Skincare tips & advice
Understanding the Differences Between AHAs and BHAs
AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids) are two types of hydroxy acids that help promote the skin’s natural exfoliation process. Keep reading to discover which one of these chemical exfoliants is best-suited for your skin’s needs, as well as the top considerations to keep in mind when building an exfoliation routine for smooth, soft-looking skin.
As the two main classes of hydroxy acids used in skincare, BHAs and AHAs can be used to address a variety of skin concerns. These ingredients help promote skin cell turnover, which can therefore help reveal smoother, more even-toned skin. The use of exfoliating acids dates back centuries, as far back as ancient Egypt when Cleopatra used to bathe in sour milk to improve her skin’s overall look and smoothness.1 Today, chemical exfoliants can be found in skincare products such as facial cleansers, toners, serums, body lotions, and more.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are chemical exfoliants that help to gently dissolve dead skin cells.
- Chemical exfoliation is different from physical exfoliation, which uses physical objects (such as scrubs) to manually remove dead skin cells.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (such as lactic acid and glycolic acid) are mild exfoliants that can help smooth and soften the skin, as well as reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Beta-hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid) offer gentle exfoliating benefits that can be particularly useful for rough and bumpy skin, skin conditions like psoriasis, and acne-prone skin.
What Are AHAs?
AHAs are a type of exfoliating acid known as alpha-hydroxy acids. They are naturally occurring in sugarcane (glycolic acid), milk (lactic acid), and fruit sources (citric acid). When these acids are used in cosmetic formulations today, they are usually produced in a laboratory.
AHAs have become increasingly popular over the last decade in skincare products aimed at minimizing signs of skin aging—such as fine lines and wrinkles, photoaging, and discoloration. Generally seen as safe and effective exfoliating options, AHAs work by gently eliminating dead skin cells to help improve skin’s overall appearance and texture.
Types of AHAs
Although there are a number of different types of AHAs, the most frequently used alpha-hydroxy acids in CeraVe products include lactic acid and glycolic acid. Oftentimes, you will see these two AHAs paired together for their multifunctional benefits, such as in CeraVe’s Skin Renewing Nightly Exfoliating Treatment. This serum includes a blend of glycolic and lactic acids to help increase surface cellular turnover for visibly smoother, radiant skin. Other varieties of AHAs include citric acid, mandelic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid.
Lactic acid is a common AHA used in exfoliating skincare products that works by promoting the shedding of dead skin cells. This helps to enhance skin smoothness, softness, and texture when used as part of a consistent skincare routine. Lactic acid is also a part of the skin’s natural moisturizing factor (NMF), which can help the skin hold onto moisture and deliver hydrating benefits. You can find lactic acid in CeraVe products like our Psoriasis Moisturizing Cream—a hydrating psoriasis cream for clearer, more comfortable skin.
Glycolic acid is another one of the most commonly used AHAs in skincare. This exfoliating acid features the smallest molecular weight of all the alpha-hydroxy acids, which allows it to easily and effectively penetrate the skin. Glycolic acid can be found in CeraVe Acne Control Gel—a 2% salicylic acid acne treatment with both AHAs and BHAs—that is formulated to help prevent new breakouts, improve skin texture, and minimize the appearance of pores. This gel also features three essential ceramides to replenish the skin’s protective barrier and niacinamide to help calm the skin.
What Are BHAs?
BHAs are another category of exfoliating acids known as beta-hydroxy acids. Beta-hydroxy acids have far-reaching exfoliation benefits for a number of skin conditions and concerns—including rough and bumpy skin, acne, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, and more. Similar to AHAs, BHAs are also naturally occurring in many plant-based sources, but are most often created in a lab when included in cosmetic products.
Types of BHAs
In skincare, the term beta-hydroxy acid almost always refers to the ingredient salicylic acid, as it is by far the most widely used BHA ingredient in skincare products. You’ll often find this ingredient listed under the names beta hydroxybutanoic acid, trethocanic acid, tropic acid, or willow extract. Let’s explore a bit further and see how CeraVe’s salicylic acid products can best fit into your skincare routine.
Naturally found in the bark of certain plants—such as white willow and wintergreen leaves—salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that is commonly used for its mild yet effective exfoliating properties. Because of its ability to promote natural shedding and loosen the “glue” that holds skin cells together, it is often found in skincare formulas targeting rough or bumpy skin, conditions such as psoriasis, and acne-prone skin. Additionally, salicylic acid can help unclog pores, which makes this BHA especially useful for proactively helping to prevent acne breakouts.
You can also find salicylic acid in CeraVe products formulated for rough and bumpy skin—including CeraVe SA Body Wash for Rough and Bumpy Skin and CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser—as well as products aimed at clearing acne and preventing new breakouts—such as CeraVe Acne Control Cleanser.
The Difference Between AHAs vs BHAs
Although all hydroxy acids have some similarities, there are also a few key differences to keep in mind. While both AHAs and BHAs act as skin exfoliants, AHAs are what is known as “water-soluble,” and BHAs are considered “oil soluble.” What this means is that AHAs work on the skin’s surface, while BHAs (like salicylic acid) work on the surface, as well as within the pores. This is why salicylic acid is considered useful for targeting clogged pores and uneven skin texture, while AHAs (like glycolic acid) tend to focus their primary benefits around fine lines, wrinkles, and sun damage.
Lastly, BHAs are generally seen as the milder of the two options, since they feature a larger molecular weight when compared to AHAs. This means that AHAs, such as glycolic acid, may therefore pose a higher risk of potential irritation for some skin types. Using AHAs and BHAs correctly (per the label’s instructions or as directed by a dermatologist) can help reduce the chances of any possible irritation.
Should You Use AHAs, BHAs, or Both?
The answer to this question will depend on your skin type, goals, and main concerns. Fortunately, with the right types of gentle, hydrating products, it’s possible to take advantage of the many benefits of AHAs and BHAs simultaneously. If you’re feeling unsure, we recommend consulting with a dermatologist for an accurate skin assessment and the best possible advice before beginning a routine using chemical exfoliants.
When using AHAs or BHAs as part of your CeraVe skincare regimen, it’s important to consistently apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning, rain or shine, and reapply at least every two hours when spending extended periods of time outdoors. This is because the exfoliating effects of these ingredients may cause increased photosensitivity, therefore upping your chances of sun damage without the proper protective measures.
How Are AHAs and BHAs Different From Physical Exfoliants?
Now that you understand a bit more about chemical exfoliation, let’s compare AHAs and BHAs with other methods of exfoliation. There are two main types of exfoliation in used skincare: chemical exfoliation (which includes AHAs and BHAs) and physical exfoliation. Whereas chemical exfoliants use active ingredients (like acids or enzymes) to gently dissolve dead skin cells, physical exfoliation uses physical materials (like scrubs, brushes, or gloves) to manually remove dead skin cells.
You can find both of these exfoliation methods used together in innovative skincare products—like CeraVe SA Cleanser Bar for Rough & Bumpy Skin—which provides chemical exfoliation with salicylic acid and physical exfoliation with spherical jojoba.
If you’d like to learn more about CeraVe’s skincare products, check out this useful guide on the common causes of rough and bumpy skin and ways to treat it.
- Tran, Diana et al. “An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin.” Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology vol. 8 9-17. 19 Dec. 2014, doi:10.2147/CCID.S75439
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