AHA vs. BHA Exfoliants: What’s the Difference?

Are you looking a little dull and dry? Do the fine lines in your face seem ten times worse than they were about two weeks ago? It’s probably time to exfoliate your face. Exfoliation leaves behind a soft, supple surface that’s ready to drink up all the nutrients and active ingredients in your skincare routine.

“AHAs and BHAs can help keep your skin clear and glowing.”

  • Shani Darden, Esthetician

The first step is choosing the right exfoliant. The two most common exfoliants are AHA and BHA exfoliants. They’ll both exfoliate your face, but they work in different ways. Here’s what you need to know before you exfoliate. 

What Is Exfoliation?

Your body is constantly creating healthy, new skin cells to replace old ones. The old cells sit on your skin's surface, creating a dry, flaky barrier on the top layer of your skin. 

When dead skin cellsbuild up, they can make your complexion appear dull. Things like fine lines and dark spots may appear more pronounced, and your skin can look dry, rough, or flakey. 

Exfoliation is the removal of your dead skin cell barrier. When you take the dead cells off the surface of your skin, you’re freeing the healthier skin cells that were trapped beneath. When the dead cells are gone, your skincare products are easily absorbed by your healthy skin. This makes your skincare routine more effective and improves the appearance of your skin.

How Often Do I Need To Exfoliate?

There is no concrete answer for how often you should exfoliate. It all depends on how sensitive your skin is and how quickly you shed dead skin cells. People with very sensitive skin find that exfoliating once a week is enough. 

Some people accumulate dead cells quickly enought to exfoliate as often as three times per week or every other day. People with normal or combination skin find that one to two times a week is enough.

If you’ve never exfoliated before, start exfoliating once a week. See how your skin tolerates exfoliation. If you don’t experience any redness or irritation that persists into the next day, you may be set to exfoliate twice a week. 

What Is the Difference Between Chemical and Physical Exfoliation?

There are two types of exfoliators: chemical and physical. At first glance, it might seem scary to think of putting chemicals on your skin or using something physical to remove your dead cells. These are just technical names. Chemical exfoliants are natural acids that are safe for your skin, and physical exfoliants are scrubs. 

What Are Chemical Exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliants are mild acids that are usually derived from plants. The acid penetrates the layer of dead cells, making them easy to remove simply by cleansing your face. Chemical exfoliants are very similar to the acid peels you’d get from a dermatologist or a day spa, but the acid concentration is very low. Their low acid concentration makes them safer to use regularly at home. 

What Are Physical Exfoliants?

Physical exfoliants are grainy face scrubs. They contain abrasive ingredients like sugar, salt, microbeads, ground walnut shells, or ground fruit pits. Physical exfoliants work by scraping away the layer of dead cells on your skin. The process is a mild version of a microdermabrasion session. 

Physical exfoliants can be very damaging to your skin. The coarse grains can cause microtears in your skin, leading to irritation and other issues. I recommend not using a physical exfoliant and instead sticking to chemical exfoliants which are more effective yet much less harsh on the skin. 

What Is AHA Exfoliant?

AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids. AHA is a water-soluble acid, which means it dissolves in water. It can be derived from the naturally occurring sugars in fruit. AHA works to improve skin texture by gently removing the top layer of dead skin cells. AHA is a versatile exfoliant that works for various skin concerns. AHA products may help with:

  • Minimizing the appearance of an uneven skin tone or other pigmentation issues
  • Reducing the appearance of fine lines and mild wrinkles
  • Brightening the appearance of dark spots, age spots, and blemish scars
  • Softening the appearance of large pores

AHAs come under many different names, some of which you may already be familiar with. Some common types of AHAs include:

  • Citric acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Malic acid
  • Mandelic acid
  • Tartaric acid

Lactic acid is one of my favorite AHAs. Lactic acid works to gently remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin while supporting proper cell turnover. Cell turnover is the rate at which new skin cells are formed and rise to the surface. When your cell turnover rate is regulated, your skin can look its best for longer.

As you age, your skin produces less collagen and elastin and can appear thinner and less youthful. Thin skin tends to show fine lines and wrinkles more prominently than thicker skin does. Regularly using lactic acid can work to support your overall skin health and elasticity, which may help minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

In the clinical study of my Lactic Acid Serum, 100% of women reported that they felt their skin looked brighter and more glowy overnight. They also said that they felt it improved the appearance of their pores and that their skin tone appeared more even.

What Is BHA Exfoliant?

BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid. BHAs are oil-soluble acids. BHA products may help with certain skin concerns by:

  • Cleansing and purifying the skin’s surface, which can help unclog pores
  • Supporting a healthy balance of sebum, which may ease oily skin

Some of the most common BHAs include:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Willow bark or willow extract

Do I Need AHA or BHA Exfoliant?

When choosing a type of exfoliant, consider your skin type and your skincare goals. After you exfoliate and complete the rest of your skincare routine, how do you want your skin to look and feel? What is your skin telling you it needs?

Is Your Skin Dry, Oily, or Combination?

If you have dry skin, BHA exfoliants may not be the best choice for you. If you have oily skin, however, you may find that BHAs are highly effective — BHA is oil-soluble, meaning that it digs deep into your pores to dissolve congestion at the source. When it finds the excess oil on your skin, it’s ready to work.

Dry skin and combination skin often do best with the mild exfoliating powers of water-soluble AHA.

If you have particularly sensitive skin, your exfoliation routine could be as simple as using a piece of cotton gauze or a silicon-bristled cleansing brush — these options are not likely to cause irritation, and are gentle on skin.

What Are Your Skincare Goals?

AHA exfoliants address a wide variety of skincare concerns, which is why they’re so popular. They’re a catch-all for working to improve the appearance of skin and support its overall health. Most people find that their skincare goals align with the benefits of AHA exfoliants.

If your primary concern is oiliness or breakouts, AHA may not be as effective for you. BHA is a little more powerful when it comes to tackling excess sebum on your skin, which can cause clogged pores and breakouts. If you’re dealing with blemishes, you may want to ask your dermatologist or esthetician if a BHA exfoliant would be a valuable addition to your skincare routine. 

Can You Use Both AHA and BHA Exfoliants?

AHA and BHA exfoliants work differently. AHA helps slough away dead skin cells, while BHA works to dissolve congestion in your pores. You can generally use these two types of acid together if you have combination skin that needs some well-rounded exfoliation. 

You can use the two at the same time, or you can alternate products. If you’re exfoliating three times a week, it may be beneficial to switch back and forth between AHA and BHA.

The Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads incorporate both AHAs and BHAs, making for the ultimate exfoliant treatment that you can use weekly for glowing skin.

What Should I Know Before Using AHA or BHA Exfoliants?

If you’ve never exfoliated your face before, here’s what to expect before you start. It might take a little getting used to, but once you experience the benefits, you’ll understand why exfoliating is an important part of your skincare routine.

A Little Bit of Irritation Is Common

It’s normal for your skin to be slightly red immediately after you exfoliate. Although the acid in an exfoliant is gentle, it’s still an acid. Residual redness should dissipate within a few hours of using exfoliating. 

Choosing exfoliants that are combined with soothing and hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid or aloe can help support your skin health and comfort. Don’t forget to wrap up your skincare routine with a nourishing moisturizer.

Your Skin May Become More Sensitive

The fresh skin cells you just uncovered are delicate. It’s best not to use AHA or BHA at the same time that you use potent skincare ingredients like retinol. While both retinol and chemical exfoliants are valuable to your skincare routine, you might want to space them apart. 

It might take your skin a little bit of time to acclimate. I recommend alternating nights with your chemical exfoliant and other active treatments such as retinol. 

Be Careful With Sun Exposure

Certain chemical exfoliants may make your skin more sensitive to the sun. The dead cells on the surface of your skin act as a buffer between your skin and the sun’s harsh rays. When you remove that layer, the UVA and UVB rays directly hit your new skin cells, which can lead to irritation or sun damage. 

The sun is damaging to your skin whether you’ve exfoliated or not. Aside from sunburn and the sun’s effect of accelerating the appearance of the signs of aging, skin cancer is a serious risk. Wearing sunscreen is a must, even if you are inside all day, as UV rays can pass through windows.

Regardless of whether or not you’re using AHA or BHA exfoliators, you should always use sunscreen daily to protect your skin. 

How Should I Exfoliate My Skin?

Before you exfoliate your skin, you need to cleanse it. A clean surface gives your exfoliator a better opportunity to get to work. When the day's sweat, dirt, and grime are gone, the exfoliant can more easily remove dead skin cells. After you cleanse, gently pat your face dry.

Apply your exfoliant according to the manufacturer’s directions, then rinse it away.

Finish off your skincare routine with a hydrating moisturizer to help your skin stay calm and soothed. If it’s daytime, use a moisturizingsunscreen, like Supergoop Play. If it’s nighttime, use your normal PM moisturizer. Your moisturizer will act as a barrier for your skin, drawing in moisture and trapping it. It can shield your sensitive skin from the elements and pollution while nourishing your complexion.

The Bottom Line

Both AHA and BHA exfoliants can come in handy for different skin concerns, and you may even be able to safely use them together to amplify the benefits, depending on your skin type and needs. 

AHAs and BHAs can help clear dead skin cells away from your pores, minimize the look of discoloration or fine lines, and overall help you achieve a brighter, younger-looking complexion.


How to safely exfoliate at home | American Academy of Dermatology Association

Cosmetic and dermatologic use of alpha hydroxy acids | Journal of the German Society of Dermatology

Beta Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Epidermal and dermal effects of topical lactic acid | PubMed