How to use AHA and BHA exfoliants to genuinely improve your skin

February 15, 2024

Want to exfoliate your way to a next-level glow? Or, maybe you’re looking to clear out pesky clogged pores. Any skincare professional will tell you their solution: chemical exfoliants.

When used in the same sentence, the words “chemical” and “face” may incite concern. But, in the history of exfoliation, chemical exfoliants are some of the best things that ever happened in skincare. And, they’re clinically proven. Known as alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids (AHA and BHA), professionals have used these skin-safe acids for decades to turn on a next-level glow, baby-soft smoothness, and clearer, smaller pores. Don’t fret—you can get these wonder exfoliants (and their results) in the comfort of your own home. But first, a fast lesson on what they are, how to use AHAs and BHAs, how they work, and which is right for your skin.

What are AHAs?

AHAs are naturally occurring substances found in various fruits, sugar cane, and sour milk. Glycolic acid, the alpha hydroxy acid found in sugar cane, is used in many Murad products because it is especially well suited for use in skincare. Lactic acid is another AHA that can help with hyperpigmentation, dark spots, sun damaged skin, fine lines, and a dull complexion.

How do AHAs work on skin?

AHAs loosen the bonds that hold together the top layers of dead skin cells. Think of your skin as bricks and mortar. The mortar is the “glue” that holds your skin cells (bricks) together. AHAs and BHAs dissolve that “glue” so dead skin cells (bricks) are easily removed.

Removing excess build-up on the surface of the skin allows newer, softer, healthier-looking skin to emerge. Skin looks refreshed, rejuvenated, and more youthful. An additional benefit to clearing excess buildup is that moisturizers and treatments that follow can penetrate the skin better.

Using AHAs does, however, make your skin more vulnerable to damage from the sun a concern with any kind of exfoliating treatment. So always follow with an SPF during the day.

What are BHAs?

BHAs are also naturally occurring substances. The most common beta hydroxy acid in skincare products is salicylic acid, which occurs naturally in willow bark and sweet birch.

How do BHAs work?

Like AHAs, BHAs help loosen the bonds that hold together the top layers of skin cells. Also like AHAs, a BHA exfoliant can make your skin more vulnerable to damage from the sun, so always use an SPF during the day.

What’s the difference between AHAs and BHAs?

Both AHA and BHA can help with dead skin cells, skin texture, etc, but the main difference between AHAs and BHAs is oil solubility. AHAs are water soluble only, while BHAs are oil soluble. This means AHAs stay on the surface of the skin, whereas BHAs get down into the pores to cut through pore-clogging oil. If your skin type falls under oily or acne-prone, you may opt for a BHA exfoliant. If your skin leans more toward dry, AHA would be the more suitable option.

How to use AHAs and BHAs in your skincare routine

The best way to use AHAs and BHAs is to determine which is right for your skin concern.

  • AHAs are incredible for skin showing signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and dullness or sun damage
  • BHAs have incredible antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. This combined with their ability to penetrate the pore makes them perfect for treating acne-prone skin and blackheads

Introduce your skin to AHAs and BHAs slowly. Try using them every other day. Once your skin acclimates, you should be able to start using them every day.

Exfoliating acids in skincare products

AHAs and BHAs can be found in almost any kind of skincare product. There are AHA BHA cleansers, AHA BHA exfoliants, AHA BHA masks, and even AHA BHA moisturizers. They can be incredibly beneficial from removing dead cells on the skin to encouraging a healthier skin texture and more.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Murad, and are for informational purposes only, even if the advice of physicians and medical practitioners are included. This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be considered specific medical advice.  

About the Author

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Jacki Marzano is SoCal-based storyteller and head copywriter at Murad Skincare. She's shaped the voice of some of the most recognized beauty brands in the business, has a penchant for sharing homemade cookies, and believes SPF is the secret to getting carded well into your 40s.