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AHA Vs. BHA: Choosing the Right Exfoliant

Exfoliation is an essential part of your skincare routine. With the various advances in products and technologies, exfoliation has today moved beyond the use of simple scrubs to wash your face. Terms like AHA and BHA are being thrown around with every product purchase and every product advertisement. But what are AHA and BHA, and how are they important to your skincare routine? AHA and BHA are the two new-age exfoliants that have taken over the world and are promoting a new approach towards holistic skincare. However, most often, people find themselves confused between the two ingredients. Read on to find out what are the differences and similarities in these products as we take a look at AHA versus BHA and how to choose the right exfoliant.

AHAs vs. BHAs: Differences Based on Definition

AHAs and BHAs are both different forms of hydroxy acids. Both these hydroxy acids can be found in a variety of moisturizers, toners, cleansers, face masks, peels, and scrubs.

The primary purpose of AHAs and BHAs is to exfoliate your skin. These products vary according to their concentration and depending on this, a product might work to just remove the dead skin cells from the top-most surface of the skin, or it might even remove the entire outermost layer of your skin. This is why it is advisable that you use these products with caution and do not over-exfoliate your skin.

It is not possible to say which hydroxy acid is better than the other. Both AHAs and BHAs are both highly effective and work to provide deep exfoliation. The primary difference between these two hydroxy acids lies in their uses.

We discuss more about their similarities and differences in the sections ahead.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are a group of natural acids that can be found in foods such as citrus fruits, sugarcane, sour milk, tomato juice, apples, grapes, and many others.(1) AHAs are most commonly used for treating skin conditions such as acne, wrinkled skin, and dry skin. AHAs are widely found in exfoliation products.(2)

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are also another form of hydroxy acids similar to AHAs. They are also known to have multiple benefits and are used for treating various skin conditions. Salicylic acid is the most common form of BHA.(3)

AHAs vs. BHAs: Shared Benefits

The most significant similarity between both these hydroxy acids is that they are both skin exfoliants. They can each also provide the following shared benefits for your skin:

  • Help decrease inflammation, which is a significant marker of rosacea, acne, and many other skin conditions.
  • Helps reduce the appearance of surface wrinkles and large pores.
  • Helps in evening out your skin tone.
  • Helps to improve your overall skin texture.
  • Helps remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.
  • Helps unclog the pores to prevent acne.

AHAs vs. BHAs: Key Differences

AHAs are known as water-soluble acids that are naturally manufactured from sugary fruits. AHAs help in peeling away the top-most surface of your skin, allowing new and more evenly pigmented and textured skin cells to generate, come forth, and take the place of the old skin. After using AHAs, you will find your skin to be smoother to the touch than before.

On the other hand, BHAs are oil-soluble acids, and unlike AHAs, they are capable of penetrating deeper into your skin pores. This helps remove dead skin cells at a deeper level and also helps get rid of excess sebum.

AHAs vs. BHAs: Which Acid is Right for You?

You should choose AHAs if you are experiencing the following:

  • Enlarged pores on your skin
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Surface wrinkles and fine lines
  • Mild hyperpigmentation such as scars, melasma, and age spots

Although AHAs are generally marketed as being safe for all types of skin, you should still take care before using AHAs if you have sensitive and extremely dry skin. If you have such skin type, then you might need to eventually move up to using the product every day to avoid causing irritation to your skin.

On the other hand, you should use BHAs if your skin is damaged by the sun or if your skin is acne-prone. Products containing BHAs work by penetrating deep into your hair follicles to dry out any excess oils and also remove any dead skin cells. This unclogs your pores. Due to these effects, BHAs are best for use on oily or combination type of skin. Lower concentrations of BHAs may also help calm sensitive skin, and you will notice that using BHAs may even reduce redness of the skin caused by rosacea or other skin conditions.

Overall, you should try using AHAs if you want relief from dry skin or if you are looking for anti-aging benefits. On the other hand, for tackling acne, BHAs will be your best choice.

AHAs vs. BHAs: How to Use?

All AHA-containing products are known to provide a significant amount of exfoliation. Nevertheless, the uses and effects of AHAs are known to vary depending on the types of acids you are using. The AHA you have selected should contain a maximum concentration of 10 to 15 percent.(4)

When you first start to use AHAs, you should apple them every alternate day and allow your skin some time to become used to them. This also reduces the risk of any side effects, such as irritation.

Regardless of whichever AHA, you decide to choose, the strong exfoliating effects of AHA will cause your skin to become more sensitive to the sun. This is why you should remember to wear sunscreen every morning before leaving the house so that it prevents age spots, burns, and also to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

Let Us Look At How You Should Be Using Different Types of AHAs:

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is one of the most commonly used types of AHA, and it is made from sugar cane. Glycolic acid is known to provide significant exfoliation, and this makes it a perfect and all-around treatment for many skin conditions. Furthermore, due to its antimicrobial properties, glycolic acid is also known to help prevent breakouts of acne.(5)

Glycolic acid can be found in many daily skincare products as well as many face peels.

Lactic Acid

Another popular AHA is lactic acid. However, unlike the other AHAs that are manufactured from fruits, lactic acid is produced from lactose found in milk. Lactic acid is popular due to its significant exfoliation effects and its anti-aging properties.

Similar to glycolic acid, lactic acid can also be found in a wide variety of skincare products, including cream exfoliants, toners, serums, and face masks.

Citric Acid

As per its name, citric acid is manufactured from the extracts of citric fruits. The primary purpose of using citric acid is to use it for neutralizing your skin’s pH levels. Citric acid also helps in evening out any of the rough patches of skin that maybe there. Citric acid makes for a great toner or serum and should be used before applying a moisturizer. It also works well with sunscreen and provides the maximum protection from UV rays.

Tartaric Acid

This is one of the less common AHAs that are used. It is manufactured from grape extracts and is known to help provide relief from the signs of acne and sun damage.

Malic Acid

Malic acid can be considered as a form of AHA-BHA crossover, and it is manufactured from apple acids. As compared to other AHAs, malic acid is not as effective an exfoliant as a solo ingredient, though you will find that when combined with other acids, it becomes more active.(6)

This is why you will usually find malic acid in combination AHA products such as brightening pads and peels.

Let Us Look At How You Should Be Using Different Types of BHAs:

BHAs are primarily designed for everyday use, but when you first start using BHAs, you should ideally apply the product a couple of times during the week to allow your skin to get accustomed to the acids. Even though BHAs are not known to increase your skin sensitivity to the sun as compared to AHAs, you should nevertheless still ensure that you wear sunscreen every day. This also helps prevent any further damage to the skin from UV rays.

Salicylic Acid

This is the most commonly used BHA, and the concentrations of the product can range from between 0.5 to 5 percent, depending on what product you are using. Salicylic acid is famous as a treatment for acne, but it can also help prevent or alleviate redness and inflammation.(7)

Citric Acid

Even though citric acid is primarily classified as an AHA, there are formulations of citric acid that are classified as BHAs as well. Rather than helping even out the skin’s pH levels, these formulations of citric acid are used for clearing out dead skin cells from deep within your pores and for drying out excess sebum.


AHAs and BHAs are both known to have shared benefits, and you can obtain some exfoliation from each of these products. However, each of these ingredients can be used for accomplishing different beauty or skincare goals. So if you are looking for an anti-aging treatment, then suing an AHA will be best, but if you want to get rid of acne and calm down redness and inflammation on your skin, then you should opt for a BHA product.

If you want to use these products, but are unsure of which one you should choose, then you should discuss your options with your dermatologist.


  1. Paulaschoice.com. (2019). Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) for Skin: What They Are, How They Work | Paula’s Choice. [online] Available at: https://www.paulaschoice.com/expert-advice/skincare-advice/exfoliants/alpha-hydroxy-acids-skin-what-they-are-how-they-work.html [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
  2. Clark 3rd, C.P., 1996. Alpha hydroxy acids in skin care. Clinics in plastic surgery, 23(1), p.49.
  3. Dermstore Blog. (2019). Hydroxy Acids: What They Do and Which Ones Are Right for You. [online] Available at: https://www.dermstore.com/blog/hydroxy-acids-what-they-do-and-which-ones-are-right-for-you/ [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2019). Understanding Skin Care Product Ingredients | Cleveland Clinic. [online] Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10980-understanding-the-ingredients-in-skin-care-products [Accessed 1 Aug. 2019].
  5. Abels, C., Kaszuba, A., Michalak, I., Werdier, D., Knie, U. and Kaszuba, A., 2011. A 10% glycolic acid containing oil‐in‐water emulsion improves mild acne: a randomized double‐blind placebo‐controlled trial. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 10(3), pp.202-209.
  6. Smith, W.P., 1996. Comparative effectiveness of α‐hydroxy acids on skin properties. International journal of cosmetic science, 18(2), pp.75-83.
  7. Zheng, Y., Wan, M., Chen, H., Ye, C., Zhao, Y., Yi, J., Xia, Y. and Lai, W., 2013. Clinical evidence on the efficacy and safety of an antioxidant optimized 1.5% salicylic acid (SA) cream in the treatment of facial acne: an open, baseline‐controlled clinical study. Skin Research and Technology, 19(2), pp.125-130.
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 25, 2021

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