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

Posted on May 31, 2019 by YEOUTH Team | 3 comments

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 do for your skin.

We naturally shed skin cells. In fact, billions of them shed off of us daily and proof of that is the dust we find in our household! 90% of household dust is actually our very own dead skin cells. Can you imagine?

This is a natural shedding process that keeps our skin young, healthy and beautiful but a lot of factors such as genetics, skin-aging and sun damage slows down and eventually stops this process. When we don’t shed enough of these dead skin cells, it leaves a variety of unwanted skin problems ranging from clogged pores, blemishes, dry skin, uneven skin tone, wrinkles and fine lines.

Why Exfoliate?

To help our skin rid itself of dead skin cells, you need to exfoliate. By regularly exfoliating, you are not just getting rid of skin buildup, you are also improving its texture and appearance, reducing your chances of breaking out and improving your skin’s ability to absorb your other skincare products. In essence, exfoliating will make your skin look nicer and makes it all-around better overnight.

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, giving your face a good scrub and making your skin feel squeaky clean.

A lot of these physical scrubs use microbeads which are tiny balls of plastic that are good at exfoliating but not that good at biodegrading. They are microplastics that end up down our sink and into open water which harms the environment and marine life. These have been recently banned 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 they are not really that effective as they can only remove what’s on the surface of the skin.

Chemical Exfoliation

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

Applying chemical peels to your skin mimics and speeds up the body’s natural exfoliation process working as an effective treatment 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 off and in turn promotes healthy cell regeneration revealing younger, healthier 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 fit for certain skin types and skin issues but they also have similar benefits such as:

  • Diminishing the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines
  • Decreasing the appearance of large pores
  • Making the skin look and feel firmer
  • Improving dull, uneven skin tone
  • Smoothing out 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, 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.


All types of AHA yield significant exfoliation results but the overall outcome can still vary depending on the type of acid that you use and its concentration in the product(s) that you are using. For beginners, it is best to apply the new products every other day until your skin gets used to them. This will help your skin get used to the chemical exfoliant and will greatly reduce your chances of experiencing risks and side effects, such as redness and irritation.

Also, note that AHAs increases your skin sensitivity to the UV rays of the sun so it is a must to wear sunscreen in order to prevent your skin from getting damaged. This sensitivity will last for up to 7 days so do your skin a favor and always protect it by wearing a high SPF sunscreen.

Read more: Debunking the Top 5 Sunscreen Myths


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.

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 as 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 and helps in alleviating signs of sun damage and acne.

Citric Acid

Citric acid, as the name suggests, are derived citrus fruit extracts such as lemons and limes. This AHA can be found in toners that are for neutralizing the skin’s pH. It is also added in serums to help smooth the texture of the skin and work with sunscreen to provide maximum UV protection for your skin.


Malic Acid

Malic acid comes from apples and it can be considered both an AHA and BHA. It hydrates and soothes the skin while increasing respiration. However, compared to other AHAs, Malic Acid isn’t as effective as a lone ingredient. Use it 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. Usually, 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, some people who suffer from this condition cannot tolerate exfoliants so try experimenting with BHA products to know how your skin will react. If successful, the redness of your skin will be toned-down, you will have fewer breakouts and the skin texture will be much more even and smoother.


Skincare products with BHA have varying concentrations of acid but most are designed for daily use. But if you are a beginner, it is highly suggested that you accustom your skin to the chemical peel by applying a few times a week and slowly increasing your use if you don’t see adverse reactions. If you have sensitive skin, applying BHA at lower concentrations can help calm your face.

If you’re pregnant, it is not advised to use BHA skincare products. Studies show that oral use of this acid lead to certain birth defects and it is best to shelf away topical BHA products for your child’s safety.

Although BHAs won’t make your skin sensitive to the sun’s UV rays, wearing sunscreen every day is still a must to avoid sun damage and the early onset of skin-aging.

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 the biggest skin acne problems such as whiteheads, blackheads and deeper cystic acne. Salicylic acid also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that greatly helps in maintaining and keeping your skin acne-free even in the future.


Read more: How to Use a Salicylic Acid Face Peel

Citric Acid

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


Combining AHA and BHA Products

With all of the amazing and unique benefits that AHA and BHA can do to the skin, most are tempted to add them both to their skincare routine. But is this necessary to get the best results?

The answer to that question is both a yes and a no. Yes, you can use both AHA and BHA for your skin. However, you shouldn’t do it at the same time! According to studies, using them together actually yields to fuller and better skin which may be due to the increase in collagen that makes the layers of the skin visibly plumper. Experiment and try out products with different AHAs and BHAs and see which one works best for your skin concerns and skin type.

Tips in Combining AHA and BHA

To maximize combining AHAs and BHAs in your skincare routine, it is highly suggested that you consider alternating their use. In a day, alternate their use by using one in the morning and using another one in the evening, after cleansing and toning. You can also try to alternate the days in which you use them. Apply AHA on Sundays and then BHA on Monday and so on.

Find out your skin issues and use the right acid depending on how your skin is feeling that day or week. If your skin could use some extra hydration, use a Glycolic Acid. If you see a pimple forming on your cheek, spot treat it with a dab of Salicylic Acid. For people who have combination skin type, try applying BHA on your oily and blemish-prone areas such as the T-zone and use AHA on the drier areas.

Also, when you’re using exfoliants, don’t forget your neck and chest! You don’t want your skin to look drastically different in parts that are seen together so use AHA and BHA on these parts and improve them too!


Don’t Over Exfoliate!

Even though chemical exfoliants can do a lot of good to your skin, you still wouldn’t want to layer AHAs and BHAs on top of one another. They are both very strong exfoliators and using them at the same time can cause extreme dryness and irritation to your skin. Yikes! You wouldn’t want that!

Make sure that you don’t over exfoliate and read your product’s application instructions and pay extra attention to your skin once you alternate between the two acids. Aside from the usual peeling, stinging or redness, a sure-fire sign of too much exfoliation is a tight feeling of the skin no matter how much moisturizer you put on. Once you feel this, stop exfoliating and focus on repairing your skin by moisturizing it and giving it the time to rest and heal.

Neither AHA or BHA is “better” than the other since it has long been proven that both are highly effective methods of skin exfoliation. 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, 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!



3 Responses


August 16, 2019

Finally, a clear article on the do’s, how’s and dont’s! Was trying to figure out if I can mix the AHA & BHA at the same time through so many articles, but all failed to state yes or no. Finally found this article that is extremely useful and clear, thank you!


August 07, 2019

Very helpful article…


June 03, 2019

Loved the info on Acids! TY!

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