The Difference Between AHA and BHA Exfoliants

Paula's Choice AHA and BHA exfoliants for different skin concerns.

Our skin naturally exfoliates dead cells every day, but over time – primarily as a result of age and unprotected sun exposure – this shedding process slows and may stop altogether. This results in dull, dry, or flaky skin; clogged, enlarged pores; bumps, wrinkles, loss of firmness, and uneven skin tone.

Helping skin gently exfoliate its build-up of dead skin – the way it did naturally when we were younger – reveals the beautiful, soft, hydrated skin hiding underneath. Without question, a leave-on AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid) chemical exfoliant can make a world of difference to your skin’s appearance. We're often asked which one is best, and the answer is less complicated than you might think.

How AHAs and BHA are Similar

AHA exfoliants (alpha hydroxy acids, i.e. glycolic and lactic acids) and BHA exfoliants (beta hydroxy/salicylic acid) both work to 'unglue' the bonds holding dull, dead skin on the surface. Once those bonds are broken – gently and evenly – skin naturally sheds its used-up cells. So, although you won't actually see your skin exfoliating, you'll soon see (and feel) the smoother, younger-looking skin.

To work effectively, AHA and BHA exfoliants must be formulated within a narrow pH range, between 3 and 4. Paula’s Choice Skincare is aware of the research around this issue, so all of our AHA and BHA products are formulated to be as effective, and as gentle, as possible. As with every Paula’s Choice product, our chemical exfoliants are fragrance-free plus each contains unique blends of skin-soothing ingredients.

Additionally, AHA and BHA both:

  • diminish the look of lines and wrinkles
  • make skin look and feel firmer
  • hydrate skin
  • improve the look of dull, uneven skin tone
  • smooth rough, bumpy texture

But each also has unique properties that make them suited for different skin types and concerns.

AHA and BHA products

2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Our bestselling BHA exfoliant

Our #1 product worldwide and cult favourite, this gentle leave-on exfoliant quickly unclogs pores, smooths wrinkles and brightens and evens out skin tone.

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

AHA exfoliants smooth & soften

A moisturising AHA lotion exfoliant that gently removes built-up layers of dead skin to reveal remarkably smoother and softer skin.

Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Lotion Exfoliant

8% AHA Lotion Exfoliant

AHA vs BHA: How they differ

AHA exfoliants are water soluble so only work on the skin’s surface. They are generally preferred for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin, due to their ability to enhance natural moisturising factors within skin (as mentioned above, BHA is also hydrating, but it hydrates skin in a different way to AHAs). AHAs have also been proven to be effective in reducing the visible signs of sun damage, including crepey skin and wrinkles.

A BHA exfoliant works on both the skin’s surface and deep inside the pores. It’s oil soluble, so is best suited to normal to oily skin prone to bumps, clogs, blemishes and enlarged pores. BHA also has natural skin-calming properties, so it’s gentle enough for skin that's sensitive or prone to redness or rosacea. This well-rounded, gentle ingredient is even suitable for bumpy skin prone to milia.

Can you use AHA and BHA together?

With so many combined yet unique benefits, we're often asked, “Should I use both an AHA and BHA product to get the best results?” In short, no, but it’s up to you. All Paula’s Choice AHA and BHA exfoliants are formulated to work brilliantly on their own and will provide remarkable results for various skin types and concerns.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with using both or experimenting to see which one works best for you by either (1) applying them at the same time, either morning or evening, or (2) alternating their use. Using an AHA exfoliant and a BHA exfoliant at the same time (both provide what’s known as chemical exfoliation, rather than the 'mechanical' action of a scrub) is not as complicated or scary as it might seem. If you're choosing well-formulated, gentle exfoliants, there really isn't a downside – you just have to monitor how your skin responds and adjust usage if needed.

Do I need AHA if I use BHA?

You don't need to use both an AHA and BHA exfoliant at the same time out of fear that you're 'missing out' because one is more anti-ageing than the other. In truth, both provide anti-ageing benefits; they just do so differently. The reason for using an AHA and BHA exfoliant at the same time is really about whether or not your skin needs more thorough exfoliation. This might be the case for those who have advanced signs of sun damage, deep wrinkles, stubborn clogged pores and bumps, or dull, flaky skin.

Should I use BHA or AHA first?

Should you apply an AHA and BHA exfoliant at the same time twice per day? Probably not. Most people don't need that level of exfoliation but experiment to see which combination and frequency of application work best for you. (See what we mean about the need to experiment?)

As for how to use both at the same time – apply the exfoliants after cleansing and toning, starting with whichever has the thinnest texture; for example, apply a liquid texture before a gel or lotion. You don't need to wait for one to absorb before applying the next, and you can immediately follow with the rest of your skincare routine – it won't affect the pH of either exfoliant.

Alternating between AHA and BHA products to exfoliate your face might seem too complicated, but it doesn't have to be that way. It’s fine to alternate, and it can be a great way for all skin types to experience the distinct benefits of each. In fact, many people find that alternating AHA and BHA exfoliants is the perfect solution to address their unique concerns.

Here are some tips on how to alternate AHA and BHA products and how often to exfoliate:

  • Most people can exfoliate once a day, in the morning or evening based on personal preference.
  • If you want to alternate an AHA and BHA, simply decide which exfoliant to use at the beginning of each week and then alternate day by day. You can also use one for a week, then switch to the other the following week.
  • Another option is to apply one type of exfoliant in the morning and another at night. This can be a great approach for breakout-prone skin showing signs of sun damage.
  • You also can experiment by alternating different strengths of an AHA or BHA, or both! For example, apply a CALM Exfoliant each morning and step up to a 2% strength at night.
  • Once per week, rotate into your routine a higher-strength specialty AHA or BHA treatment to give yourself an 'at-home peel' experience that delivers more dramatic results.

Ultimately, there’s no single best way to use AHA and BHA exfoliants; it’s all about experimenting to find out what works best for you and then adjusting based on the changing needs of your skin. What counts is that you keep on using a leave-on chemical exfoliant, which we're sure you'll willingly do once you see how it transforms your skin (get ready for compliments)!


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References for this information:
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, August 2015, pages 455–461
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, ePublication
Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, July 2012, pages 488–491
Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, June 2011, ePublication
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135–142
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651–663

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