BHA vs AHA Exfoliants: What Are Their Differences?

Feature | Beautiful woman touching her skin | BHA vs AHA Exfoliants

BHA vs AHA—find out which is a better exfoliant for your skin.

In this article:

  1. What Are Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)?
  2. What Are Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)?
  3. Using AHA/BHA Exfoliants

BHA vs AHA | Know The Difference and Find the Right Exfoliant for Your Skin

Exfoliant Definition: A skincare product that helps remove the dead skin cells. It helps stimulate the production of newer skin cells, creating a firmer and younger-looking skin.

What Are Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)?

Beautiful woman using exfoliating bar | BHA vs AHA Exfoliants
Exfoliating skin naturally

When it comes to the ABCs of skin care, comparing BHA vs AHA can create confusion.

Both offer exfoliant action for healthier skin. Some products contain a blend of AHAs and BHAs, while others provide either one or the other.

What’s the difference? Are they natural products?

What type of hydroxy acids is best for your skin?

Skin care products containing AHA exfoliants may be suitable for people with normal to dry skin. AHA products tend to be for older consumers and those with sun damage.

That’s because these acids are water-soluble. This enables AHAs to hydrate the skin cells and reduce the appearance of fine lines and sun damage.

Alpha hydroxy acids are a group of acids rather than one compound. They can come from both natural and synthetic sources.

Reputable organic products with AHAs obtain these acids from a variety of fruits. If they are not natural, the source may be synthetic or a mixture of fruit and synthetic.

Depending on which type of skin problems your exfoliant product is addressing, it may contain one or two AHAs. Sometimes it offers the full range.

The most commonly used AHAs are the following:

1. Glycolic Acid

Organic products can have glycolic acid that comes from sugarcane. It is the most versatile of the AHA exfoliants since it can work on different skin types.

It also has the smallest molecule, allowing it to penetrate more deeply into the skin than other AHAs. This characteristic helps it remove more dead skin layers, revealing fresher-looking skin.

The penetrating quality also encourages firmer skin. Some products may contain only this AHA or with other AHA skin care blends.

2. Citric Acid

As the name suggests, citric acid comes from citrus fruits. It’s the same ingredient that gives bath bombs or antacids their “fizz” when added into water.

Citric acids are best in smaller concentrations in an AHA exfoliant blend. Too much of them can be irritating to the skin.

Including citric acid in small amounts helps balance out pH levels and promote exfoliation.

3. Tartaric Acid

Sourced from grapes, tartaric acid is one of the larger-molecule AHAs. The large size makes it ideal for sloughing dead skin cells from the epidermis.

If included in AHA skin care products, tartaric acid is usually at 50% or less of the total AHA blend.

Epidermis Definition: It is the outermost layer of the skin.

4. Mandelic Acid

This is the largest-molecule acid of the AHAs. It can be natural from bitter almonds or synthetic from a lab.

Mandelic acid is an increasingly popular ingredient for AHA exfoliant products. It works on dry, sensitive skin.

The large molecules mean it doesn’t penetrate as deeply. It, thus, prevents irritation for those with sensitive skin.

It also promotes oil production. This quality is helpful for people with flaky, parched skin.

5. Malic Acid

This type of AHA comes from apples. When it comes to its molecular size, malic acid falls between the smaller deep-penetrating glycolic acid and the surface-dwelling tartaric or mandelic acids.

This characteristic allows the acid to reach the middle layer of the skin. It also helps provide protection against toxins.

6. Lactic Acid

It is rare to see lactic acid in organic products because the non-synthetic forms come from dairy sources. Milk-based skin products spoil too easily for mass production.

Whether synthetic or natural, lactic acid is both hydrating and exfoliating.

RELATED: How To Naturally Hydrate Skin in 10 Easy Steps

What Are Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)?

Woman using towel after exfoliating her face | BHA vs AHA Exfoliants

Now you know about AHA, but to compare BHA vs AHA properly, you should also learn about BHA.

BHAs come from salicylic acid. This compound is the skin astringent and painkiller contained in the bark of a willow tree.

It’s also the primary ingredient of aspirin. When used topically, salicylic acid can penetrate deeply into the skin and remove dead skin cells.

As skin care products, BHA exfoliants work well for people with persistent blackheads, oily skin, and dark patches.

When it comes to evaluating BHA vs AHA products, it’s helpful to remember BHA is oil soluble. This quality allows BHA products to dissolve in oily skin layers, allowing the hydroxy acid to penetrate more deeply.

Once it does, its deeply exfoliating action unclogs and shrinks pores. It also sloughs away those dark, sun-damaged brown spots.

What if you have both a bumpy and sensitive skin? That’s another area in which BHA may be a better choice than the majority of AHAs.

Beta hydroxy is gentler on easily irritated skin. It helps unclog oil from the pores and provides a hydrating action.

One precaution to keep in mind: BHA heightens photosensitivity in some people. Using it in the morning may make you more prone to sunburn.

If you choose products with BHA exfoliants, apply them at night.

Using AHA/BHA Exfoliants

Products that contain both types of hydroxy acids may be the better option for you if you have problems that include blackheads, flaky patches, uneven skin tone, and sensitivity.

A combination of BHA and AHA may work together to address these issues. Both can help decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and improve the texture of dull skin.

BHA and AHA exfoliants can also signal the brain to produce newer skin cells. This action contributes to both the appearance and feel of a younger and firmer skin tone.

You can find a product that contains both types of hydroxy acids or alternate their use.


Learn more about BHA vs AHA in this video from TheBeautyBreakdown:

It can take some experimentation to settle the BHA vs AHA comparison when it comes to your skin. When in doubt, a dermatologist or aesthetician can point you in the right direction.

If organic or natural ingredients are essential to you, make sure to specify that to your skin care professional.

When it comes to BHA vs AHA, which one do you prefer as an acid exfoliant? Share your thoughts about it in the comments section below.

Up Next: Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Why You Should Avoid It

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