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The Difference Between AHA and BHA Exfoliants

Stress, products, and everyday life can lead to skin that just looks dull and lifeless. When your 90-minute hot yoga classes aren’t giving you the glow they used to, it’s time to get next level with your skincare. 

Exfoliating can recharge your skin’s glow, help you get rid of pesky blemishes, and renew the texture of your skin, so it feels softer and smoother than before. Exfoliating is easy and quick, but you should know different ways to exfoliate and different kinds of exfoliating products. 

Let’s cover what exfoliating is, how it’s done, and the difference between AHA and BHA exfoliants so you can grab the one that’s best for you.

What Is Exfoliating?

Before talking about exfoliating, let’s talk about what happens to your skin when it makes new cells.

Skin 101

Your skin is constantly renewing itself. The process of making new skin cells takes about three to four weeks. New skin cells are made in the deepest layers of your skin, pushing old skin cells to the surface.

When skin cells reach the surface, they die, and ideally, they get sloughed off when you wash your face. Unfortunately, the process isn’t always that perfect. Dead skin cells often get “stuck” to your skin’s surface. This can happen for a lot of reasons:

  • Improper skincare
  • Makeup and cosmetic products
  • Excess oil on the skin
  • Environmental factors (the heat, humidity, dry climate)

When the dead skin cells hang out on the surface of your skin, they leave your skin looking dull and create the perfect situation for acne blemishes to develop. Dead skin mixes with oil, dirt, and makeup to clog your pores and develop bumps. 

Exfoliating helps move the dead skin cells off your face, so this doesn’t happen.

How Exfoliating Works

Exfoliating works by removing the top layer of dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, helping get rid of excess oil and clean out your pores. There are three different ways to exfoliate:

  1. Physical exfoliation. Physical exfoliants use tiny beads or particles to gently scrub away dead skin. These are the types of exfoliants you usually find at the store. They usually feel gritty or like they contain grains of sand. 

    You can use a physical exfoliant at home, about two to three times a week. 

  2. Mechanical exfoliation. Mechanical exfoliation is the process of exfoliating your skin with a tool like a brush or a cloth. If you decided to get microdermabrasion from your dermatologist, you’d be getting a mechanical exfoliation. 

    With mechanical exfoliation, you might experience some redness, especially if you get a procedure done at your derm’s office.

  3. Chemical exfoliation. Chemical exfoliation refers to the use of acids to remove the top layer of dead skin cells, but there’s a wide range of acids to choose from. You can buy chemical exfoliants over-the-counter or get a peel at a dermatologist’s office.

    At home, chemical exfoliation can be done a few times a week with zero downtime. If you get a peel at your derm’s office, you’ll definitely be incognito for a few days until your redness and irritation go away.

Why You Need To Exfoliate

Why bother exfoliating if you already have a good skincare routine? Because you don’t have a good skincare routine unless it includes exfoliating! 

Exfoliating does more than just give you a radiant, healthful glow.

  • Exfoliating supports younger-looking skin.
  • Exfoliating helps eliminate blemishes by removing dead skin cells, which can clog pores and create bumps. 
  • Exfoliating changes the texture of your skin, zeroing in on rough patches and keeping your skin smooth and soft. 

Adding exfoliation to your skincare routine is simple. You can exfoliate your skin in minutes just a few times a week to get a serious skin glow up. For at-home exfoliation, AHA and BHA formulas are the best options. 

There are two different types of at-home chemical exfoliants you can use to gently and effectively exfoliate your skin. They are AHAs and BHAs. Here’s what you should know about both.

What Are AHA’s?

AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are usually derived naturally from sugar, fruit, and milk, although they can be man-made in a lab. 

You’ve probably heard of them; glycolic and lactic acids are both types of AHAs. Malic acid citric, phytic, tartaric, and mandelic acids are also AHA’s.

How They Work

AHAs work by loosening the bond between dead skin cells and the living skin cells on the surface (or epidermis) of your skin. Dead skin cells that get “stuck” to your skin’s surface are glued on with a protein bond. AHA’s work on the calcium in the bond, freeing the dead skin so it can be sloughed away. 

However, that’s not the only way an AHA works. Recent studies show that AHA’s actually cause acidic conditions in skin cells that cause them to die. 

Benefits of AHAs

AHAs speed up the rate at which your skin cells turnover. This means your skin will make newer skin faster. If you’re concerned with fine lines and wrinkles, AHAs can help them look less noticeable. 

Because AHAs cause your skin to renew faster, they can also help work on areas of hyperpigmentation or sunspots. By removing the top layers of your skin and helping new skin to grow, darker, uneven areas become less noticeable, giving you a more even skin tone. 

Risks of AHAs

AHA’s are serious business, and you won’t want to use them daily. They can make your skin super-sensitive, especially to the sun. Make sure you’re using good sunscreen if you’re using an AHA exfoliant. 

You might also feel like an AHA is too strong for you if you have sensitive skin. Because AHA causes skin wounding, it can make sensitive skin feel irritated and look red. BHA’s may be a better option. 

What Are BHAs?

Like AHAs, BHAs are also naturally derived acids that help remove the layer of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin. Beta hydroxy acids are derived from willow tree bark, sweet birch bark, and wintergreen leaves. Salicylic acid, betaine salicylate, and willow bark extract are all forms of beta hydroxy acids. 

BHA’s are more gentle on your skin than AHAs but still just as effectively clear your skin of unwanted dead skin cells. There’s also a bonus, BHAs do double duty by cleaning out your pores.

How They Work

BHA’s work by breaking the protein bonds between dead skin cells and the new skin cells on the surface of your skin, but they do not cause skin wounding, which means they don’t cause living skin cells to die. 

They also work by deep diving into your pores, something an AHA can’t do, to keep your pores clarified and tight. BHAs exfoliate inside your pores, so that sebum (your skin’s natural oil) can flow freely to the surface of your skin instead of getting trapped inside, where it could form a blemish

Benefits of BHAs

BHA’s work for virtually every skin type. They share the same benefits as AHAs but without skin wounding and sensitivity. They also offer the advantage of deep pore cleansing, which can help keep blemishes away if you have problematic skin. 

BHAs also reduce oil production, so if you have super oily skin, BHA’s can help your skin self-regulate, so you produce less pore-clogging oil. 

Risks of BHAs

Because BHA’s are more gentle on your skin, there aren’t any real risks unless you just find your skin is especially sensitive to them. You should always spot test a new product on an inconspicuous area of your skin to ensure it works for you. 

Which is Right For You?

If you’ve got dry skin, there’s good news. Both AHAs and BHAs work as humectants, which means they help keep moisture locked into your skin to keep it hydrated. Both types of exfoliants will also help keep your skin glowing and radiant. 

AHAs are the way to go for fine lines and wrinkles and probably work better on older skin. For oilier, blemish-prone skin, nothing works better than a BHA. 

If you’re just not sure, we highly recommend starting with a BHA first. A BHA exfoliant will probably give you the results you want and are way less likely to irritate your skin. 

Get Rael

You know we have you covered when it comes to natural, gentle skincare. Our Miracle Clear Exfoliating Cleanser is a succinic acid-based cleanser (not AHA or BHA)  that works for all skin types. It’s gentler on the skin than either of those exfoliators and even more effective. 

It’s perfect for giving you just the right amount of exfoliation and leaving you with a deep-down clean.

So go ahead, get rid of that layer of dead skin living rent-free on your face! Rael has what you need to get your glow on. 


Sources:

Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin | NCBI 

Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents | NCBI 

Humectant - an overview | Science Direct 

Intracellular proton-mediated activation of TRPV3 channels accounts for the exfoliation effect of α-hydroxyl acids on keratinocytes | PubMed
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