AHA exfoliants vs. BHA exfoliants

Skin Treatments

BHA exfoliants work deep in your pores to treat stubborn acne, while AHA exfoliants work on the surface of your skin to reduce signs of aging.

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Are AHAs exfoliants or BHAs exfoliants better for skin?

No longer are those rough-textured scrubs the only option for obtaining exfoliated skin. Chemical exfoliants, such as alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids, can achieve the same results and more without physically scrubbing off a layer of dead skin. Exfoliating using products with AHAs or BHAs will enhance your skin care regimen and give you a healthy glow.

Both have many of the same benefits, but the significant difference is that AHAs are water-soluble and BHAs are oil-soluble. These two hydroxy acids can be combined into one product or separated, and depending on the product, concentration levels will vary. While there are some differences, one hydroxy acid is not necessarily better than the other. They both will effectively exfoliate your skin, but one might suit your skin type better than the other. 

What are AHAs?

AHAs are chemical exfoliants found in nature that studies have shown to be very beneficial to the skin at low concentration levels. Unlike harsh scrubs, AHAs will peel or dissolve dead skin cells revealing a fresh layer of skin. While AHAs can work for all skin types, many recommend that they are best for normal to dry skin types due to their hydrating qualities. AHAs help even out skin tones and reduce the appearance of fine lines, making them a great anti-aging ingredient.

AHA Pros

  • Exfoliator
  • Reduces signs of aging
  • Helps hydrate
  • Evens skin tones

How to use AHAs

AHAs have many benefits, but they can make your skin more sensitive, especially when introducing them. Start off using an AHA product once every three days so your skin can build up a tolerance. Always wear sunscreen because AHAs are prone to making your skin more sensitive to the sun. The most common types of AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid.

Best AHA exfoliant

Paulas Choice Skin Perfecting 8 AHA Gel Exfoliant

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

This leave-on exfoliant will hydrate while revitalizing the surface of your skin. It combines the AHA ingredients with the calming powers of chamomile to help prevent your skin from getting irritated. Using this product consistently will increase skin’s firmness, even out skin tones and prevent signs of aging. Use this product up to twice a day after cleansing.

Sold by Amazon

Mario Badescu's Glycolic Acid Toner

Mario Badescu’s Glycolic Acid Toner

Mario Badescu’s products are gentle but effective, and this glycolic acid toner is no exception. Glycolic acid comes from sugar canes and is one of the most effective AHAs. This exfoliating toner will brighten skin and balance out uneven skin tones giving you a smooth, clear complexion. Users have found that this product can be too drying, so check out the buying guide at BestReviews for a good moisturizer

Sold by Amazon and Ulta Beauty

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

Inexpensive and effective with ingredients that are gentle on the skin. This once-a-day exfoliating serum contains the AHA known as lactic acid, which is a mild alternative that is good for dry skin that is sensitive.

Sold by Amazon and Sephora

What are BHAs?

BHAs are plant-sourced chemical exfoliants primarily found in the bark of a willow tree. Like AHAs, BHAs will loosen the dead skin cells to exfoliate the skin creating a smooth complexion. BHAs will also work deep inside your pores, preventing the buildup of dead skin cells, helping to keep your skin clear. BHAs are best for acne-prone skin that is a combination to oily.

BHA Pros

  • Exfoliates
  • Unclogs and minimizes pores
  • Treats acne and blackheads
  • Reduces inflammation

How to use BHAs

Like AHAs, BHAs are designed for daily use but should slowly be added to your skincare regimen to prevent skin irritation. While BHAs do not make your skin more sensitive to UV rays, it is still important that you wear sunscreen when using products with BHAs. The most common type of BHA, one you might be familiar with, is salicylic acid.

Best BHA exfoliant

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliator

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliator

This liquid exfoliator contains acne-fighting ingredients that will unclog pores and absorb excess oil. Pairing BHAs with green tea antioxidants keeps skin calm while smoothing out fine lines. You can apply this non-abrasive formula once or twice daily after cleansing and toning.

Sold by Sephora

Murad Acne Control Clarifying Cleanser

Murad Acne Control Clarifying Cleanser

At 1.5% salicylic acid, this BHA cleanser will clear and prevent further breakouts. In clinical studies, 94% said it helped with oily skin and provided a deep, exfoliating cleanse.

Sold by Sephora

COSRX BHA 4% Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA 4% Blackhead Power Liquid

This BHA liquid created by a Korean beauty brand will penetrate pores deeply to remove blackheads for people struggling with stubborn blackheads. Apply using a cotton pad and simply wipe over your face.

Sold by Amazon

Should I use AHAs or BHAs?

As you can see, one is not necessarily better than the other, but rather choosing depends on your skincare needs. If you are dealing with acne and oily skin, then go with BHAs. If you have dry skin and need an anti-aging treatment, then go with AHAs. If you are interested in finding a product that contains both AHAs and BHAs, check out BestReviews’ buying guide for the best chemical facial peels.

If you have sensitive skin, you might discover the lower concentration of these ingredients are better for your skin and result in less irritation. No matter your skin’s sensitivity level, AHAs and BHAs, individually or together, can cause skin irritation. Be sure to let the skin heal before further using any AHAs or BHAs products and consider talking to a dermatologist for more information. A dermatologist can help you determine if your skin will benefit more from AHAs or BHAs and how often you should be using them in your skincare routine.

Chemical exfoliators have several benefits and are an essential step in any skincare regimen. They help remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, preventing flakey skin and clogged pores. Exfoliating using products with AHAs or BHAs will enhance your skincare routine and give you a healthy glow.


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Bailey Gates writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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