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…
- Stridex Triple Action Acne Pads with Salicylic Acid (about $6)
- Stridex Essential Care Triple Action Acne Pads with Salicylic Acid, Regular Strength ($4)
- Clean & Clear Blackhead Clearing Daily Cleansing Pads ($5.29)
- L’Oreal Pure Zone Tightening Astringent ($6.59)
- Biore Triple Action Astringent ($7)
- Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion ($11)
- DHC Salicylic Acne Toner ($14)
- Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control 3-in-1 Hydrating Acne Treatment ($7)
- Paula’s Choice 2% Beta Hydroxy Acid Gel ($17.95)
- DHC Salicylic Face milk ($19)
Got thickened, sun damaged skin without breakouts? Consider AHA products like…
- Alpha Hydrox Oil-Free Formula ($10.99)
- Gly Derm Lotion Plus with Glycolic Acid ($24)
- Aqua Glycolic Toner ($11.69)
- Kiss My Face Peaches & Creme Moisturizer with 8% Alpha Hydroxy Acids ($6.44)
- Aveeno Active Naturals Positively Ageless Firming Night Cream ($19.99)
- M.D. Forte Facial Lotion I ($45)
- Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Hydrating Gel ($48)
- DDF Glycolic 10% Exfoliating Moisturizer ($46)
- DDF Glycolic 10% Toning Complex ($32)
- 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…
- glycolic acid – sugar cane
- lactic acid – milk
- malic acid – apples and pears
- citric acid – oranges and lemons
- 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!
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,