When you're taking a look at skincare bottles you might notice the acronyms "AHA" or "BHA." Sometimes they're listed as an ingredient. Sometimes they're the whole shebang, like an "AHA Cream." These acids are found in all types of products and touted as magic because as exfoliants, they help your skin cells turn over, leading to a smoother, softer skin. But what are they?
What is AHA?
AHA is short for alpha-hydroxy acids which explains why an acronym is needed. These water-soluble acids (like lactic acid and glycolic acid) are naturally derived from plants or sugar acids like apples, citrus fruits, or sugar cane. AHAs act as an exfoliant so it helps shed dull and rough outer layer skin, promoting cells to turn over and stimulating the production of collagen. This reduces wrinkles, decreases blemishes and lightens both age and sun spots. It can even improves the barrier function of your skin and thicken the inner layers. These guys have an impressive resumé, huh?
There are two major caveats with AHAs to be aware of. The first is that AHAs alter your sensitivity to the sun. If you are using one, it is important that you use an SPF (which you should be anyway!). The second thing to know is that if you have thin skin or sensitive skin, the use of products with AHA can result in a stinging or burning sensation. Start very slow with AHAs so that you can make sure that your skin can properly handle it. If you are unsure, speak to a Skin Therapist before getting into it.
So then what is a BHA?
BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acids. They're very similar to AHAs but instead of being water-soluble (dissolving in water), they are lipid-soluble (meaning they dissolve in oil) so they can penetrate deeper into the skin, right into the pores. This makes it a helping hand for oily or acne-prone skin types. Think of AHAs as the jackhammer and BHAs as the shovels. You will usually see a BHA around 2%. If you've ever fought acne then you're familiar with the most popular BHA, salicylic acid.
Wait, what is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial BHA that is often seen in acne-fighting products. You know, those bottles of pink or white stuff that a lot of companies sell that blast our breakouts? They've got salicylic acid in them. That's because this acid dissolves the "glue" that is keeping our skin cells together, thus promoting them to change over and let go of all that debris they are determined to keep. It also cools down the inflamed area it leaves behind. In higher concentrations (8-12%), it can even be used as a peeling agent. This makes it great for areas that need a lot of skin turn over like scars, age spots, and even warts.
Are there any caveats for this one?
I'm so happy you asked! Salicylic acid can be very drying when used by sensitive skin types or when overused, period. Because of this, we have two primary recommendations. First, we usually recommend using it in a very targeted way with breakouts and not over your entire face. And second, start slow with it. Try smaller patches first to see how your skin reacts. And don't use it as a preventative measure. Too drying! It's so important that your skin maintains natural oil, so don't use it whenever you see oil production.
Sometimes I see "AHA/BHAs," what does that mean?
It's just a blend of both alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids. Depending on what results you're looking for, this could be a good choice for you.
So, in summary...
AHAs are all natural acid with exfoliant properties. There are tons of long-term benefits possible. Keep an eye on the % that is in the product so that you don't give yourself a peel by accident.
BHAs are like AHAs but sink further into your skin. Great if you have oily skin.
If you have sensitive skin or are pregnant, speak with your Skin Therapist about your options.