AHA vs. BHA for Skincare: Everything You Need to Know

AHA vs. BHA for Skincare: Everything You Need to Know

AHA and BHA are chemical exfoliants commonly used in skincare products. Learn about the benefits of both and how to choose one to get glowing skin.
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No matter your age, it’s completely understandable to want to have fresh, radiant, dewy skin. One of the best ways to achieve those skin goals is none other than adding a little extra exfoliation into your skincare regimen.

However, manual exfoliation only goes so far in getting you that glowing skin you crave, since it only tackles the outer layer of your epidermis. Plus, it can actually be harmful to your stratum corneum if you overdo it. So, what’s the solution?

Enter: BHAs and AHAs.

But what exactly are these BHAs and AHAs, and why do they matter when it comes to your skin? In a word, they’re revolutionary. Total game-changers.

In many words, though? Well, it can be a bit chewy, so let’s go ahead and break down all the nuances between AHA vs BHA, and take a closer look at the pros and cons of each. 

That way, you can learn exactly why you need them – and why you should add them to your skincare regimen STAT!

What are AHAs and BHAs?

As a type of chemical (versus manual) exfoliant, both beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) are powerful little tools to keep in your skincare arsenal. Clinically proven to help give you softer, more supple skin – and even help clear acne – these acids can work wonders on your complexion.

But what is AHA in skincare, and how does it work? The way this chemical exfoliant works is by sloughing off the outer cells of your epidermis in a process called “desquamation”.

Sure, that may sound kind of weird (anyone else now picturing a molting snake, or is that just us?), but that’s actually how they really do their business. More importantly, though, these acids are super beneficial for your skin. (1)

Think of it like removing the dull, dry, unhealthy outer layer and replaying it with that bright and vibrant healthy layer beneath it. There’s nothing to lose, and oh-so-much to gain from using AHAs and BHAs.

However, there are a few key differences between them that you need to know about when it comes to choosing between an AHA vs BHA for skincare. Depending on your own unique skincare needs, the fact is, one just might work better than the other for your skin.

While reaching for the wrong one may not necessarily harm your skin, knowing the difference between the two can help you get that soft, supple skin that you crave. Even better, you can even layer these products, meaning that you can take a multifaceted approach to taking care of your acne-prone skin.

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Shared Benefits of Both

When it comes to treating uneven skin tone and acne breakouts, virtually nothing compares to AHAs and BHAs. To quote the great Elizabeth Barrett Browning, how do we love these chemical exfoliants? Let us count the ways.

Some of the many mutual benefits of using AHAs and BHAs include:

  • Sloughing off dead skin cells. Not only do they help remove old, dead skin cells, but by increasing cellular turnover, they can reveal the healthy ones beneath it. (2)
  • Reducing the appearance of your pores. It’s a myth that pores can be shrunk, but – and this is a huge “but” here – you can reduce how big they look by removing all the sebum and other built-up gunk in them. (2)
  • Minimizing your fine lines. Removing the dry, coarse skin cells softens the appearance of your fine lines, making them look much more faint and less visible. (2)
  • Improving your skin’s tone and texture. This is another known perk of using AHA and BHA. Using them can visibly tighten and firm your skin, as well as getting rid of the rough texture. (2)
  • Treating and preventing acne. By unclogging your pores and killing existing bacteria, you can say good riddance to those nasty hormonal breakouts. (2 & 3)
  • Decreasing the inflammation. Just as using alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids can get rid of acne, they can also help reduce skin inflammation. In turn, you’ll notice less redness and irritation, as well as actually treat certain other skin conditions (such as rosacea and pseudofolliculitis barbae). (2 & 4)

  • Pretty awesome stuff, right? That said, depending on what you’re going for, you’re going to want to reach for the right type of exfoliant. AHA and BHA each serve different purposes, so you just want to be sure to choose the correct one for your skincare goals.

    Key Differences Between AHA and BHA

    On the most basic, molecular level, the main difference between AHAs and BHAs is their chemical makeup. Alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble, whereas beta hydroxy acids are fat-soluble. (5) It’s also a general rule that BHAs are more mild than most AHAs.

    The water-vs-fat soluble thing may seem like a subtle nuance, but it actually plays a sizable role in how they exfoliate your skin. Because BHAs are fat-soluble, this means that they can penetrate deep to remove excess oil, which can help people (especially men and teens) who have very oily skin.

    They can penetrate deeper into the epidermis via the sebaceous glands, which is a super awesome feature for those of us with oily and congested skin. Furthermore, they’re anti-inflammatory, which means they can combat those angry breakouts that like to randomly crop up on your face. 

    However, despite being incredibly effective against your skin conditions, they’re actually a bit more gentle when it comes to irritation. This can translate to less redness, irritation, and dryness when starting out with BHAs over AHAs. (5)

    This doesn’t mean that AHAs are too harsh, though. It just means they are more corrective and a bit more powerful. In fact, if your primary goal is to send fine lines and lingering acne scars packing, then you’ll definitely want to add them into your rotation. While they don’t penetrate the epidermis like BHAs do, they are surprisingly metabolically active. (5)

    What does this mean for you and your beautiful face, and what does AHA do for skin like yours? Well, in short, they can boost cellular turnover by breaking down the ionic bonds of the skin cells, which helps them shed faster and speed up the collagen renewal process. (5)

    That bright, glowing skin that’s lurking right beneath the dull, tired layer? It’s just begging for a chance to make itself known, and AHAs help to make that possible.

    Sunspots (also known as “melasma”) are also going to hit the road when you start using AHAs. Another exciting benefit of using AHAs is that they can help improve your skin’s acid mantle, which means it can actually be more moisturized than before. (6)

    Finally, AHAs are known to help increase collagen production. As we get older, we start to lose collagen, which can show up as sagging and an almost haggard, gaunt appearance. 

    But with the regular application of AHAs, you can actually regenerate that lost collagen, leading to a fuller, more youthful appearance overall.This is because when we remove the surface layer of skin cells, it sends a message down below to replace them with brand new skin.

    How to Choose AHA vs. BHA

    Trying to choose between an AHA and a BHA can be somewhat tricky, especially if you’re not entirely versed in their benefits. If your concerns are sensitive skin or inflamed cystic acne, then BHA might be a better starting point to ease into this category. 

    Conversely, if you’re more worried about dark spots, clogged pores, and skin texture issues (such as fine lines and skin laxity) then an AHA might be more up your alley. Your skin type also should be considered, too.

    For instance, if your skin is super sensitive and prone to redness and irritation, then a BHA (like salicylic) may work better for you. The opposite could be said about AHAs. If your skin is a bit more resilient, then feel free to reach for the bottle of AHA (like mandelic or glycolic) to address your skincare concerns.

    When to Use AHA and BHA in Your Skincare Routine

    Now that you know all about the awesome benefits of using AHA and BHA, your next step is to figure out exactly how to incorporate them into your skincare routine. You may be wondering when to use AHA in skincare routines, and when’s a better time to try BHAs.

    AHAs, as you know, are great for more mature people and those of us who are trying to fight the subtle signs of aging. BHAs are more for sensitive or cystic acne-prone people, or those who are just starting out with exfoliation in general.

    While one may suit your needs better than another, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use a combination of both, though. Layering non-comedogenic products is a fantastic way to maximize the many perks of them, but you want to make sure you do it right.

    Some products don’t interact well with acids, and can actually neutralize them (like lotions and anything oil-based). So you would never apply an acid over a lotion, always before it. 

    You also don’t want to overdo it with a super high strength right off the bat, as it can backfire and cause problems like excessive sun-sensitivity or redness. If sensitivity happens, we recommend just taking a few days off and then re-starting your AHA every other night only. And always be sure to moisturize after!

    First things first, start by cleaning your skin. If you use a toner, apply that next, then let it dry. Then it’s time for a little bit of chemical exfoliation action. Side note: don’t let the word “chemical” scare you.. even water is a chemical my friend! #science

    This is where you’ll want to grab your AHA or BHA. Many people swear by salicylic acid for their BHA, but you don’t want to apply it to broken or damaged skin. As for your AHA of choice, we strongly recommend using a mandelic acid serum for your AHA, as it’s both gentle and effective. Mandelic acid is the sweet spot between glycolic acid (which is too stimulating for most people) and salicylic acid (which generally only comes in 2% strength and isn’t strong enough to create strong anti-aging changes). Mandelic is the Goldilocks of AHAs.. it’s juuust right.

    Gently apply your chemical exfoliant with clean hands (for serums & creams) or a cotton ball (for more liquid formulations), then let it sit alone on your skin for 10 minutes before applying the next step. Finish up with your hydrating serums or moisturizer, and voilà – you’re all set!

    And by the way, if you’re wanting to tackle both fine lines and acne at the same time, feel free to use your BHA in the morning, and your AHA at night. AHA tends to be stronger so you should do those at night so as to avoid direct sunlight right after.

    Pro Tip: To avoid accelerated aging, remember to use non-pore-clogging sunscreen during the day, as these products can cause higher sun sensitivity! (7) Mineral SPF is made with zinc & titanium.


    Using chemical exfoliants can be a fantastic way to even out your skin tone, smooth out your complexion, and get rid of any texture or elasticity issues. However, you don’t want to just use them haphazardly.

    Why?  Well, as you now know, both BHA and AHA have different benefits, and you want to be sure to choose the right one for your needs. Start slowly, using them every other night (or just a few times per week), then work your way up to using them daily. 

    Before you know it, you’ll start to notice a gradual improvement, and that gorgeous skin you knew was lurking just beneath it will start to make itself known.

    The fact is, taking care of your skin is more than just slathering on products. It’s about knowing what they do and why you’re using them. 

    And with the right AHA and BHA in your nightly beauty arsenal, you’ll finally start to look as incredible on the outside as we know you are on the inside!


    Source 1: Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965/

    Source 2: StatPearls: Skin Resurfacing Chemical Peels https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547752/

    Source 3: Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4720453/

    Source 4: pH-Dependent Antibacterial Activity of Glycolic Acid: Implications for Anti-Acne Formulations https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198592/

    Source 5: Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-Aging Agents https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941867/

    Source 6: StatPearls: Melasma https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459271/

    Source 7: StatPearls: Skin Resurfacing Chemical Peels https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547752/