AHA and BHA: Chemical exfoliants

In this post, you will learn about chemical exfoliations i.e. AHA and BHA. As we know, for healthy and glowing skin physical or manual exfoliation is a must. When we were younger our skin was naturally able to exfoliate dead skin cells every day but over time, because of aging, hormonal imbalance, genetics, and unprotected sun exposer, this process slows down or may stop altogether. As a result, we experience several skin issues such as dull, flaky, dry skin, clogged or enlarged pores, wrinkles, acne, loss of glow and firmness, inflammation, hyperpigmentation or uneven skin tone.

There are two ways of exfoliating your skin: physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants.


Physical exfoliation:

Physical or manual exfoliation is the traditional/classic way of exfoliating your skin with the help of a facial brush, body brush, and facial or body scrub. Facial scrub contains small particles that remove the top layer of dead skin cells and leave skin soft and clean. Results from this way of exfoliation are immediate but remember that they can remove dead skin cells only from the surface. Most brands contain microbeads made of small plastic particles for making scrubs. Though some brands use natural particles of almonds, sugar, and walnuts. But these particles can be harsh or irritating for our gentle skin of the face. They can give invisible cuts to the skin surface.


Chemical exfoliation:

Chemical exfoliation is an alternative to physical exfoliation. This is a very new and trending skin care method to speed up the natural process of exfoliating dead skin cells. This is a very effective way of removing dull and dead skin so that we can have healthy, glowing skin.  To reduce any skin imperfections, the chemical exfoliation process is a must. Unlike facial scrubs, chemical exfoliants work on weakening the bond that holds the upper layer of the skin.


There are mainly two categories of chemical exfoliants: 

  1.  Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
  2.  Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

These are gentle exfoliants. These can be found in skincare products such as cleansers, toners, masks, wash-off peels, serums, facial oil, and even in moisturizers. Both can be used to break the bond which holds the dull and damaged skin cells on the surface.


Similarities between AHA and BHA:

  1.  Reduce the appearance of large pores, wrinkles, and fine lines 
  2.  Decrease inflammation, blemishes, melasma, and other skin concerns
  3.  Improves skin texture, dull and uneven skin tone
  4.  Promotes new skin cells and makes skin healthier, firmer and younger
  5.  Helps in hyperpigmentation, sun damage and acne scars
  6.  Unclog the pores to reduce acne 
  7.  Smoothen out the skin texture and gives a nice glow

But each has some unique properties too, so that person can use it according to their skin type and skin concern.


Difference between AHA and BHA:


AHAs are water-soluble acids. Most AHAs are naturally derived from sugary fruits such as grapes and sugar cane. It’s also derived from milk. They work by breaking the bond that holds the skin’s surface. Generally, AHAs are recommended for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin because of their ability to naturally increase the moisture within the skin. They help to remove the surface of the skin to promote new, even and healthy skin cells. They are great for rejuvenating the skin and reducing the signs of sun damage and wrinkles.


Different types of AHA:

Glycolic acid:

Glycolic acid is the most popular AHA used in skincare products. It’s naturally derived from sugarcane plants. It is one of the AHAs which gives significant exfoliation with its smallest molecules to prevent a lot of skin problems. It also has antimicrobial properties to prevent acne breakouts.


Lactic acid:

Lactic acid is the most common AHA found in skincare products. Other AHAs made from fruit but lactic acid is derived from lactose found in milk. It’s one of the mildest AHA to treat skin aging, fine lines, wrinkles, reduce enlarged pores, and hyperpigmentation.


Tartaric acid:

Tartaric acid is one of the AHAs which is not widely popular. This acid is mainly found in most wines. It is derived from fruits like grapes. It is an excellent antioxidant to heal sun-damaged and acne-prone skin.


Citric acid:

As the name suggests, citric acid is made from citrus fruit extracts like lemon and lime. This AHA can be found in serums or toners to neutralize the skin’s pH level and to smooth the skin’s texture. It also helps to give you maximum UV protection.

Malic acid:

Malic acid is both AHA and BHA type. It is derived from apple. Though it is not much effective as a solo ingredient compared to other AHAs, it works effectively with the combination of other acids. Therefore, malic acid is common in combination with AHA products.


Mandelic acid:

Mandelic acid has the largest molecule compared to other AHAs. It is derived from almond nut extracts. It can be combined with other acids for maximum exfoliation. It can also be used alone to improve the skin’s overall texture, pore size, and pigmentation.



BHAs are oil-soluble acids. BHAs work on both skin’s surface and deep inside the pores. It’s mostly preferred to normal to oily, acne-prone, blemish, sensitive and clogged pores. It has a natural skin-calming property. BHA goes deeper into the skin and removes excess oil to unclog the pore. It also has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammation properties to keep skin blemish-free.


Different types of BHA:

Salicylic acid:

Salicylic acid is the most popular BHAs found in skincare products. It is naturally derived from the bark of the willow tree. Depending on the product at hand, concentration can range between 0.5 and 5 %.  It is well known as an acne treatment. It improves overall skin texture, while its deeper penetration action effectively reduces whiteheads, blackheads, acne, and inflammation. Salicylic acid has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties to calm down the general redness and keep skin acne-free.


Citric acid:

Although citric acid is primarily considered as one of the types of AHA, some formulations are considered as a BHA too. This type of citric acid is primarily used for drying out excess oil in the skin and removes dead skin cells from deeper inside the pores.


Tips to use AHA and BHA: 

If you are a beginner, then slowly introduce chemical exfoliants to your skin, it will reduce the chances of experiencing negative side effects such as skin irritation and redness. While using AHA products you must need to apply sunscreen with high SPF all the time, because of AHA likely to increase your skin sensitivity to the sun. Try to apply BHA products a few times a week to see how your skin is reacting to new chemical exfoliants. If you don’t experience any skin irritations and redness, then try to slowly increase the usage of BHA products. If you are pregnant or nursing, it is not advisable to use chemical exfoliants. If you have sensitive skin, then BHAs product with lower concentration can help to calm down your skin. Even if BHA won’t give you skin sensitivity to sun-like AHA, you need to apply sunscreen every day to avoid skin damage and signs of aging. BHA has a property to dry out your skin. So, it is important to apply moisturizer well after using BHA products.


Tips on combining AHA and BHA products:

You can use both AHA and BHA together on your skin, but you also need to consider some important factors like your skin’s sensitivity, the percentage of acids in the product, pH levels, and timing of application of the product. You need to understand your skin’s reaction when combining these two acids because it is quite tricky to find out the perfect balance. 

You can use AHA and BHA on an alternate day or you can alternate products by using one acid in the morning and other during the night. Another way is to use these acids on a certain area of your face. For example, if you have combination skin you can use an AHA on dry area and BHA on the oily part of your face. 

However, many experts don’t recommend using both acids on the face because at home chemical exfoliation contains a high percentage of acids that easily remove dead skin from the upper layer of your skin. Using another acid on raw and delicate skin can cause skin burning, irritation, dryness, and redness.

You need to keep in mind that everyone’s skin is different. Using chemical exfoliants together may work better for some people but not for all. When you are a beginner with the use of chemical exfoliants, it is best to use the right AHA and BHA products based on your skin concern.

Chemical exfoliants can dry your skin so support your skin with proper hydration and nourishment. Your skin becomes sensitive to UV radiation, so it is necessary to protect your skin by applying sunscreen. 

Don’t forget to apply AHA and BHA on your chest and neck area to improve the appearance of these body parts.

Make sure you do not over-exfoliate your skin and read your product’s application instructions carefully. You also need to pay extra attention to your skin’s reaction and observe it while alternating between the two acids.

If you experience skin tightening after applying enough moisturizer, consider that the chemical exfoliation was too harsh for the skin. At that time, you need to stop exfoliating and focus on repairing and healing the skin by slathering on moisturizer. Give your skin some time to rest and calm down.



AHA and BHA have similar skin benefits. Neither of them is better than one or the other. You can achieve different skincare results based on your skin type and skin concerns. AHAs are recommended for dry and aging skin treatment while BHAs are recommended for oily and clogged skin, acne treatments, and calming down the inflammation.

If you are still confused about which to choose for your skin, then you need to consult your dermatologist. They can answer your questions and recommend the specific product to try that suits your skin.

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