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What’s the Difference Between AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs?

By Melissa Epifano

While exfoliants have been around for a long time, many people have been swapping out their physical scrubs, for a more efficient and less abrasive version, known as acids. You may have heard AHAs and BHAs floating around, and nodded along, assuring that you knew what they stand for and why people use them (just as a refresher: alpha hydroxy acid, beta hydroxy acid, and they do a lot).

But before you could even add AHA and BHA to your vocabulary, PHA popped up, and now you somehow have a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully, we spoke with experts in this field, so you don’t have to shuffle through random articles hoping for the best or breakdown at your local Ulta because you have no idea which one to choose. It helps, too, that each one serves a very different purpose, making it easy to decide the route you’d like to take. Let’s get started, shall we?


What is the difference between these three acids?

Dr. Elyse Love, an NYC board-certified dermatologist says AHAs and BHAs are the most common ones you’ll find. “Beta hydroxy acid is synonymous with salicylic acid, and alpha-hydroxy acids include glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid. In the past year, poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) have gained popularity as a gentler alternative to AHAs.”

She also explains that BHAs serve you better if you’re working with more surface-level issues like oiliness, pore appearance, and whiteheads. AHAs on the other hand, “particularly glycolic acid, provide slightly deeper results with stimulation of collagen production, skin brightening, and improvement in hyperpigmentation. Mandelic and lactic acid provide similar but milder benefits compared to glycolic acid,” says Dr. Love. So if you want to go deep, stick with the latter, and if your interests lie in combatting things that you don’t have to go through many a layer to get to, the former is most likely right for you.

The new kid on the block is polyhydroxy acids. These are a cousin of AHAs, but are a much smarter option if your skin is reactionary to anything you put on it. Dr. Love says, “PHAs are larger molecules that remain on the surface of the skin. This provides gentle exfoliation without the irritation that can be seen with AHAs and BHAs.” She also mentions that they work perfectly when it comes to helping other products better penetrate your skin.


How to find the best acid for your complexion

In short, discovering the best acid for you comes down to figuring out your skin type and biggest area of concern, according to Dr. Eddie Omar, PhD, CEO of Phyto-C.

“For a more aggressive exfoliation, use an AHA such as glycolic acid or lactic acid. Someone with inflamed skin should use BHAs.”

And if you have sensitive skin?

“PHAs would be good to start with to have your skin become acclimated before using more aggressive hydroxy acids,” he says.

Stephanie Ivonne, a licensed esthetician who serves on the advisory board for Smart Style Today, highly recommends doing a patch test before committing, too. “Waiting a couple of days after doing a patch test can really make a difference in the health of your skin, preventing the risk of adverse side effects and negative reactions – which although are slim, can still happen to some.” Even if it takes a while to find one that suits your needs, the payoff is worth it according to Ivonne. “If you’re looking to create a brighter, smoother, and healthier-looking tone and texture, incorporating these acids into your skincare regime can bring you steps closer to your best skin.”

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