What to Know, According to Dermatologists

Jennifer E. Engen

When it comes to building a balanced and healthy skincare routine, acids are pretty much non-negotiable. In fact, incorporating active acids into your regimen—many of which fall into three categories: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs)—means your skin will be dewy, glowing, clear, and radiant.

Acids, though they may sound scary, are really pretty user-friendly when used correctly. They help to gently exfoliate the skin, getting rid of dry, dead skin and while also clearing the pores of impurities.

AHAs and BHAs aren’t created equal but truthfully, one isn’t necessarily preferred over another—they simply do different things and address different skin concerns, so if you’re choosing an acid to add to your routine, the first step is figuring out which one is best for you and your skin type.

BHAs, for instance, are looked at as oil-fighting, acne-busting acids that can be used on pretty much any skin type. (Salicylic acid is probably the most popular acid in this category.) Before using a BHA, it’s important to understand what it is, what it does, and why you’re even putting it on your face in the first place.

We tapped a board-certified dermatologist and a cosmetic chemist to get the scoop on BHAs and everything you need to know before your first use. Read ahead to find out more.

What are BHAs?

As mentioned earlier, BHA is short for betahydroxy acid.

“BHAs are a group of naturally-derived acids that help chemically exfoliate the skin,” says Dr. Tiffany Jow Libby, MD. Don’t let the chemical exfoliation part scare you. It simply means that these acids use a chemical compound to gently slough away dead skin, clear pores, and rid skin of dirt and grime. If used correctly, BHAs shouldn’t cause any irritation or inflammation.

BHAs are also oil-soluble, which means they can dive deep into pores and help to rid the skin of dirt, debris and bacteria. Hence, why these are typically go-tos for clearing acne and busting breakouts. Libby says they’re great for dissolving away excess sebum and unclogging pores, both of which help to prevent and treat acne, especially the comedonal type aka whiteheads and blackheads.

“BHAs also help improve skin texture, smoothing it and treating unwanted pigmentation and dark spots,” Dr. Libby adds.

What types of BHAs exist?

The most commonly used BHA in skincare is salicylic acid, which is derived from willow bark (more on that ahead). If you know anything about salicylic acid, it’s basically a superhero when it comes to acne and blemish-prone skin, and the fact that it’s fat-soluble makes it ideal for oily and acneic skin types since it can penetrate deeper into the surface and help balance out sebum levels in the skin.

“Other BHA’s include beta hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid, and trethocanic acid,” Dr. Libby says. Nine times out of ten, you’ll find salicylic acid in over-the-counter skincare products.

Who should use BHAs?

As noted above, BHAs are great for oily and acne-prone skin types. Dr. Libby says it’s also her go-to chemical exfoliating agent for darker skin types or patients with skin of color. But the truth is, anyone can use a BHA.

Cosmetic chemist, Kelly Dobos, notes that sticking to a formula with an active ingredient at 2% or less is best, no matter your skin type, to keep skin peeling and irritation at a minimum. If you’re trying out a BHA for the first time, read the directions on the product you’re using and follow them carefully. If possible, it’s also never a bad idea to consult your dermatologist before trying a new skincare product.

How are BHAs different from AHAs?

“The main difference between beta hydroxy acids and alpha hydroxy acids is that BHAs are oil-or lipid-soluble,” Dr. Libby says. AHAs are derived from sugar cane and other plants and are ideal for sloughing away dead skin, whereas BHAs are primarily used to get rid of dirt, debris, and excess oils.

When it comes to choosing a BHA or an AHA, it really comes down to what your skin needs. “One isn’t necessarily better than the other, they just work differently,” Dobos says.

The short and easy decision maker is what skin type and skin concerns you’re looking to address. If you have dry or normal skin and you’re looking to erase fine lines and wrinkles, an AHA is your best bet. For zits, cystic acne, or excess sebum levels, reach for a BHA.

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How often can I use BHAs?

When it comes to BHAs (or AHAs for that matter), less is more. Before applying any exfoliating acid to your skin, read the directions on the product you’re using. This will let you know how often and how much should be applied to your skin and when it’s best to do so.

BHAs can be a wonder-worker on an acne-prone complexion, but overusing them can wreak havoc on your skin. It’s also important to know that not all skin is created equal, so for one person, applying a BHA formula once a day could just the right amount, while others could probably tolerate using it twice a day.

To avoid any irritation, start with applying a BHA formula once every other day and work your way up from there. In this case, slow and steady wins the race.

Are there any ingredients I should avoid using with BHAs?

“If you’re using BHAs, avoid using an additional product in your same skincare routine with exfoliating acids,” Dr. Libby warns. “You don’t want to over-exfoliate.” Over-exfoliation can weaken the skin barrier and also lead to irritation.

You should avoid combining BHAs with retinol, AHAs, and other active ingredients. If you want to find a routine that allows you to include all of the above, consult with a dermatologist for a pro-approved routine that will allow your skin to flourish.

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