If you’ve done any skincare shopping recently, you’ve probably heard the terms AHA and BHA tossed around. If not, you’ve definitely heard of chemical peels, or at least seen the Sex And The City episode where Samantha has one done, and Carrie compares her skin to beef carpaccio. These days, chemical exfoliation is no longer limited to a doctors office with a week long recovery attached, but the onslaught of options can be hard to navigate, so here’s a breakdown of what you need to know:

What is chemical exfoliation?

In contrast to physical exfoliation (anything with beads or scrubs that you smoosh on your face, not recommended by most dermatologists or estheticians these days), chemical exfoliants use, you guessed it, chemicals, to get rid of all the dead, not so pretty layers of skin and help it turn over faster. The two main types: AHA’s, and BHA’s.

What are AHA’s?

AHA is short for Alpha Hydroxy Acid. If you imagine the layers of your skin are held together by glue, AHA’s work by breaking down the “glue” between the layers of dead skin and the healthier, brighter skin, eventually sloughing it off to reveal fresher skin underneath.

What are the different types of AHA’s?

You typically find AHA’s in two forms: Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid (does this feel like High school science class yet? It’s kind of stressing me out). Glycolic Acid is the most effective form and yields the strongest results as the molecular structure is smaller than Lactic Acid, so it can penetrate the cells better, but this also means it can be more irritating.

By contrast, the larger molecules in Lactic Acid make it a gentler option, so it’s ideal for more sensitive skin types. It’s also great at addressing redness issues, like rosacea.

Glycolic and Lactic are both natural humectants, which essentially means they’re more hydrating than other acids (read: great for dry skin).

What do AHA’s treat?

Dark spots and sun damage, flaky or dull skin, aging. Basically everything you need out of a skin product.

When in my routine do I apply AHA’s?

Acids, like AHA’s, work best on clean, bare skin with minimal dead cell build-up, so apply them after cleansing and toning, but before serums or moisturizing.

How often should I use AHA’s?

If you know you’re sensitive, start with three times a week, then slowly work yourself to either every other night or nightly. If your skin is more tolerant, start by using it every other night, then work your way up to nightly.

Anything else I need to know about AHA’s?

You absolutely, 100% have to wear sunscreen when you use any form of AHA’s. They make you photosensitive, which means you’ll be at higher risk for sun damage. Use your AHA’s at night, and slather on your sunscreen the next day. You should be using sunscreen every day anyway, but, you know, just wanted to remind you.

What are the best AHA’s to buy?

Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum: This lightweight gel is so low key that it’s easy to feel like it’s not working, so if you’re someone that likes their acids to burn, look elsewhere. After some consistent usage, though, sometimes as little as two weeks, you’ll notice calmed breakouts, smoother skin texture, and far less pigmentation. Further research uncovered 1% Salicylic Acid in the formula (a BHA, but more on that later!) which could be why it works so well to treat acne. Users report unnatural glowniess as a (welcomed) side effect.

Skyn Iceland’s Nordic Peel: If you suffer from cystic or hormonal acne, these pads will change your world. The product seems innocuous enough save for a minty, tingling sensation after using them, but give it one week, and you’ll be breakout free with noticeably smaller pores and less pigmentation. It’s a Lactic Acid, a.k.a. a great option for you sensitive types.

So, what are BHA’s?

BHA, or Beta Hydroxy Acid, works best on oily and acne prone skin because it’s oil soluble, which means it actively penetrates pores to degunk things like blackheads, whiteheads, and other acne, instead of AHA’s just loosening the “glue” that holds onto the top layer of dead skin cells. Imagine it like removing the cement between bricks, where your healthy skin is the bricks, and the BHA comes in and clears out the cement, which in this comparison is anything that is clogging up your pores.

Unlike AHA’s, BHA’s are not humectants, so they can make you super dry, which is why they typically aren’t recommended for dry or sensitive skin.

What are the different types of BHA’s?

The most prevalent BHA is Salicylic Acid, a derivative of aspirin, which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, making it ideal to treat acne and inflammation. Products like dandruff shampoo also use Salicylic Acid as an ingredient to calm irritation and help get rid of the flaking dead skin.

What do BHA’s treat?

All the same stuff as AHA’s, but because BHA’s also clean out your pores, they’re great to use before serums or other concentrated products since your skin will be primed to absorb anything you put on top of it.

When in my routine do I apply BHA’s?

Same as AHA’s: After cleanser or toner, before serum or moisturizer.

How often should I use BHA’s?

Since BHA’s are notorious for drying out skin, almost everyone should start with three days a week and work their skin up slowly to make sure they can tolerate it.

Anything else I need to know about BHA’s?

There’s debate over whether or not BHA’s make you photosensitive, but as I mentioned before, you should be wearing sunscreen every day regardless of whether or not you use AHA’s or BHA’s, so it’s a non-issue. 🙂

What are the best BHA’s to buy?

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant: If you’ve heard about this from a devoted user, chances are you think Paula’s Choice is some nutty cult based on how they rave about this product being a holy grail. It brightens and evens skin tone, like most acids, but the real magic is how it improves skin texture. Lines? Scars? General roughness? Gone, gone, and gone.

Shani Darden’s Retinol Reform: On the surface, this looks like an AHA because it has lactic acid, but it works like a BHA to clean out your pores and leave you with the clearest, brightest complexion of your life. Your pores look smaller, your skin is shiny and wrinkle-free; it’s borderline miraculous in most cases. It’s also slightly drying like a BHA, so buyer beware! If you’re dry, moisturizer is a must.


Greyson Tarantino