overdo it?

07 Aug 2020 YEOUTH Team

Hello Nancy! This would depend on the percentage of the AHA and BHA products that you use. Generally, products with less than 10% AHA and 2% BHA can be used together regularly but anything higher than that should be used sparingly with at least 2 weeks before another exfoliating session.

As for your legs, again it depends on the percentage of the product you’re using. If using stronger at-home peels like YEOUTH Glycolic Acid 30% Gel Peel, we suggest using it at least 1-2x monthly.

31 Aug 2020 Karina

After reading the article I think my skin would benefit from BHAs since my skin is oily and more acne prone. How do I incorporate BHAs into my routine if I’m using a cleanser that has AHAs in it?


07 Aug 2020 Nancy

If I alternate between AHA and BHA, how often should i use them? AHA Monday and then BHA Friday and that’s it? I also use these to exfoliate my legs, how often should I use them?

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