AHA vs. BHA: The Difference + 4 Products With AHA and BHA

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Exfoliation is an essential step in any skincare routine.

It is a process of removing dead skin cells and impurities from the surface of the skin.

This deep cleansing action will brighten and smooth your complexion while allowing the ingredients in your other skincare products to penetrate more deeply into the skin for maximum effectiveness. 

Two bottles of essential oil on a beige background.

On your skincare journey, you may have come across a plethora of exfoliants, including AHA and BHA. 

While they both offer exfoliating benefits and contribute to healthier-looking skin, there are distinct differences between the two. 

In this article, we will break down the differences between AHA vs. BHA! We’ll also talk about the various types of AHAs and BHAs, elaborate on their benefits, and discuss their suitability for different skincare concerns. 

With this, you can make the right choice for your skin and pick the right exfoliant for your specific needs! 

What Is AHA?

AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids are usually derived from sugar cane and other plant sources, which is why they’re often referred to as “fruit acids.” 

They are water-soluble, and they work by breaking down dirt, dead skin cells, oil, and other impurities in your skin, allowing them to be easily washed away. 

It is important to note that the extent of exfoliation an AHA product can deliver will depend on the type, concentration, and pH level of the particular AHA used in it. 

Types of AHAs

There are several types of AHAs. However, there are five forms of alpha hydroxy acids that are most commonly used in skincare products. 

Here are some of the most popular ones and what they are used for:

  • Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane. It’s one of the most commonly used AHAs in skincare products.

    Glycolic acid has a small molecular size, allowing it to penetrate deeply into the skin and provide a powerful exfoliating effect. Also, glycolic acid is known for treating acne and improving skin texture and tone.

    A 2011 research study showed that a 10% concentration of glycolic acid in an oil-in-water emulsion can improve mild acne. 
  • Lactic acid is extracted from milk, making it a gentler option than glycolic acid. Lactic acid has skin-lightening, antimicrobial, and hydration properties, making it a great option for treating hyperpigmentation.
  • Mandelic acid is a type of AHA derived from almonds. It is well-suited for those with sensitive skin due to its larger molecular size, which prevents it from penetrating too deeply into the skin, decreasing the risk of irritation.

    It can even skin tone, reduce age spots and freckles, and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

    Mandelic acid also regulates sebum production, making it a good choice for those with oily skin. 
  • Citric acid is an acid derived from citrus fruits. This AHA is best known for its ability to help brighten the skin and reduce the appearance of dark spots.
  • Malic acid is another fruit acid derived from apples. This AHA is a gentle exfoliant that brightens and smooths the skin.

    At higher concentrations, malic acid can penetrate deeper into the skin and stimulate new collagen formation, reducing signs of aging like sagging skin.

    Combined with vitamin C, regular use of malic acid can improve the appearance of melasma

Benefits of AHA

Using alpha hydroxy acids supports skin cell turnover and stimulates collagen production, both of which provide great benefits for the skin. 

Generally, AHA exfoliation helps

  • improve skin texture;
  • reduce the appearance of wrinkles;
  • shrink pores; and 
  • help users achieve brighter, smoother, and more youthful-looking skin.

Also, you may find AHAs in skin-peeling products that treat

  • scars,
  • acne,
  • melasma (brown or gray patches of skin),
  • hyperpigmentation (patches of darker skin),
  • roughness,
  • age spots, and 
  • seborrhea (rash with red and itchy spots and white scales).

How To Use AHAs

AHAs can be used for all skin types but if you have sensitive or extremely dry skin, use alpha hydroxy acids with caution. 

Here are some tips on how to use them safely and effectively:

  • Start slow. If you’re new to AHAs, it’s best to start with a low concentration and gradually work your way up. This will help your skin adjust to the exfoliating effects of AHAs and minimize the risk of irritation.
  • Follow instructions. Be sure to read the instructions on the product label carefully and follow them closely to get the most benefit from the product while minimizing the risk of side effects.
  • Use sunscreen. AHAs can increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, so it’s important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to prevent dark spots and protect your skin from other sun damage.
  • Avoid using retinoids and other exfoliants. When using AHAs, it is best not to use other physical or chemical peels to avoid over-exfoliation, which can damage the skin barrier.
  • Monitor your skin. Keep an eye on your skin’s reaction to the AHAs you use and adjust your usage accordingly.

    If you experience redness or irritation, reduce the frequency of your AHA use or opt for a product with a lower AHA concentration. Meanwhile, if you experience a burning sensation, stop using it immediately.

According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), products containing AHA are safe if they meet the following standards:

  • A 10% or less concentration
  • A pH level of 3.5 or greater
  • A label recommending daily sun protection with regular use or a label indicating that the formula defends the skin against increased sun sensitivity 

AHAs can be a great addition to your skincare routine, but it’s important to use them safely and in moderation.

Now that you know all about AHAs, it’s time to meet their cousins: BHAs. 

What Is BHA?

BHA stands for beta hydroxy acids, another type of chemical exfoliant commonly used in skincare. Unlike their cousin AHAs, which are water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble. 

This means they can penetrate deeper into your skin and dissolve oil and dead skin cell buildup, so they can effectively unclog pores and reduce the appearance of blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of acne.

With BHAs, less is more. Higher concentrations of BHAs can irritate the skin and worsen any issues you’re trying to treat. 

So these acids are beneficial in lower concentrations, which is why it’s best to go for products with BHAs at the bottom of their ingredient list. 

Types of BHAs

Like  AHAs, there are several kinds of BHAs. The most commonly used beta hydroxy acids in skincare and cosmetic products include the following:

  • Salicylic acid is the most widely used BHA, known for its ability to cleanse the skin, penetrate deep into the pores, and exfoliate the skin from within while treating acne and easing breakouts.

    This acid also has antibacterial properties. In addition to unclogging pores and controlling oil production, salicylic acid is known for targeting acne-causing bacteria. 

    Additionally, salicylic acid can be used in a wide range of skincare and hair care products for treating skin conditions like dandruff, psoriasis, and warts. 

    There’s also a natural form of salicylic acid called salicin. While it also provides gentle exfoliation, it also has anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties.
  • Betaine salicylate is the gentler form of salicylic acid, and it’s more popularly used in Korean skincare products. It is less likely to cause irritation, making it a better option for sensitive skin.
  • Tropic acid is the least common BHA, derived from the fruit of the Indian cucumber tree. Tropic acid has anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s often used to address redness and irritation.

Benefits of Using BHAs

A beautiful young woman touching her face in a bathroom, smiling, her hair wrapped in a towel

BHAs are great for regulating sebum and calming your skin because they penetrate deep into your pores to remove excess oils and dead skin.

While BHAs are most suitable for combination or oily skin types, they can be used in lower concentrations to suit sensitive skin.

Beyond exfoliation, BHAs can improve

  • acne,
  • blackheads,
  • whiteheads,
  • sun damage, and
  • rosacea-related redness.

How To Use BHAs

If you are considering using a beta hydroxy acid exfoliant (BHA-containing products), here are some tips to help you get maximum results:

  • Always start with a low concentration. BHAs are powerful exfoliants, so start with a low concentration and gradually work your way up.

    Also, do not use BHAs every day. Instead, apply once or twice a week at first then increase usage gradually. 

    This will help you determine if your skin can handle the exfoliating effects of BHAs. 

    If you have other skin conditions like rosacea, use BHAs in the lowest concentration and less frequently. 
  • Use sunscreen. BHAs make your skin more sensitive to the sun. As such, it’s important to use sunscreen with your BHA product.
  • Don’t over-exfoliate. Over-exfoliating can damage the skin’s natural barrier and lead to irritation and dryness.
  • Use as directed. Always follow the product’s usage instructions to ensure you get the best results without causing any harm to your skin.
  • Be patient. BHAs penetrate deep into the pores, so it can take some time to see results. Be patient and consistent with your use of BHA exfoliants.
  • Check your skin’s reaction. If a product leaves your skin red, itchy, or irritated, stop using it right away. It may not be the right exfoliant for you. 

For best results, use a BHA product in conjunction with other skincare products that help you achieve your skin goals. 

What Is the Difference Between BHAs and AHAs?

An infographic featuring AHA vs BHA with their different description and differences

The major difference between BHAs and AHAs is how they work and which skin types they suit. 

FeaturesAHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid)
Origin Derived from natural sources like fruits, milk, and sugar caneSynthesized from willow bark and sweet birch extracts
pH level3.5 to 4.53.0 to 4.0
SolubilityWater-soluble Oil-soluble
Level of exfoliationMild exfoliationDeeper exfoliation; gets deep into the pores 
Targeted concernsSurface-level concerns like dullness, fine lines, and uneven textureComplex or severe issues like acne, clogged pores, and excess oil
Effect on pores Helps exfoliate the surface of the skin but not the poresCleans out pores, reduces buildup that causes pore congestion 
Oil control Not as effective in reducing oilinessMore effective at reducing oiliness and controlling sebum production
Anti-inflammatoryLess effective at targeting inflammation More effective at targeting inflammation, making it suitable for oily and acne-prone skin
Suitability for sensitive skinBetter for sensitive and dry skin typesDoes not suit sensitive skin as it can be more drying and potentially more irritating

AHA works best on the skin’s surface, making it a great choice for improving texture and addressing hyperpigmentation.

BHA, on the other hand, is better for cleansing the pores and targeting acne and excess oil.

As such, BHA works better for those with oily, combination, or acne-prone skin. Meanwhile, if you have dry and sensitive skin, then AHA is a more suitable option. 

It’s also important to note that while both acids effectively exfoliate the skin, they work differently and cater to different skin concerns. 

We’ll elaborate on this below. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acids vs. Beta Hydroxy Acids: Their Differences in Addressing Various Skin Concerns

So which is better: AHA or BHA? 

The answer depends entirely on your skin type and skin issues.

To help you find out which one is right for you, let’s take a closer look at the main differences between BHA vs. AHA exfoliants in terms of addressing various skin concerns. 

AHA vs. BHA for Excess Oil

If your main skin concern is excess oiliness, you may want to opt for a BHA product instead of an AHA one. 

While AHAs may help improve the appearance of oily skin by reducing shine, they cannot directly help regulate oil production. 

On the other hand, BHAs — salicylic acid, in particular — can help effectively control the production of excess sebum. This means it won’t just reduce shine, but it’ll also help stop oiliness at the source. 

Winner: BHA

AHA vs. BHA for Dullness and Uneven Texture

The common cause of skin dullness is improper or insufficient exfoliation. To make your skin brighter, dead skin cells would need to be thoroughly removed to allow new, glowing cells to come forward.

While BHA refines the skin’s texture by minimizing breakouts, these acids are less effective in exfoliating the skin’s surface. 

Meanwhile, AHAs address skin dullness by gently removing dead skin cells from the surface layer of the skin, improving the skin’s texture and fading discoloration.

Winner: AHA

AHA vs. BHA for Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Both AHAs and BHAs can stimulate collagen production. Collagen provides structure and elasticity to the skin, which is essential for improving the skin’s firmness to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

However, AHAs may be more potent than BHAs when it comes to targeting this skin concern, making it beneficial for those with more visible fine lines. 

On the flip side, BHAs may be less likely to cause irritation, which makes it ideal for those with sensitive skin.

So the choice between them will ultimately depend on your skin’s unique needs.

Winner: Tie

AHA vs. BHA for Acne and Clogged Pores 

AHAs prevent the buildup of debris that can contribute to acne formation. However, these acids do not target the root cause of acne. 

On the contrary, BHAs, commonly in the form of salicylic acid, penetrate deep into the pores, breaking down excess oil, dirt, and dead skin cells that can contribute to acne formation.

By unclogging the pores and exfoliating the skin’s surface, BHAs also prevent the formation of blackheads and whiteheads.

Additionally, their anti-inflammatory properties calm the redness and reduce swelling associated with acne, leading to a visible reduction in active acne lesions.

Winner: BHA

AHA vs. BHA for Hyperpigmentation

While BHAs help lighten acne-related dark spots, they do not necessarily address hyperpigmentation. 

Alternatively, AHAs accelerate the shedding of dead skin cells.

This process helps fade hyperpigmented areas by promoting the turnover of skin cells and reducing the buildup of excess melanin (the pigment responsible for dark spots), especially for dark areas caused by sun exposure.

Additionally, AHAs enhance the penetration of other skincare ingredients, such as brightening agents or cleansers, which can further aid in fading hyperpigmentation.

Winner: AHA

AHA Exfoliating Serums You Should Try Today

1
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

Enjoy smoother and more radiant skin with this serum! 

Primary Benefits: Brightens and smoothes the skin; unclogs pores; offers incredible exfoliation without drying the skin

Features:

  • Contains glycolic, tartaric, and lactic acids
  • Has raspberry fruit extract for antioxidants
  • Cactus extract to calm redness and sensitivity

The Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum is designed to help improve your skin’s texture and appearance.

 

This night serum delivers precise, effective chemical exfoliation with a powerful blend of AHAs that work together to gently dissolve dead skin cells and unclog pores, leaving your skin even, refined, and ultra-smooth.  

In addition to its exfoliating properties, this serum is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients that soothe and protect your skin while you sleep.

2
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

A powerful peeling solution that removes dead skin cells and unclogs pores, giving you a smooth, healthy-looking complexion.

Primary Benefits: Exfoliates the top layers of skin; minimizes blemishes; shrinks the appearance of pores; improves fine lines and wrinkles; clears pore congestion; and fades dark spots

Features:

  • Infused with pepperberry to reduce irritation
  • Includes hyaluronic acid for hydration
  • Enriched with vitamin B5 and black carrot to nourish and protect

Considered Drunk Elephants' Babyfacial dupe, The Ordinary Peeling Solution will make your skin baby smooth for ten times less than the leading brand's price!

 

Its high concentration of AHAs exfoliates the skin’s surface, while the 2% BHA penetrates deeper into the pores to dissolve impurities.

This potent blend of acids is complemented by vitamin B5, which soothes and hydrates the skin, leaving it soft and supple.

Should you find the peeling solution a bit too harsh, you can opt for a milder peeling alternative — The Ordinary Lactic Acid

BHA Products You Can Add to Your Skincare Routine

1
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

A global bestseller and award-winning BHA that breaks down impurities, giving you a visible glow after just one use!

Primary Benefits: Gentle and non-abrasive; unclogs and tightens pores; exfoliates dead skin cells; smooths wrinkles; brightens and evens out skin tone

Features:

  • 2% salicylic acid
  • Green tea extract to calm redness and sensitivity
  • With methylpropanediol for skin hydration
  • Best for normal, dry, combination, and oily skin types 

Gentle enough for everyday use, the Paula's Choice's Skin Perfecting Serum is a leave-on exfoliant that suits all skin types, including sensitive and acne-prone skin.

 

You can never go wrong with a gentle exfoliator that is proven and tested to deliver results overnight! 

In addition to clearing your pores, the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Exfoliant calms irritations and hydrates your skin. It also combats redness, wrinkles, and signs of aging. 

2
The INKEY List Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Serum

We love Inkey's combination of BHA and hyaluronic acid that targets pesky acne, unclogs pores, reduces blackheads, and removes excess oil without drying the skin. 

Primary Benefits:  Calms breakout-prone skin; hydrates skin to prevent dryness; fights acne-causing bacteria; tightens pores

Features:

  • Contains 2% salicylic acid 
  • 1% hyaluronic Acid 
  • Certified vegan and cruelty-free
  • Anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties

The INKEY List Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Serum certainly delivers on its promise to improve the overall appearance of the skin.

The INKEY BHA Serum contains salicylic acid, which penetrates deep into the pores and exfoliates the skin from within. Plus, it is lightweight and non-greasy. 

Its affordable price point and effective formula make it a standout product in the crowded skincare market.

Can I Use AHA and BHA Together?

Yes, it is possible to use AHA and BHA together in your skincare routine. However, it is important to proceed with caution and consider a few factors before combining these acids.

Here are some points to keep in mind when using them together:

  • Start by introducing one acid into your routine and allow your skin to adjust before adding the other. Begin with lower concentrations, and gradually increase the frequency and strength as tolerated.
  • Choose products with both AHA and BHA as these are usually already formulated with the right concentrations of both acids.
  • Use AHA in the morning and BHA in the evening or alternate days of the week for each acid to prevent adverse reactions.
  • Follow up both AHA and BHA products with moisturizer to hydrate your skin and apply broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day.
  • Listen to your skin. Pay attention to how your skin responds to the combination of AHA and BHA. If you experience any excessive dryness, irritation, or redness, adjust the frequency of use or concentration of the acids. 

    If these symptoms persist, seek guidance from a skincare professional.

Remember, everyone’s skin is unique, so what works for others may not work the same way for you. It’s important to listen to your skin’s needs and tailor your routine accordingly.

AHA vs. BHA: The Choice Is Up to You

Among the many skincare ingredients you should have in your arsenal are AHAs and BHAs, two of the most popular types of exfoliants you can add to your regimen. These acids offer distinct properties that can benefit your skin. 

And now that you’ve gained a deeper knowledge of the differences between BHAs and AHAs, you can choose the right exfoliator to target your specific skincare issues and achieve your desired results.

Two serum bottles in different sizes underwater

This way, you can choose between an AHA or BHA exfoliant wisely and use the most ideal product that helps you achieve healthy, glowing skin!  

Explore More Skincare Products for Clearer, Smoother, and Healthier-Looking Skin!

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Authors

  • Stephanie Martin

    Stephanie Martin blends her beauty industry background with expertise in communications to lead in the fashion and beauty world. As a fashion and beauty editor, she is known for engaging and informative articles. Her lifelong passion for fashion, makeup, and hair shines through her work, earning her widespread respect among readers and clients. Stephanie's style, a mix of classic and contemporary, makes her a dynamic and influential figure in the industry, inspiring others with her knowledgeable and approachable insights.

  • Emily Zink

    With ten years in healthcare, Emily Zink bridges adult and pediatric medicine with cosmetic dermatology. A certified Family Nurse Practitioner, she's an expert in treatments like Botox, Dysport, and Sculptra, also diagnosing skincare concerns and offering wellness counseling. Specializing in neuromodulators and dermal fillers, Emily leads injections at her practice.

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