The Skincare Breakdown: Acids (AHAs & BHAs)

Ever confused after walking into Sephora, bombarded with skincare advertisements that don’t seem to make sense? It can be hard to keep track of what ingredients are good for you and what ingredients you stay away from. So, here is a little cheat sheet. This serves as the first post of a series of skincare posts tackling the skincare ingredients everyone likes to talk about but never seems to explain what they do and why we should use them. For today’s post, we’re tackling acids, AHAs and BHAs. This is just part one of our guide on all things acids.

What the hell are AHAs/BHAs?

AHAs are Alpha Hydroxy Acids and BHAs are Beta-Hydroxy Acid

Short answer:

Acids. And yes, they’re very good for your skin because they serve a variety of skincare needs, most notably, as chemical exfoliants. They can also help hydrate the skin, replenish the skin, protect the skin and act as antioxidants. Today we’re focusing on the chemical exfoliants, which can be separated as AHA’s and BHA’s (more below).  I can do a separate post on the many others. Here is a very short breakdown below:

  • AHAs = Alpha Hydroxy Acid
    • Glycolic Acid
    • Lactic Acid
    • Mandelic Acid
    • Tartaric Acid
    • Malic Acid
  • BHAs = Beta Hydroxy Acid
    • Salicylic Acid
  • Retonic Acid*
  • Hyaluronic Acid*
  • Ferulic Acid*
  • Ascorbic Acid*
  • Azelaic Acid*

*Please note this list does not include Citric Acid, as it can be a AHA or a BHA depending on the formulation. The other starred acids work differently then AHA or BHAs and do different things. I will be doing another post on those.

Long Answer:

Exfoliation offers many skincare benefits. It helps get rid of dead skin, promotes collagen production and blood flow, brightens skin, lightens dark spots, and promotes cell turnover. You can exfoliate in two different ways. The first is by using something abrasive, like a cleanser with micro-beads or a body scrub. The second is to chemically exfoliate and that is where the acid comes in. In some instances, chemically exfoliating can be a far more gentle process on the skin because instead of scrubbing your skin to oblivion, the acid does the work for you. For acne sufferers, a chemical exfoliant can be your best friend.

So what’s the difference between AHAs and BHAs?

To keep it simple, what I can tell you is that they are very similar in structure but BHAs are oil soluble while AHAs are water-soluble. What this means is that BHAs are a little better at getting deep into the oil of our pores and thus that’s why BHAs like Salicylic Acid are notorious in acne-fighting products.

What’s the deal with Salicylic Acid (SA)?

It is suitable for all skin types but is especially suitable for oily and/or congested skin.

What Does SA Do?

It helps breakdown bacteria because it penetrates far more deeply than AHAs. Also chemically exfoliates and helps brighten the skin.

How to Use SA:

Depending on the product, how it’s advertised, and the amount of SA in it, it can be used as a spot treatment or even as an all-over face treatment. Like AHA’s it also promotes cell turn over and helps brighten your skin. Some of the best acne/oily skin products on the market actually use a combination of AHA’s and BHA’s in their formulas. Acids can be used every day if you have oily skin (depending on the product) BUT must be used with sunscreen at all times. Personally, my skin loves this stuff. Acids work well with my skin and I find that it works really well to calm down congestion.

Here Are Some Of The Best Products Made With AHA’s and BHA’s :
La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo or the Effaclar K
Image via Amazon

The Effacular Duo in the US is a spot treatment and has a completely different formula from versions in Europe and Canada. In the US, the main ingredient is Benzoyl Peroxide, instead of SA. But have no fear, I have found the US version of this product and it’s the Effaclar K. The Canadian and European versions of the Effaclar Duo can be used as an all over the face treatment or a spot treatment. All versions are gentle enough to be both and have some other great hydrating skincare properties, so it won’t dry out your skin like many acne-fighting products can.

La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo, $25,

Avene Cleanance Expert
Image via

This one is pretty much a dupe for the La Roche Posay and Effaclar Duo/K. I prefer the formula of this one more than the Effaclar Duo/K because it lasts longer.  It can be used as an all-over face treatment and/or spot treatment, it’s also very gentle, calms the skin, and helps fight acne.

Avene Cleanance Expert, $29,

Beauty Pie Plantastic Micropeeling Super Drops
BEAUTIPIE_Plantastic_Micropeeling_Super_Drops_963055_460_1, AHAs BHAs
Image via

This is an AHA/BHA combo and is one of the most brilliant skincare products I’ve ever used. It’s wonderful for oily and congested skin because it’s gentle and you can still get glowy skin without the burning feeling.  It’s supposed to be used as an all-over face treatment and is okay for all skin types. Beauty Pie products are pricey, but if you join their membership program you can get the products for a lot cheaper.  Unfortunately, Beauty Pie doesn’t ship to Canada just yet, but I’m confident they will start shipping to the north soon!

Beauty Pie Plantastic Micropeeling Super Drops, $60,

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion and the Kate Sommerville Eradikate, AHAs BHAs
Image via

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, $23,

These are some of the best spot treatments in the market. Many celebrities are a huge fan of the Mario Badescu Drying Lotion. These are both near dupes of each other, I prefer the Kate Somerville, by a hair. Both of these products include sulfur, another great ingredient to fight bacteria and promote cell turnover and calamine to help calm and soothe the skin around spots. They are REALLY strong and can be drying because of the high amounts of alcohol in the product (my ONE qualm). Beware it might burn. (3), AHAs BHAs
Image via

Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment, $31,

Glycolic Acid/Other Fruit Acids You Need To Know About

If you want to glow, glycolic acid is what you need. AHAs like glycolic are usually derived from fruits and sugars and since they’re water-soluble they also promote moisture to the skin. But they don’t get as deep into the pores as BHAs do. Nevertheless, AHAs are not something to forgo in your skincare routine if your skin can handle them. If your skin can’t handle glycolic acid, then lactic acid is your friend.

Keep in mind, in all acid-based products, there is a spectrum of strength. The stronger the dose, the higher the chance it can be too strong for you.  Ever head of a chemical peel? But have no fear, there are many wonderful products on the market that should work for you, many of them cult favourites. Just be wary to make sure you protect your acid mantle, as in, do not overuse.

How to use Glycolic Acid and Other Fruit Acids

Glycolic acid and other fruit acids are often found in toners, but also can be found in many other skincare products. My dermatologist tells me I can use it every day, but I’m not sure how much of a good idea that is. I have sensitive skin, so I use it sparingly, a couple of times a week. Always remember to take notice of the amount of Glycolic Acid in the product. Read the instructions, see what it says (if it says to not use every day then do NOT use every day). Don’t forget to use sunscreen when using acids because they make the skin photosensitive. If you want to prevent dark spots and pigmentation then use sunscreen when using acids on your face. If you don’t then you won’t be taking advantage of any of the benefits acids give to your skin.

Here At The Best Glycolic Acid Products:
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
biologique, AHAs BHAs
Image via

A moment of silence and appreciation for this product because it may be the best of the best skincare product of all time. No, I’m not being dramatic. This product has an immense cult following and is sadly quite hard to find. It’s not sold in many stores, only in spas. It’s hard to find because the company wants it to be exclusive *eye roll*. Some places sell it online and that is where I get mine. The P50 lotions range in price, depending on the formula and the bottle size you decide to purchase. The larger size, which contains 8.4 fl.oz is always over a hundred dollars.

Skincare purists will say you should not ship this product but again *eye roll.* I know it’s branded as a lotion but it’s actually a toner. Created by doctors, the french company makes different versions of the P50 lotion.  There is their original 1970s lotion, which you can only buy in the U.S because it includes phenol. Other versions of the P50 lotions are accessible in Europe and Canada, without the phenol.

Of course, when using this product you won’t see an improvement in a day. You’ll see improvement over time and what it does is make your skin stronger. I can tell you after using it for a long time, I’m actually blown away.  Depending on the type you get, it is a mixture of different acids, sometimes including vinegar (you read that right), lactic acid and salicylic acid.

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50T, $132,

Pixi Glow Tonic

pixi,AHAs BHAs

Another cult product that is absolutely worth the hype. It serves as a toner that you could use as much as your skin permits. It’s on the gentle side and could be used daily if your skin isn’t too sensitive. In addition to glycolic acid, this stuff is jam-packed with lovely ingredients that soothe the skin. It’s great chemical exfoliation, for eating away dead skin, and for really giving you glowy skin.

Pixi Glow Tonic, $20,

Beauty Pie Fruitizyme Five Minute Facial
BEAUTYPIE_Fruitizyme_Five_Minute_Facial_968395_2000_1, AHAs BHAs
Image via

If you need a quick glowy pick me up before a big event then this is a great product to use. You can slather it on as you shower or as you do your hair and wash it right off. It does in fact, give you glow. It is filled with exfoliating AHAs & BHAs, pomegranate enzyme, and smoothing bamboo.

Beauty Pie Fruitizyme Five Minute Facial, $70,

And that concludes part one of our cheat sheet on AHAs and BHAs. I hope this wasn’t too long! If you made it to the end, here is a virtual high five. And just a reminder, I am by no means an expert. Please make sure to do your own research, but I do hope this is helpful to somebody.

Image via Adobe Stock

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