AHA and BHA — What’s The Difference? (The Comprehensive Guide)

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Your skincare routine is never complete without an exfoliator (just like sunscreen), infact in the quest of accomplishing a radiant skin, you’ll definitely need a skin exfoliating ingredient to get rid of dead skin cells sitting at the top layer of the skin and unclog the pores of impurities and debris. And that’s where AHA and BHA comes in. These acids are all exfoliators, they all offer different benefits to the skin, it all depends on your skin needs and skin type.


Definitely, it’s no doubt that our skin goes through natural exfoliating phase daily, but that shouldn’t be enough to keep the pores free from impurities — not to mention our skin are exposed to daily environmental aggressors and pollutants due to everyday activities.

AHA and BHA has been the game changer in skincare routines, when used at suitable concentration they ensure the pores are free from clogs – thereby creating free passage for your skincare topicals to penetrate better into the skin to do their jobs. Think about it: Not exfoliating your skin properly and as at when due prior to skincare treatments is just like wasting your time, because when the pores are clogged (blocked) with loads of dead skin cells and sebum (oil) there won’t be any passage (gateway) for your skincare topicals to pass through, which is one of the reasons why your skincare products isn’t working.

AHAs and BHA are often combined together to tackle multiple skin issues at once or treat stubborn cystic acne or acne in general, so don’t be marvelled when you see them both mention on your ingredients list.

Keep reading below to the difference between AHA and BHA and how to choose the right option for your skin.

What Is AHA?.

AHA stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acid. It’s a group of acids purposely meant for exfoliating the skin. AHAs are mostly refered to as “Fruit acids” because they are derived from sugar cane or other plant sources. AHAs are primarily used for hyperpigmentation like age spots, melasma, scars, enlarged pores, wrinkles, fine lines and uneven skin tone. Irrespective of AHAs being marked as “safe for all skin types” individuals with extreme sensitive and dry skin should take caution. You may need to use lower concentrations and always work your way up to avoid Irritations.

Benefits Of AHAs.

AHAs offers lots of benefits to the skin, but for the most, it exfoliates both the outer and inner layer of the skin as it sloughs off dead skin cells, by weakening the bonds that hold dead skin cells together to encourage the departure of cells containing melanin, gently sloughs off the uppermost layers of the skin to reveal fresher, more even tone skin. It also shrinks large visible pores, making them look smaller, not to mention its reduction effect on wrinkles and fine lines — as it offers anti-aging benefits by increasing collagen synthesis by fibroblasts (the collagen-producing cells in the skin), thereby improving overall skin texture and elasticity (AHAs don’t replace retinol).

Types Of AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids).

Glycolic Acid.

Glycolic acid is the most common type of AHA and widely used. It’s made from sugar plant.
Glycolic acid is known for its small molecular size in weight which enables it to penetrate deeper into the skin to eradicate dead skin cells and dissolve sebum.

According to Kenneth Howe, M.D., a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York City “Of all the AHAs, glycolic is the simplest in structure and the smallest; it has the lowest molecular weight”. That small molecular weight means “it’s easy for it to penetrate your skin and be super effective,” says Alix Shapiro, skin therapist at Heyday in NYC.

This acid has been known not only to exfoliate the skin but also treat acne. As it helps cleanse the pores of excessive oil, dirts and pore-clogging impurites which can lead to acne breakouts.
Dr. Melda Isaac, a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington, D.C., added that glycolic has the ability to really get down into the hair follicles and loosen up any built-up sebum and proteins that could otherwise lead to blackheads and breakouts.

Lactic Acid.

This acid is also a common and widely used AHA, unlike other acids which are made from fruits and plants, lactic acid is made from lactose in milk.  It also offers exfoliation and anti-aging benefits.
It gently sloughs off dead skin cells, treats hyperpigmentation, age spots, and other factors that contribute to a dull and uneven complexion. It also Improves skin tone and reduced pore appearance. However, unlike AHAs such as glycolic acid, lactic acid is a bit milder.

Tartaric Acid.

Tartaric acid is yet another type of AHA derived from grape extracts. Although it’s not widely known but it definitely has its benefits on the skin. It exfoliates the skin and stimulating collagen production. It will help with fine lines and wrinkles, and also stimulates collagen production to make the skin look firmer. Tartaric acid is often added to glycolic or lactic acid formulas to strengthen their sloughing capability.

Citric Acid.

Just as the name implies, citric acid is derived from citrus fruits. In skin care formulations, citric acid has protective antioxidant, and corrective anti-aging effects by helping to reverse visible signs of photo-damage. Citric acid also works by exfoliating the upper layer of dead skin cells to help clean pores, even skin tone, soften and smoothen the skin.

Malic Acid.

Malic acid is sourced from apples. This acid is also known for a host of skin benefits, such as improving skin texture and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. That’s because malic acid promotes the shedding of the outer layer of skin cells, exfoliating away buildup and pore-clogging impurities, and also it’s considerably more mild.

Mandelic Acid.

Mandelic acid is derived from almond extracts. Mostly combined with the likes of glycolic, lactic acid and other AHAs to increase the exfoliation and sloughing. When used alone, the acid may improve texture and pore size. Regulate sebum production, unclog pores, and reduce inflammation. This can result in fewer acne breakouts.

What Is BHA?.

BHA stands for Beta-Hydroxy Acid. You must have heard about the all powerful anti-acne ingredient called salicylic acid right? Yea, that’s a BHA.
beta hydroxy acid is an organic compound that contains a carboxylic acid functional group and hydroxy functional group separated by two carbon atoms. They are relatively related to alpha hydroxy acids. BHA works on skin surface and beneath the skin (deep inside the pores).

Benefits Of BHA.

Salicylic acid being the most recognized BHA and most widely used works by deeply penetrating the pores to unclog the pores of congestion of dead skin cells and excessive sebum (oil) which makes it a well know acne-treatment. Salicylic acid can also help calm down general redness and inflammation.

Types Of BHA (Beta-Hydroxy Acid).

Salicylic Acid.

Salicylic acid is derived from White willow (Salix alba). Not only does it help the skin shed dead skin cells from the top layer and decreasing redness and swelling (inflammation), but also treats acne as it unclog the hair follicles (pores) of dead skin cells and other pore-clogging impurities and nasties.

So, What’s The Real Difference Between AHAs & BHA?.

AHAs are water-soluble acids that exfoliates the top layer and beneath the skin pores by sloughing off dead skin cells and unclogging the pores of impurities for a more smoother and even skin tone and also to enhance a better penetration of your skincare topicals.

BHA on the other hand are oil-soluble. They go more deeper into the skin pores to alleviate excess sebum and eradicate pore-clogging impurities.

How To Choose AHA and BHA.

If your goal is to exfoliate the top layer of your skin, get rid of dead skin cells, thereby revealing the fresh skin underneath which will in turn enhance better absorption of skincare topicals then AHA is your best bet.

But when it comes down to remedying deeper skin issues such as cystic acne, warts etc you should be using BHA (salicylic acid) because of its ability to penetrate deeply. However, AHA and BHA can be combined together to treat multiple skin issues and to achieve more optimal results.


AHAs and BHAs can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, therefore wearing a sunscreen during the day is a must and shouldn’t be excluded. This is to protect your skin for the wicked UV rays of the sun.

Best Products With AHA.

SkinCeuticals C + AHA.


Buy Now From Dermstore

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An antioxidant-rich vitamin C serum in combination with AHA to deliver optimum result to the skin. This cocktail contains 15% L-ascorbic acid to brighten the skin, fights skin-aging signs and wards off free radicals along side glycolic and lactic acid to slough off dead skin cells, minimize large pores, improve skin texture and radiance.

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum.


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With 12% alpha and beta hydroxy acids, this serum is designed to helps to refine and resurface skin by getting rid of dead skin cells at the top layer of the skin, thereby revealing a smoother and more radiant complexion.

The ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution.


Buy Now From Ulta

This peeling solution has being making raves in the beauty industry. With 30% alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic/lactic/tartaric/citric), 2% beta hydroxy acid (Salicylic Acid) to deliver a deeper exfoliation, helps to fight visible blemishes, wrinkles, fine lines and for improved skin radiance. It’s just like having all AHAs and BHA in one formula.

COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid.


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With 7% glycolic acid this formula is formulate to gently exfoliate the skin, prevent breakouts gets rid of whiteheads, brighten skin tone, resurface the skin, and renew complexion.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA.


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Here’s another potent peeling solution from the ordinary and this time around it’s lactic acid — a more milder yet very effective in sloughing off dead skin cells, unclogging pores of impurities and relatively enhance skin texture, smoothness and appearance.

Apply once per day (at night). To be left for 10 minutes before washing off. You can as well dilute with other treatments to reduce potency until your skin builds tolerance or use every other day. Don’t forget to use sunscreen during the day.

Also Read: See The Best Glycolic Acid Cleansers.

Best Products With BHA.

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.


Buy Now From Dermstore

A leave-on liquid exfoliant with 2% salicylic acid unclog pores of impurities, treat acne, smooth out skin texture, promotes faster cell regeneration to minimize the appearance of blemishes, redness, large pores, and wrinkles.

The ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution.


Buy Now From Ulta

A 32% peeling solution that contains both AHA and BHA to deliver a deeper exfoliation. Lessen visible skin-aging appearance and improve overall skin texture.

CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid.


Buy Now From Ulta

Got stubborn blackheads? Then you can never go wrong with this formula. this lightweight anti-acne serum diminishes stubborn blackheads and prevents new once from forming, thanks to salicylic acid.

Possible Questions & Answers.

Q: Can I combine AHA and BHA?

A: AHA and BHA can be combined to treat different skin issues at once or to increase exfoliation. According to a 2019 review AHAs and BHAs yield fuller skin when used together as a result of massive increment of collagen production which resulted to both the dermis and epidermis visibly plumper. However, depending on your skin type irritations may occur when used on higher concentration or when used too often especially for individuals with dry and sensitive skin because when you remove too many layers, you’re destroying your skin’s protective barrier and exposing skin that’s not ready to be exposed yet. And it’s definitely gonna hurt.

Q: How often should I use AHAs and BHAs?

A: We recommend AHA products to be used every other day. As your skin gets used to them, you can then start applying AHAs every day.

BHA on the other hand can be used every day, (of which there is only one, salicylic acid), either morning or night, on oily, acne-prone skin. If you’re having a bad breakout, you may use it both morning and night.

Also use extra caution when going out in the sun. (Wear a sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen)

Q: Can I use AHAs and BHAs during pregnancy?

A: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are a bit trickier to navigate during pregnancy. Salicylic acid (BHA) is to be avoided during pregnancy. Glycolic acid (AHA) is considered safe to use in lower concentrations (10%), but you can always use a product containing lactic acid instead. Read more on ingredients to avoid during pregnancy.

UP NEXT: Licorice Extract For Skin – The Comprehensive Guide.

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