AHA vs BHA: How to Choose According to Your Skin Needs

By PMUHub Editorial Team| Last updated on April 1, 2024

While both types of acids offer benefits for the skin, they have slightly different mechanisms of action and are better suited for different skin types and concerns. Let’s discuss AHA vs BHA characteristics.

AHA vs BHA

Image source: Instagram @amour.beaute_

There are plenty of options when it comes to picking the right type of acid for your customized chemical peeling treatment. But most of them belong to one of two groups – either AHAs or BHAs.

Each group has specific characteristics which make it more suitable for certain skin types and conditions. This is why a lot of people are left wondering which option is better for them – AHA vs BHA.

So, let’s explain the difference between AHA and BHA, as well as which exfoliant should be used for targeting which issues.

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What Is the Difference Between AHA and BHA?

The main difference is in how deep the peeling agents penetrate the skin and how much the skin peels afterward. 

What Does AHA Do for Skin?

AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid, which is a group of water-soluble acids derived from fruits, milk, and sugar cane. Common AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid.

AHAs are known for their moisturizing properties, so they’re most often used for:

  • Dullness and lack of radiance
  • Making the skin brighter and more glowy
  • Dryness and dehydration
  • Improving skin texture and tone
  • Stimulating collagen production in the skin, which can reduce signs of aging
  • Increasing the absorption of skincare products, making them more effective

You can read more about AHA peels here.


Image source: Instagram @loveli.esthetics

What Does BHA Do for Your Skin?

The most common beta-hydroxy acid is salicylic acid, which is derived from willow bark. Unlike AHAs, BHA is oil-soluble, making it effective for:

  • Penetrating deep into the pores and dissolving excess oil and debris
  • Reducing redness and inflammation associated with acne (due to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties)
  • Removing impurities from the skin
  • Unclogging pores and reducing chances of future breakouts
  • Making pores visibly smaller

You can read more about BHA peels here.


Image source: Instagram @peachyskinandbody

So, Can AHA and BHA Be Used Together?

While they work in different ways, these acids can be combined for maximum benefits.

Combining AHAs and BHAs can provide a synergistic effect in improving the overall texture and appearance of the skin. AHAs work on the surface of the skin to exfoliate and promote cell turnover while BHAs penetrate deeper into the pores and clean them out from within.

So, by using both types of acids, you can target multiple skin concerns at once. The combined properties are mostly utilized for an at-home version of this treatment – but more on that later.

When to Use AHA Vs BHA

When it comes to alpha-hydroxy acids vs beta-hydroxy acid, both types of exfoliants can be effective in treating many different skin conditions. But they work in different ways and may be better suited to some skin types and specific issues.

So, let’s try to answer when should you use AHA vs BHA exfoliant, according to skin types and certain skin conditions.

AHA vs BHA for Dry Skin

When it comes to choosing which is better for dry skin AHA or BHA, the answer is pretty simple.

AHAs work on the surface of the skin to remove dead skin cells and improve hydration. Since they are water-soluble, AHAs are able to help plump up the skin without drying it out further (which can sometimes happen with BHA).

AHA vs BHA for Oily Skin

BHA penetrates deeper into the skin to unclog pores and exfoliate inside the walls of pores. AHAs, on the other hand, work more so from the surface.

Besides, BHA is generally better at controlling oil production and preventing breakouts. So it’s a clear choice for oily and acne-prone skin types.

BHA vs AHA for Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin is easily irritated, especially when higher acid concentrations are used. So there are pros and cons of both types of acids to be considered when answering Is BHA or AHA better for sensitive skin?

While AHAs are generally safe for most skin types, they can cause irritation and sensitivity if used in high concentrations or if the skin is not used to exfoliation.

BHA is gentle enough for sensitive skin, it can be used even on skin that’s prone to redness or rosacea – however, as we already mentioned, it can lead to some additional dryness.

AHA vs BHA for Fine Lines and Wrinkles

In general, AHAs are considered a better option when it comes to treating fine lines and wrinkles because they have a more direct effect on collagen production, which improves skin elasticity and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

And while BHAs also work similarly, they do not have the same collagen-stimulating properties as AHAs.

However, this isn’t to say BHAs aren’t helpful – they can be, especially if you have oily or acne-prone skin. By keeping the pores clear and reducing inflammation, BHAs can help to prevent the formation of new fine lines and wrinkles.


Image source: Instagram @cynfulbeautyandskin

AHA vs BHA for Discoloration and Sun Damage

AHAs reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation, or dark spots, by increasing the rate at which the skin sheds pigmented cells and replaces them with new, evenly pigmented cells.

BHA, on the other hand, is more often used to treat dark spots that remained after an acne breakout, since it has acne-fighting properties as well.

In general, AHAs are better for treating surface-level discoloration and hyperpigmentation, while BHAs are better for treating deeper discoloration, such as that caused by sun damage.

You can read more about chemical peels’ effect on hyperpigmentation here.

AHA vs BHA for Acne

When it comes to treating acne, salicylic acid is the clear winner. Due to its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and the ability to deeply penetrate pores, it kills acne-causing bacteria by dissolving the oils that the bacteria feed off of.

This way, not only does BHA reduce existing acne but also prevents new acne, blackheads, and whiteheads from forming in the future.


Image source: Instagram @tealtigeraesthetics

AHA vs BHA for Acne Scars

Both chemical peels stimulate collagen production, a protein that helps to support the structure of the skin. So by promoting its production, AHAs and BHAs can help to plump and smooth out acne scars over time.

In general, BHAs are often recommended for treating acne scars, particularly for those caused by clogged pores and excess oil production. It can help reduce inflammation, which can help to minimize the redness and swelling associated with acne scars.

However, AHAs can also be effective in reducing the appearance of surface-level acne scars and improving overall skin texture and tone. The best option for you may depend on the specific type and severity of your acne scars, as well as your individual skin type and sensitivity.

You can read more about how chemical peels can help treat acne scars here.

AHA vs BHA for Whiteheads and Blackheads

When it comes to treating whiteheads and blackheads, pretty much any chemical peel will do. Since they remove dirt and debris from the skin’s surface, it lowers the chances of oils clogging up pores.

But to answer the question of Is AHA or BHA better for blackheadsthe answer would have to be BHA, since it also has the ability to dissolve excess sebum, alongside removing the layer of dead skin cells that have accumulated on the surface.

AHA vs BHA for Pores, Tone and Texture

AHAs are praised for their ability to improve complexion and even put the tone. But when it comes to answering Is AHA or BHA better for texture? BHA is a winner.

BHA unclogs pores from the inside, effectively reducing the appearance of enlarged pores. Plus, it can also help control oil production and prevent future blemishes from appearing on the skin, which can contribute to the look of bigger pores.


Image source: Instagram @skinmd_clinic

AHA vs BHA for KP (Keratosis Pilaris)

Keratosis pilaris (KP) is a common skin condition characterized by small, red, white, or skin-colored raised bumps on the skin. While chemical peels can’t get rid of KP, they can help improve the texture of the affected skin.

Glycolic acid and salicylic acid peels are commonly used for KP.

Both these peels help to exfoliate the skin, removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores, which can improve the appearance of KP. But AHA is generally a better choice when it comes to reducing the appearance of rough, bumpy skin.

However, they may not be suitable for everyone. So, before undergoing a chemical peel for KP, consult with a dermatologist who can evaluate your skin and determine the most appropriate treatment options for you.

AHA vs BHA for Body

Both AHA and BHA can be used on body skin, in the same way that they can be used on the face. But in this instance, you need to look at which specific problem you’re looking to resolve.

For body acne, BHA is more suitable. It can penetrate thicker skin easily, effectively treating areas that can be otherwise challenging to treat.

For rough or dry skin, opt out for glycolic acid peel. This alpha hydroxy acid can improve the texture and smoothness of the skin, as well as reduce the appearance of rough or dry patches.

AHA vs BHA for Scalp

Both acids can be used on the scalp as well.

BHA can help alleviate dandruff, which is essentially a buildup of dry, flaky skin. Unclogging the hair follicles, it successfully reduces the buildup of sebum, which can contribute to dandruff or flakiness.

BHA can also help with an overly oily scalp, as it can control excess oil production. An added bonus of using BHA on the scalp is that it also reduces inflammation which can contribute to treating hair loss!

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a dry scalp, lactic acid can be very beneficial in promoting hydration, while also helping reduce the buildup of dead skin cells.

NOTE

It’s important to note that AHA and BHA should not be used too frequently on the scalp as they can be drying and potentially irritating. It’s best to use these ingredients in moderation and to consult a dermatologist or trichologist for personalized recommendations.

AHA vs BHA Peels’ Limitations

As we’ve already mentioned, there are some differences between an alpha vs beta hydroxy acid peel. An AHA or BHA peel may not be suitable for your specific concern. So, to recap:

Alpha hydroxy acid peel may not be suitable for:

  • Very sensitive skin
  • Skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis
  • People that have an active case of dermatitis or rash – or have broken skin or sunburn
  • People that have active acne or are taking prescription medications for it

Beta hydroxy acid peel may not be suitable for:

  • People allergic to salicylates (this includes aspirin)
  • People who are using isotretinoin (Accutane) or have been on it in the past 6 months
  • People that have active dermatitis, rash, broken skin, sunburn, or irritation in the area they’re looking to treat
  • Individuals with a history of keloid scarring

So, before booking a procedure, talk to a licensed skincare professional or dermatologist to determine which type of peel is a safe and appropriate treatment option for your specific skin type and concerns.

AHA vs BHA Peels’ Safety

Overall, both of these chemical peels are considered safe, as long as they’re used properly – which is why they should be performed by a licensed skincare professional or dermatologist.

But you should know that both peels come with some side effects and risks that exponentially increase with the intensity of the treatment. These risks and side effects include:

  • Dryness and tightness
  • Skin irritation, redness, and inflammation (most likely to occur in people with sensitive skin)
  • Sun sensitivity
  • Temporary skin discoloration, particularly in people with darker skin tones
  • Allergic reaction, which can cause itching, swelling, and rash
  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Blisters
  • Dermatitis (eczema) flare-up

AHA vs BHA Peels’ Safety
Image source: Instagram @sjraesthetics

Are AHA and BHA Safe During Pregnancy?

One of the most often asked questions when it comes to any beauty treatment that relies on chemicals is if it’s safe to use during pregnancy. But since chemical peels can vastly differ depending on the peeling agent of choice, answering with just a yes or a no is impossible.

So let’s see which types of peels can be used safely, and which should be avoided until breastfeeding is over.

Are BHAs Safe?

Salicylic acid is the most commonly used BHA, and seeing as it’s generally used for deeper penetration if a higher concentration is used, BHA can be absorbed into the bloodstream and potentially harm the fetus.

So, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid getting this peel until after you’re done breastfeeding.

Are AHAs Safe?

When it comes to AHAs, glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids are generally considered safe for use during pregnancy, as long as they’re used in low concentrations (10% or less).

However, it’s important to note that some doctors recommend avoiding chemical peels altogether during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The best course of action would be to check with your OB/GYN first.

You can read more about which chemical peels are safe to get during pregnancy here.

AHA Vs BHA – Which Is Better for At-Home Use?

When it comes to chemical peeling treatments done at home, it’s safe to do by yourself as long as you get products that are formulated in a way that is safe to be used by non-professionals.

Using professional-grade chemicals by yourself can be really dangerous and cause serious harm to your skin.

So, here are our AHA/BHA products recommendation for chemical peel beginners:

If you’re using products that contain these acids separately, you need to be careful about how they’ll interact, as the formulation is probably different so you need to be careful not to over-exfoliate the skin. This means don’t layer the acids on top of each other if the product is meant to be used on its own!

So the question of Should I use AHA or BHA should better be rephrased to Which should I use AHA or BHA first?

Should I Use AHA or BHA First?

As a general rule, you should use BHA first, followed by AHA.

Here’s an explanation: by using BHA first, you can clear out any excess oil and debris from the pores, which allows the AHA to penetrate deeper and work more effectively. However, there may be some situations where using AHA before BHA could be more beneficial.

For example, if you’re using a low-pH glycolic acid and a high-pH salicylic acid, you may want to use the glycolic acid first to lower the skin’s pH and allow the salicylic acid to penetrate deeper. Ultimately, the order of application will depend on your skin type, concerns, and the specific products you’re using.

The safest option would be to use them on alternating days or in different products to avoid overloading your skin with acids. Start off slowly and in moderation. Otherwise, you could damage the skin’s natural barrier and endanger the skin’s health.

Alpha vs Beta Hydroxy Acid – Main Takeaways

It’s very difficult to answer the question of Is BHA or AHA better, seeing as each acid group has different properties, and what may work for some might not necessarily work for others.

But to sum up – AHAs are water-soluble acids that are best suited for normal to dry skin, while BHAs are oil-soluble acids that are better for oily or acne-prone skin. Both provide excellent exfoliation benefits when used correctly and at the appropriate concentration.

They can be combined to maximize benefits, but it’s important to use them correctly and in moderation. By using both types of acids, you can target multiple skin concerns at once and achieve a brighter, smoother, and more hydrated complexion.

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