Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids: Which One Is Right for You?

Published in: Skin Care

The list of beauty products containing either (or both) alpha or hydroxy acids (AHAs or BHAs) is longer than Flavor Flav’s quest for true love on reality television. (Sidenote: Seriously, when is it gonna end? I don’t think I could deal with a Flavor of Love 4.) I know I can’t be the only girl who’s stood in the skin care aisle scratching her head, wondering which hydroxy acid-containing product to snag. Their names may sound alike, but these two compounds work in different ways.



So, what’s the big difference between the two? Two words: lipid solubility, aka a substance’s ability to dissolve in oil. AHAs are water soluble, meaning they’re able to dissolve in water. BHAs, on the other hand, are lipid soluble, meaning they’re able to fully dissolve in oil (or fat). This distinction makes BHAs better at penetrating pores, pores chock full of oh-so-delicious oily sebum (ew!).

Do you have oily skin? Frequent blackheads or whiteheads? If so, take a look at products containing BHA. But if breakouts aren’t your big skin problem, and you’re looking for help dealing with sun damage, consider AHAs instead.

Got black heads and white heads? Try BHA products like…

  1. Stridex Triple Action Acne Pads with Salicylic Acid (about $6)
  2. Stridex Essential Care Triple Action Acne Pads with Salicylic Acid, Regular Strength ($4)
  3. Clean & Clear Blackhead Clearing Daily Cleansing Pads ($5.29)
  4. L’Oreal Pure Zone Tightening Astringent ($6.59)
  5. Biore Triple Action Astringent ($7)
  6. Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion ($11)
  7. DHC Salicylic Acne Toner ($14)
  8. Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control 3-in-1 Hydrating Acne Treatment ($7)
  9. Paula’s Choice 2% Beta Hydroxy Acid Gel ($17.95)
  10. DHC Salicylic Face milk ($19)

Got thickened, sun damaged skin without breakouts? Consider AHA products like…

  1. Alpha Hydrox Oil-Free Formula ($10.99)
  2. Gly Derm Lotion Plus with Glycolic Acid ($24)
  3. Aqua Glycolic Toner ($11.69)
  4. Kiss My Face Peaches & Creme Moisturizer with 8% Alpha Hydroxy Acids ($6.44)
  5. Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion Night ($9.44)

  6. Aveeno Active Naturals Positively Ageless Firming Night Cream ($19.99)
  7. M.D. Forte Facial Lotion I ($45)
  8. Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Hydrating Gel ($48)
  9. DDF Glycolic 10% Exfoliating Moisturizer ($46)
  10. DDF Glycolic 10% Toning Complex ($32)
  11. N. V. Perricone Advanced Face Firming Activator ($120)

How AHAs work

Both BHAs and AHAs make excellent exfoliants (removing dead skin cells), but AHAs work by reacting with the upper layer of the epidermis, weakening the binding properties of the lipids that hold dead skin cells together. This allows the outer skin to “dissolve,” revealing the underlying skin. Exfoliants jump-start the production of new skin cells, and we like new skin cells. AHAs are also believed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, roughness and blotchy pigmentation, and may even stimulate the production of collagen and elastin in the skin.

As a general rule of thumb for AHA products, look for ones with alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) listed as the second or third product on the ingredient list. That way, the product is a little more likely to contain the recommended concentration of 5-8 percent AHA and a pH (acidity) of 3-4. To work their magic, AHAs must be absorbed into the skin, so you can probably skip cleansers containing AHAs that will be washed off or rinsed away before this absorption can occur.

There are several different kinds of AHAs, most derived from fruit and milk sugars. Five major types with common natural sources are…

  1. glycolic acid – sugar cane
  2. lactic acid – milk
  3. malic acid – apples and pears
  4. citric acid – oranges and lemons
  5. tartaric acid – grapes

Glycolic acid and lactic acid penetrate skin a little better than the other varieties, so you’ll see these AHAs in products more often than you’ll see the others.

Unfortunately, AHAs have side effects (boo!), with the worst ones being skin irritation and increased sun sensitivity. Darker skinned folks may also experience a higher risk of scarring pigment changes.

Because of this increased sun sensitivity, sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15 is a must when using any AHA-containing products. Don’t be chintzy with the sunscreen, either! Experts suggest applying sunscreen liberally, every day, and using formulas with both UVA and UVB protection (look for avobenzone, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide for UVA protection).

How BHAs work

There’s really only one kind of BHA in widespread skin care use, and it’s salicylic acid. Like AHA, BHA works well as an exfoliant by penetrating deep into pores, sloughing off dead skin cells to make room for new ones. After six months of daily application, BHA is reported to decrease the appearance of wrinkles, roughness and mottled pigmentation caused by sun-damage. Dermatologists often prefer BHAs to AHAs because they’re generally less irritating.

Unlike products containing AHAs, in which you want the AHA to be listed in the top three ingredients, BHA does its best work at lower concentrations, so keep an eye out for products listing BHA (aka salicylic acid) in the middle or toward the bottom of the list of ingredients. BHA in skin care products generally works best at around 1-2 percent concentration, with a pH of 3-4.

Like AHAs, BHAs need to be absorbed into the skin to work their mojo, so skip cleansers with BHA and opt instead for toners, gels and lotions that won’t be washed off right away.


While beta hydroxy acid may be able to reverse some of the damage caused by photoaging (Eek! The sun!), it simultaneously makes skin more susceptible to photoaging. Weird, huh? In some people, this sun sensitivity can increase by as much as 50 percent.

If you’re going to use either type of hydroxy acid, be sure to wear sunscreen, and plenty of it. Don’t be shy about really laying it on, either. And don’t forget to use it on your neck!


For more information on AHAs and BHAs, visit Web MD or

How was your Monday, my friend? I was super busy at work (hence the late post), but I didn’t mind because it made the time pass. Tonight, I’m going to hip hop class to work it out. My dance teacher has us doing a routine with a lot of B-girl moves, and, um… I’m not as agile as I used to be. Now, I have to mentally prepare myself for any upcoming booty shaking, LOL. Trust me, being a 32-year-old wanna-be breakdancer is no easy task.

I hope your week is off to a faboolicious start!

Your friendly neighborhood beauty addict,



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So far, 28 people have commented on this article. How cool is that?

  1. Dao says:

    Very informative post, thanks a lot. I have one question though: should I put the AHA/BHA first or sunscreen first? I got mixed review of the routine, just want to have your opinion.

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Dao,

    I usually put on sunscreen after…and I put on a ton of it! I use Shiseido 55 (in the blue bottle) or Aveeno. 🙂

  3. Megan says:

    Great topic Karen. I’ve only started becoming more concerned with aging – pore size etc. But this was a very informative post. I must admit I need to do better about sunscreen…

  4. Jen says:

    Omigosh Karen, I love your blog. I discovered it after you commented mine. And just in time because I am going to soon be posting what I think to be the “best of” of makeup at the high-end store I worked at. I will definitely be coming back to your blog…I can’t wait. Keep in touch.

  5. Karen says:

    Thanks Megan! You gotta wear the sunscreen every day, my friend! Think of it as the ultimate in wrinkle prevention. 🙂

  6. Karen says:

    Hi Jen!

    Thanks for stopping by. Can’t wait to see what makeup makes the cut in your post!

  7. brazille says:

    This is helpful! Karen I have darker skin, do you think I still need to use sun screen?

  8. Karen says:

    Hi Brazille!

    Oh, great, I’m so glad that you found it helpful. My answer would be yes! I’m tan skinned and I always put a ton of it on, even when I’m at my darkest shade in the summer. 🙂

  9. Susanne says:

    Wow, thanks a lot for the information!
    I haven’t known anything about BHAs, but it seems they are great for my skin type.

  10. Karen says:

    You’re welcome Susanne. I’ve been testing some BHA products and the results so far have been good!

  11. Breezy says:

    Good info Karen, beware of that alcohol in BHA products though. I never realized how prominent it is in so many of those pads. I recently made the switch to a Clearasil cleansin pad with sea salt, no alcohol and holy mole it was a night and day difference instantly. yaaay. Love the AHA lotion too, works wonders.

  12. Karen says:

    Thanks for the heads up Breezy, that’s really good to know. I am using DHC BHA toner and I’m pretty sure it’s alcohol free – it’s doesn’t dry my skin out, which is the last thing it needs.

  13. Bgirldskco says:

    I need to be better about applying sunscreen since I used Clinique’s Clarifying Lotion.
    Yeyy for learning more bgirl moves in class! You should post a pic one day of you doing a freeze =)
    Love your post girllllll

  14. Bgirldskco says:

    I need to be better about applying sunscreen since I used Clinique’s Clarifying Lotion.
    Yeyy for learning more bgirl moves in class! You should post a pic one day of you doing a freeze =)
    Love your blog girllllll

  15. Bgirldskco says:

    sorry for it posting twice, geez

  16. Karen says:

    Hi Bgirldskco!!!

    No worries, LOL. I’ll fix it in a few.

    Ya gotta wear that sunscreen, girlfriend! It’s the best wrinkle prevention method out there. Don’t forget your neck either. I like Shiseido 55. It’s kinda pricy though, so I alternate with Aveeno.

    We did windmills in class! They are fun. I look really funny doing them though. I gotta say, you Bgirls are my heros. Breakdancing requires so much upper body muscles, as well as agility and rhythm! You gals are rad.

  17. I’ve been thinking about that Aveeno night cream for the past couple of days. The commercials on it just popped up again and I think I’m starting to feel the aging cycle kick in – argh! Karen, I seriously think I’m in denial, lol. Not bad, but I don’t want to grow up yet! Lol.

    It does really make sense about using hydroxy products that stay on your skin versus the ones that wash off – duh! And of course that common sense comes in AFTER I get me a lovely hydroxy scrub. Oh well, lol. At least I can wash with it and then soak myself in it, hah.

    Anyhow, it’s almost Friday. I’m unveiling my new look on Saturday so I’ve been absent (sorry!). But hope your week has been well so far 🙂

  18. A.C. says:

    I only just stumbled upon this in a neurotic fit of searching for discontinued CamoCare products (you guessed it, AHA/BHA). Thanks for the breakdown – it’s way helpful & much appreciated!

  19. Ida says:

    Thanks a lot for the info. I have a bit of both: ageing skin and some breakouts now and then. I’m black and have been just started trying out the Palmers AHA/BHA combination lotion. Any suggestions. I also tend to find sunscreen oily which exacerbates the breakouts.

  20. Charlotte says:

    This was incredibly helpful information! Thank you!

  21. Lil lady says:

    Can you use AHA and BHA together like one in a toner and one in a lotion? If you can what would be better for each one? Thankyou

  22. Catalina says:

    I now use my AHA cream every day, under the eyes also,it is safe in pregnancy. Studies claim that AHA unblocks pores, keep them clear, so it helps in keeping acne under control.
    Catalina recently posted … BAROQUE & ZEBRA

  23. Karen Tolentino says:

    Hi Karen,

    If I put a body lotion with AHA at night, should I still use a sunscreen in the morning?

    Karen 🙂

  24. mariah says:

    Although AHA+ wouldn’t be my first choice for those struggling with breakouts, it’s an option to alternate with a BHA exfoliant or to use if you’re not as concerned about breakouts but have uneven skin tone, rough texture, or other signs of sun damage. Experiment to see what works best for you. I had the same issue you mentioned, but I have been using the Lady Soma Renew Serum with the Berry Mask they have – and seen great results on healing my sun damage.

  25. Kath says:

    Hi Karen..

    Love your post! Thanks for the information.. My skin type is average oily and large pores, so BHA it is.. Is BHA 4% safe for my oily skin? Really appreciate your advice.

    Thank you!

  26. Vicky says:

    Hi Karen, I’m late to this party but I wanted to thank you for such an informative, easy to understand post! I’ve been dabbling in the KBeauty realm for several years, but the AHA/BHA info is frequently difficult to understand. I’ve seen several bloggers use both, and I’m really on the fence about that. My, um, “mature” skin issues are eye lines and a few hyperpigmentation marks (thankfully not many). Off to find a suitable AHA to start with… thanks again!

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