How to choose the right skin exfoliator in 2022

There’s nothing I love more than getting worked up about skincare ingredients and skincare routines. While others jump straight into sampling a new product, I skip right to reading the ingredient label first. And you know what I learned during my career? This ish can get really confusing, really fast, especially when it comes to chemical exfoliants. For example, “alpha hydroxy acid” (AHA) and “beta hydroxy acid” (BHA) look a lot alike, don’t they? But they are distinctly different: one is better for dark spots and the other is better for getting rid of a pimple. One is better for sensitive and dry skin, and the other is better for oily skin.

So if you plan to use either, it is important to know the difference between AHA and BHA. And that’s where I, your favorite skincare nerd, come in. I’ve talked to a ton of dermatologists and skincare experts about AHAs and BHAs to help you figure out which is best for your skin type and needs. Keep it handy as a memory aid the next time you reach for that new acid to exfoliate your face.

Meet the experts:

  • Adarsh ​​Vijay MudgilMD, is a board certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist at Mudgil Dermatology in New York, NY.
  • Neal Schultz, MD, is a Park Avenue Skin Care board-certified dermatologist and owner of BeautyRX. Dr. Schultz has already spoken to cosmos about facial exfoliation.
  • Saya Obayan, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist with Skin Joy Dermatology in Austin, TX. Dr. Obayan has already spoken to cosmos on the subject of glycolic acid serums.
  • Shereene Idriss, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology in New York, NY. Dr. Idriss has already spoken to cosmos about the liquid exfoliator.
  • Loretta Ciraldo, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and owner of Dr. Loretta Skin Care. Dr. Ciraldo has already spoken to cosmos on the subject of skin texture.
  • Mamina Turégano, MD, is the co-founder of Skintap.com and a board-certified dermatologist at East Jefferson General Hospital in New Orleans, LA. Dr Turegano has already spoken to cosmos on the topic of acne body wash.
  • Rachel Nazarian, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology. Dr. Nazarian has already spoken to cosmos on the subject of salicylic acid.

    What is AHA?

    The abbreviation AHA means alpha-hydroxy acid, an acid primarily used as a chemical exfoliator or liquid exfoliator (as opposed to a physical exfoliant, such as a grainy facial scrub). The most popular AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid, and chances are you’ve used them before. But otherwise, here’s how they work and who they’re best suited for:

    The skin benefits of AHAs:

    AHAs are superficial exfoliants (meaning they exfoliate the top layer of the skin) that help treat melasma, sun damage, acne and superficial wrinkles (by stimulating collagen production), explains dermatologist Adarsh ​​Vijay Mudgil, MD. According to dermatologist Shereene Idriss, MD, AHAs aren’t just good for fading hyperpigmentation, they’re also great for exfoliating the skin and preventing breakouts because they dissolve the glue between dead skin cells, helping to prevent pore clogging.

    The best skin type for AHAs:

    In addition to their exfoliating properties, AHAs are known to be somewhat hydrating at the same time – a plus for those who have dry skin. And if you have easily irritated skin, lactic acid is known to be a great AHA for sensitive skin (although you should always test new products). As dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, MD previously said Cosmos, those with rough skin texture from very dry skin might benefit from using lactic acid (the most hydrating exfoliant in the AHA family) to hydrate as it exfoliates. If your skin can tolerate something a little stronger, try glycolic acid, which is one of the most effective AHAs.

    Where to apply AHAs:

    On your face, on your back, on your butt, you can even use AHAs on your feet in a foot mask. AHAs are super versatile and come in tons of different formats, like toners, peels, masks, or serums, but there’s no need to double them up and use them in every product (please don’t ). Find a type of product that works for you (those with longer contact times usually work better, but they can be more irritating) and stick with that one.

    How to use AHAs:

    Board-certified dermatologist Saya Obayan, MD, once said cosmos that if you are new to acids, the best way to incorporate them into your routine is to start with a low percentage of glycolic acid (like 5%) and slowly work your way up to 15 or 20%. If you have sensitive skin, board-certified dermatologist Neal Schultz, MD once said cosmos that you should start by applying a gentle exfoliant like lactic acid once a week for a few weeks and gradually increase to three to four times a week. If you need something stronger at this point, switch to glycolic acid.


    What is BHA?

    Now let’s move on to BHAs. This acronym stands for beta hydroxy acids, and it is also a chemical exfoliant. The most notable BHA is salicylic acid, but willow bark extract is a popular mild alternative. Although there is a slight overlap between the benefits of BHAs and AHAs, they have a few key differences, so let’s get to that.

    The skin benefits of BHAs:

    Chances are you’ve used salicylic acid once or twice on a pimple. Why? It is one of the most common ingredients for treat whiteheads, but it also works for inflammatory acne as well as. “Because salicylic acid is an anti-inflammatory ingredient, it also decreases the redness and irritation that accompanies red, tender pimples,” dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, previously said. cosmos. “And since it breaks the bonds between skin cells, it also gently exfoliates your skin to help prevent acne from forming.”

    The best skin type for BHAs:

    Thanks to their antibacterial properties and ability to penetrate deep into the skin, BHAs are ideal for treating oily, acne-prone skin and enlarged pores, says Dr. Mudgil. If you have naturally dry skin, rosacea or eczema, be careful with salicylic acid and consult your dermatologist first.

    Where to apply BHAs:

    As a proven acne ingredient, sal acid is most commonly found in spot treatments, body washes, and acne cleansers. Although you wouldn’t want to go overboard on BHA (irritation? No, thanks) You can apply salicylic acid to most places, like on your chest or even on your scalp with shampoo if you have dandruff or scalp acne.

    How to use BHAs:

    For the most part, over-the-counter salicylic acid products will have concentrations between 0.5% and 2%, but JSYK, more doesn’t always mean better. Just like retinoids or AHAs, start low and work your way up to a stronger focus if your skin can handle it without irritation.


    Which is better, AHA or BHA?

    Remember, this is not a contest. Just find what works for you and run with it. AHAs and BHAs are both great for the skin, but they may not be for everyone. (please see the section above where we go over the ideal skin types for each acid). To sum up, AHAs are better for dry skin and those looking to fight pigmentation, while BHAs are better for oily skin and acne. And if you’re someone who has concerns on both sides, you might want to consider using a product that contains both AHAs and BHAs. Waaaa? ! You can do it?? Yes, you can use them both, but you have to be careful.

    Can AHA and BHA be used together?

    “For people who have acne-prone skin or large pores and sun damage or pigmentation issues, a combination product is a good option,” says Dr. Mudgil. “The combination can be more irritating, however, it is therefore important to be aware of the effects on the skin. Try just one chemical exfoliant at a time, at least initially, and see what your skin can handle. If you seem to tolerate exfoliants well, use a product that contains both AHAs and BHAs instead of trying to combine them yourself.

    The Final Word on AHA vs BHA

    No ingredient is better than the other in itself, but we could be better for you. As Dr. Mudgil explains, if your issues are sunspots and fine lines, you really only need a product that contains AHAs. If you don’t have sun damage but have large pores or acne-prone skin, you probably only need a product that contains BHA. If you have sun damage and acne-prone or enlarged-pore skin, an AHA/BHA combination product would be the most complete solution. And remember, when we talk about exfoliation, especially if you’re just starting out or trying new products, less is more.

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    About Sally Dominguez

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