AHA vs BHA: The Difference Between These Exfoliants

When many people think of exfoliation, they think of taking a rough sponge or sandy cream and scrubbing away dead skin and other impurities. However, this type of mechanical exfoliation can be abrasive on the skin. It’s often better to go with a less abrasive exfoliant that won’t risk scratching your skin.

If you walk through the cosmetics aisle and take a look at the exfoliants on display, you might notice some acronyms like AHA or BHA. These refer to different types of acids that some of them use as active ingredients.

Neither one is necessarily better than the other. They target different skin types. Knowing which one to use is essential for achieving your desired complexion.

Let’s scratch the surface on some of the key differences between AHA and BHA exfoliants.

What Is AHA?

It’s not just a word you say when you’ve come to an amazing realization. AHA is also an acronym for alpha-hydroxy acid, which is derived from sugar cane or other plant products. There are many types of AHAs, but common ones that you might find in your skincare products include glycolic acid and lactic acid.

AHA containing skincare products cause exfoliation or shedding of the skin. This is why it’s commonly used in cleansers, or exfoliants, to help unclog pores and smooth fine lines or wrinkles.

AHA can enhance natural moisturizing factors in the skin to keep it hydrated and youthful. For that reason, products containing it are usually recommended for dry to normal skin types.

Benefits of AHAs

There are reasons why AHAs are so common throughout skincare. Mainly, it’s a good exfoliant for removing dead skin cells off the surface. The amount of exfoliation is determined by the type of AHA used and its pH balance. The more acidic the AHA is, the lower the pH will be.

But on top of that, AHAs can stimulate collagen production, which is the main structural component that makes up your skin and hair, nails, bones, and ligaments. 

Over time, collagen production decreases and can lead to wrinkles, fine lines, or less elastic skin. AHAs can help increase collagen synthesis to help reverse premature signs of aging.

What Is BHA?

If AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid, you might be able to make an educated guess as far as what BHA stands for. As you might’ve guessed, BHA is short for beta-hydroxy acid.

You’ve probably heard of one of the most famous BHAs out there: salicylic acid. This is one of the most commonly used chemicals in facial cleansers because it can work beneath the skin’s surface and deep inside the pores.

BHAs are oil-soluble, so it’s often recommended for people with normal to oily skin that’s more prone to clogged pores and blemishes. 

Benefits of BHAs

There are a few types of BHAs, but it’s almost certain that you’ll come across salicylic acid. One of the greatest benefits of salicylic acid is penetrating pores and dissolving oil on the skin. This makes it perfect for oily skin types that are prone to breakouts.

Additionally, salicylic acid tends to be a bit less irritating and more soothing compared to AHAs. This makes BHAs ideal for people with more sensitive skin that might become swollen or red due to harsh chemicals from AHAs.

BHAs can also fight bacteria and help with areas of dryness on the skin. Not to mention, it has exfoliant properties, just like AHAs.

How to Choose Between AHA and BHA

Both AHAs and BHAs are effective ingredients in skincare products, though they might not be as effective for certain situations.

In general, AHAs tend to be used for fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, or enlarged pores. They’re also better for dry to normal skin types because of their moisturizing properties.

With that said, AHAs can be slightly more abrasive, so you’ll want to start by using small amounts if you have dry or sensitive skin.

On the other hand, BHAs are usually used to treat acne or sun damage. This is because they penetrate deeper into the hair follicles and pores to draw out oils or dead cells that might clog the pores and lead to breakouts. And since they’re oil-soluble, you’ll probably want to pick these if you have normal, oily, or combination skin.

Despite their differences, there are some things that you can use either AHA or BHA for. Both will help to even out your skin tone, remove dead skin cells, improve your skin texture, and help prevent acne. It might just take some trial and error to find one that works best.

However, a recent review found that AHAs and BHAs can yield fuller skin when used together. The thing is, you shouldn’t use them on top of each other because they tend to dry out the skin or irritate it.

You can consider using AHAs and BHAs on alternating days if your skin type doesn’t get a reaction. Additionally, if you have combination skin, you can try using AHAs on the dry parts of your face and BHAs on the oily parts.

How to Find Your Skin Type

Knowing your skin type can help you determine which type of exfoliant is best for you. Dry skin is typically dull, rough, and flaky, whereas oily skin is usually shiny and might feel greasy. 

An easy way to test what type of skin you have is by washing your face with a gentle cleanser, then pat dry with a clean towel. Wait 30 minutes, and then see what happens:

  • If your skin appears shiny throughout, you likely have oily skin.
  • If it’s flaky and feels tight, it’s probably dry skin.
  • If you only notice grease on your  T-zone (forehead and nose), then it’s most likely combination skin.
  • If it’s hydrated and comfortable to the touch, you might have normal skin.

When To Use Exfoliants

Since exfoliation is a fairly abrasive process that actively removes the dead skin cells on your face, it’s not recommended for everyday use. 

With that in mind, if you’re using an exfoliant that uses either AHA or BHA, you only need to do it two or three times a week. However, you should still cleanse your face, even if your face wash contains one of these ingredients.

Additionally, many people like to exfoliate in the morning because your skin repairs itself at night. This leaves a layer of dead skin cells that can be easily scrubbed away first thing.

AHA and BHA Alternatives

Despite some of the amazing and far-reaching benefits of both of these exfoliants, AHA and BHA can feel irritating and harsh to certain skin types. Plus, some people don’t love to use such abrasive chemicals on their skin. 

The good news is that you don’t need to sacrifice the benefits of exfoliation just because you don’t want to use either of these!

One Ocean’s Blue Algae Exfoliating + Detox Mask ditches the chemicals in favor of sustainable marine ingredients. This mask removes surface skin cells and helps retain moisture for a glowing, revitalized complexion.

But how does it do that without using AHA or BHA as primary active ingredients? For one, coconut shell practices gently lift dull surface skin cells for a healthy-looking complexion. Then, marine silt from the West Coast of France draws out deep impurities to control oily skin.

It’s a less abrasive yet highly effective alternative that is great for all skin types. 

In Conclusion

AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid, and BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid. Both are common exfoliants used in skincare products to help remove dead skin cells and enhance the appearance of the skin.

AHAs are typically aimed at dry skin types because of their ability to retain moisture. They can also stimulate collagen production, which helps make your skin look healthier and more youthful.

BHAs are usually meant for oily or combination skin types because they are oil soluble. They also tend to be less irritating for sensitive skin.

Neither necessarily works better than another, though AHAs are more common for dealing with fine lines and wrinkles while BHAs are meant for acne reduction. You can even use the two of them together by trying them on alternating days or using them on different days of the week.



How to safely exfoliate at home | American Academy of Dermatology Association

Cosmetics Alpha Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Beta Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Clinical and cosmeceutical uses of hydroxyacids | ScienceDirect