- What are AHAs, BHAs and PHAs?
Acids Explained: What are AHAs, BHAs and PHAs In Skincare?
Topical acids have been getting more popular over recent years, and it’s with good reason. As everyone’s starting to catch on to the damage that harsh scrubs can do to your face, plus the total glow-inducing, pore-clearing magic of chemical exfoliators, acids are quickly becoming a must-have in skincare routines. They can even help with collagen production, which reduces fine lines and wrinkles!
But with so many different types of acids and products out there, it can be a bit overwhelming if you’re new to the scene or your current product isn’t working for you.
Below, we break down three common types of acids in skincare—AHAs, BHAs and PHAs—plus give our top recommendations for the best products in each category.
WHAT ARE AHAs IN SKINCARE?
Usually derived from organic sugars, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) dissolve the bonds keeping dead cells clinging to your skin, revealing a smoother complexion and reducing imperfections.
There are several different types of AHAs you’re probably familiar with, which are great for a number of skin conditions. Glycolic acid is a super popular and widely studied AHA that can help with ageing and acne, while lactic acid reduces dark spots and also helps with fine lines. Mandelic acid, from bitter almonds, also treats the aforementioned conditions, but is super gentle on the skin.
Whether you have uneven texture on your face, mild breakouts, sunburn or your complexion is just looking a little dull, AHAs are a great option to add into your routine.
Check out more about AHAs in our ingredient guide here.
AND SHOP SOME OF THE BEST AHA SKINCARE BELOW:
Medik8 Clarifying Foam£8.00
If you want to incorporate AHAs through a cleanser, this clarifying foam is a top choice. It uses mandelic acid to buff away the dead outer layers of your skin as well as BHA (salicylic acid) to get rid of trapped oil and congested pores. There's also niacinamide to soothe the skin and tea tree oil to reduce the bacteria that causes breakouts. Get ready for hydrated, clear and calm skin!
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution£12.17
After cleansing, use this glycolic acid toner to refine skin texture. And for those with sensitive skin, have no fear - this toner contains Tasmanian pepperberry to minimise inflammation and aloe vera and ginseng root to soothe your complexion.
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution£8.81
We'll never not recommend this cult-favourite peeling solution, which combines AHAs and salicylic acid to remove dead skin, pore congestion and texture for super smooth results, while comforting the skin with hyaluronic acid, vitamin B5, black carrot and Tasmanian pepperberry. Just make sure you leave this one for a maximum of ten minutes because it's powerful!
DCL G20 Radiance Peel£54.00
Another peeling product with AHA that we just love is this professional-strength 20% glycolic acid peel from DCL. In convenient pad form, it improves your cell renewal process, controls oil production and reduces fine lines and wrinkles to reveal, youthful radiant skin.
Votary Radiance Reveal Mask Lactic & Mandelic Acid£55.00
Acid face masks are perfect for a little pamper sesh with glowing results at the end of it. Use this Votary mask to treat fine lines, pores and pigmentation with a blend of mandelic and lactic acids.
NeoStrata Glycolic Renewal Smoothing Cream£32.99 £57.00 (43% off)
AHAs also come in moisturisers, like this anti-ageing face cream that's ideal for first-time AHA users. 8% glycolic acid and 2% citric acid will give you a light exfoliation that helps with dark spots, fine lines and dullness, and there's also antioxidants to keep your skin shielded from oxidative stress.
WHAT IS BHA IN SKINCARE?
Now for more serious breakouts and congestion, let us direct you to beta hydroxy acid (BHA), salicylic acid.
This powerful BHA comes from willow bark and sweet birch, and goes deep into your pores to unclog them and prevent acne. Antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, BHA soothe redness, reduce oiliness and make your pores appear smaller.
Read more about BHA in our ingredient guide here.
HERE ARE OUR PICKS OF THE BEST BHA SKINCARE PRODUCTS:
CeraVe Blemish Control Cleanser£12.04 £13.00 (8% off)
BHA cleansers are a great place to start, and for a budget-friendly yet effective option, we can always count on CeraVe. This 2% salicylic acid cleanser removes excess oil, dead skin and other impurities for smooth skin without the shine. Niacinamides aid with improving pore appearance, and ceramides protect your skin barrier.
Dermalogica Clear Start Breakout Clearing Foaming Wash£19.00 £19.42 (3% off)
You might also like this foaming wash from Dermalogica, which also uses salicylic acid to reduce blemishes and excess oil. Plus, botanicals like lavender, tea tree and orange peel extract help soothe your acne-prone skin (and the cleanser can even be used on the body!).
Medik8 Press & Clear£29.00
Blemishes are safe and easy to banish with this BHA-charged tonic from Medik8. 2% salicylic acid works together with 2% tranexamic acids to brighten your skin, while sake extract and aloe vera nourish and soften.
Paula's Choice Clear Extra Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution£33.58
2% salicylic acid powers this leave-on exfoliator, clearing out pores and blackheads and soothing redness and inflammation. It even gives your skin a dose of hydration so it feels comfortable and soft.
Dermalogica Active Clearing Sebum Clearing Masque£46.90 £55.00 (15% off)
For a quick and powerful breakout-busting product, try a face mask like this one from Dermalogica, which not only uses salicylic acid to clear blackheads, pores and oil, but also has kaolin clay to absorb oil and purify the skin, and a soothing blend of botanicals like zinc, niacinamide, caffeine and biotin.
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque£12.35
WHAT ARE PHAs IN SKINCARE?
Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are the only acid category in skincare that don’t make your skin more susceptible to UV damage. Incredibly gentle on the skin, they dissolve the protein bonds keeping dead skin attached to your face and improve hydration. While they don’t penetrate the skin very much and therefore aren’t the best for clearing acne, they’re ideal for those with sensitive skin who still want that clean, glowing complexion.
Read more about PHAs in our ingredient guide here.
THEN SHOP THE BEST PHA SKINCARE BELOW:
Zelens PHA+ Resurfacing Facial Pad£42.75 £69.03 (39% off)
These facial pads from Zelens have the best of all three worlds, combining PHAs, AHAs and BHAs into a one-step resurfacing treatment that gives you smoother, firmer and more even skin without irritation.
Medik8 Press & Glow Tonic£23.00
Remember the Medik8 Press & Clear from earlier in this list? Well, if salicylic acid is too strong for you, you'll love this tonic with the PHA gluconolactone. It is super gentle on sensitive skin while still getting rid of dead skin cells and improving hydration. It also has aloe vera and acai extract to help with inflammation and free radical protection, and studies showed glowing results in just two weeks!
FOREO ESPADA BHA+PHA Blemish Solution£30.00
When you need the blemish-busting power of salicylic acid and the soothing, hydrating benefits of lactobionic acid, choose this BHA+PHA treatment from FOREO. It also contains niacinamide and tea tree oil for redness and panthenol for moisturising.
NeoStrata Bionic Lotion£37.99 £42.00 (10% off)
This lightweight moisturiser is great for dry, mature skin, as it uses gluconolactone to safely exfoliate this more sensitive skin type and strengthen your moisture barrier. It has another PHA, lactobionic acid, to reduce fine lines, discolouration, pore size and roughness and draw even more moisture into your skin. A super skin-quencher!
AHA vs BHA vs PHA: Which should I use?
All of these lovely acids are going to exfoliate your skin and keep it smooth, clear and firm, but as you’ve already gathered, there are differences between them that make each more suited to your particular needs.
AHAs and PHAs only sit on the skin’s surface, so BHAs, which exfoliate both the surface and within pores, are better for serious breakouts, large pores and normal to oily skin.
For normal to dry skin, an AHA is a great choice since you don’t need the super deep exfoliation of a BHA.
Those with easily irritated skin are going to want to reach for a gentle AHA like lactic acid, or a PHA, which is the gentlest of them all thanks its large molecular structure (meaning it can’t penetrate the skin like salicylic acid does). PHAs are also wonderful if you use a retinol, as they work together to brighten the skin.
Can I use AHAs, BHAs and PHAs together?
With these acids targeting different conditions, you can definitely layer them to get better results. However, combining acids does make them more potent and can sometimes cause irritation (see the bit about negative side effects below), so just be careful about how you do it.
Experts recommend applying leave-on acids to different parts of the face to avoid layering them on the same area of skin (such as salicylic acid for an oily T-zone and an AHA or PHA product elsewhere), or using a cleanser with one type of acid followed by a toner with another type of acid since the cleanser will be washed off.
Plus, keep in mind that there are other ingredients you definitely don’t want to mix these acids with unless they’re already formulated together, such as vitamin C, so always make sure you do your research before adding a particular product to your routine!
Are there any negative side effects of using topical acids in skincare?
Acids exfoliate the skin, and you probably know by now—if you’re ditching the face scrubs for chemical exfoliators—the dangers of over-exfoliating. That’s why you should always test out an AHA, BHA or PHA product before incorporating it regularly, and plan your layering carefully so you don’t over-use these acids and ruin your skin barrier.
Use of topical acids can also cause sensitivity to sunlight, but that’s easy to fix with a good ole SPF (which you should be wearing daily anyways!).
Once you’ve gotten rid of all those pesky dead skin cells with a chemical exfoliator, you’ll want to follow it with a serum!
Check out our Ultimate Guide to Face Oils and Serums.
Written by Gabriella Buckner
Gabriella is a junior content writer with a background in creative writing, content marketing and journalism. She’s passionate about all things makeup and skincare, but especially vegan and cruelty-free beauty that is effective and inexpensive.