AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids and exfoliant the surface of your skin. If you’ve ever had a chemical exfoliation treatment you know the stinging and tingling sensation that comes with it. Some people love it, others hate it. I personally love exfoliating with AHAs but it only does part of a full exfoliation procedure. If you have oily skin or large pores (like me!) you’ll also want to look at using a BHA in your skin care routine.
BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid and are oil soluble (AHAs are water soluble). Near the skin surface and inside a pore is a sebaceous gland that produces sebum. Sebum helps to hydrate hair and skin. The highest concentration of sebaceous glands is located on our face and hair. These glands go into high gear during puberty, and are particularly responsive to testosterone. Both men and women produce testosterone and estrogen. Men produce more testosterone and women produce more estrogen. Ladies, just because you have oily skin it does not mean testosterone levels are to high, the same thing for men with dry skin. People are just genetically disposed to be more or responsive or have fewer sebaceous glands overall. Not every pore has a sebaceous gland (thank goodness otherwise I’d be an oil slick). For those who have dry skin, it’s more likely that you have a lower concentration of sebaceous glands and/or your sebaceous glands don’t produce as much sebum. It’s not necessarily hormonal. This is also why women are often prescribed birth control as a form or hormone therapy to regulate an overproduction of estrogen and testosterone in an effort to decrease sebum production thereby decreasing the severity of acne. I did this at 15 and had limit success with this approach. Accutane and retinol are Vitamin A derivatives that work on these sebaceous glands as well decreasing oil production. Both are highly effective. Accutane is prescription only whereas there are several OTC retinol choices and prescription retinol formulations available. Vitamin A is not considered a BHA even though beta-carotene is oil soluble and has many of the same properties as BHAs it isn’t an acid.
BHAs are more simple a category than AHAs. The most popular BHA is salicylic acid (or as my mom calls it silly salic acid). You can find 2% salicylic acid products all over the market in skin care and hair care. I love The Ordinary’s lineup of both AHA and BHA which you can buy a few from Sephora and Ulta but the entire lineup is at Deciem and it’s the exact same price. The second most popular is citric acid. Citric acid is also an AHA depending on how it’s formulated. Formulating citric acid as a BHA is more difficult so it’s much more common to use salicylic acid and it’s rarely used as a BHA.
Salicylic acid can be naturally extracted from tobacco leaves, white willow bark, and meadowsweet with the most popular method coming from white willow. We use salicylic acid on a regular basis as it’s the active ingredient in aspirin (as actylsalicylic acid). Bayer began selling ‘Aspirin’ in 1899 although the effects of white willow extract has been used since the ancient Greek and Chinese. If you look back at traditional chinese medicine you’ll find recipes for headaches and pain that include willow bark in its recipe.
What BHAs can do for your skin is exfoliate. They can go into the pores, clearing out tough debris, skin cells, and sebum normal washing just can’t do. For ACNE sufferers adding a BHA to your skincare routine is a very powerful tool to help prevent blackheads before they start. Combined with an AHA the work to keep the top layer of your skin well exfoliated keeping the pores open allowing the BHA the penetrate. This combo works well in preventing whiteheads as well.
For those with sensitive skin using chemical peels, even very mild peels is often discouraged but new research suggests those with sensitive skin can see improvement in skin tolerance and certain sensitivity issues. One key benefit of BHA/AHA use is the thickening of the lower layers of skin while the top most layer is thinned. This can help reduce flair ups and improve topical treatments such as steroid creams. This BHA/steroid topical treatment is very often prescribed by dermatologists treated certain dermatitis issues and is one that I’ve personally used for nearly 2 years with great success to treat my dermatitis. Dermatitis is also known as eczema.
I suffer from seborrheic dermatitis (scalp) and atopic dermatitis (around my knees and along my rib cage). In these areas I use a very light BHA to help remove the flaky skin and then use a topical steroid my dermatologist prescribes. I avoid using SLS containing soaps or shampoos as well, although I just need that stripping power at least once a month. This combination has worked very well for me since we started this treatment routine and has greatly reduced my flare ups. They aren’t gone but I’m down to using my steroid shampoo around 1-2 times a month and a steroid cream around 2-3 days a month; this is from 2x per week with the shampoo and my topical cream around two weeks a month. I consider that a win and I’m still improving.
When looking to add a BHA to your skincare routine look for a minimum of a 2% salicylic acid solution. I highly recommend The Ordinary’s 30% AHA + 2% BHA chemical peel. Its rather mild compared to other 30% peels but does a good job of getting deep into pores. My skin always glows. It’s available at Deciem.com, Sephora, and most recently at Ulta. My husband and his sensitive skin is also able to use this product although he keeps it on shorter than I do. You put the solution on very dry skin, set for up to 10 minutes, then rinse. EDIT: After the second use I started to feel the tingle I normally get with my AHA/BHA peels. This product really does work surprisingly well for it’s price point.
Paula’s Choice also has a series of BHA products, of which I’ve used most. I personally enjoy the 8% Gel BHA exfoliant but I’ve also used the BHA 9 Treatment. These products are designed to be left on the skin overnight and rinsed away in the morning. They do leave a slight oily residue, but BHA is oil soluble so this formulation is wholly appropriate for the product. The oil sheen does go away quickly, but I still only applied my BHA at night.
In the more luxury price range, SkinMedica has a small series of BHA products as well. Their AHA/BHA cream is another product I’d use at night.
Skip the BHA cleansers. BHA needs to sit on your skin for awhile in order to do it’s best work. Definitely look at serums and toners that are left on the skin.