AHA vs BHA | All You Need to Know About Chemical Exfoliants

Exfoliating acids can reduce acne and make your skin clearer. Here’s the guide about AHA vs BHA acids, what they do, who should use them, and who shouldn’t be using them.

I simply despise looking at myself in the mirror these days. My skin just seems mottled over the past few months. While I’m regular with my skincare routine, I think I made a huge mistake by skipping on exfoliating recently. I think it was this blunder of mine that aggravated the condition.

Chemical Exfoliants
AHA vs BHA acids, what they do, who should use them, and who shouldn't be using them.

It was just that I had become paranoid reading, and learning all about the various available physical exfoliants. The very thought of scrubbing my face, and using acid-based chemical exfoliators on my delicate skin sounded frightening to me. I thought that of the two, it was the chemical exfoliants that were too harsh for my skin.

However, I was aghast when some experts told me that skipping on exfoliating was the biggest mistake I could do to my skin. This was when I had decided to try my luck with chemical treatment.

I have to tell you, it was one of the best decisions I’d made. Despite doing it for a short time now, it’s brought about a huge difference for my skin. It looks clearer, brighter, smoother and healthier. In short, I advise you to exfoliate your skin if you want it to look its best for special occasions.

Benefits of regular exfoliation

Skin shedding cells is a natural process, which unfortunately doesn’t disappear on its own. They tend to stick to your healthy skin to clog pores, highlight lines and wrinkles and in short, dull your complexion.

The best way to prevent dull skin, clogged pores and even discolored skin is through regular exfoliation. If you are one of those who use anti-aging products, regular exfoliation helps the products penetrate better into the skin for better results.

It’s not surprising that exfoliation is more of a need as you grow older. You need to do it to fight dry skin, minimal skin regrowth and to prevent fine lines and wrinkles from worsening.

Now you may wonder what exactly does ‘regular exfoliation’ mean? You may also wonder which exfoliation method is perfect for ladies over 50.

You can find your answer here on how you can make your skin look all the more beautiful.

Chemical Exfoliants
AHA is best for dry skin and surface-level skin concerns like acne scars. BHAs are best for oily and acne-prone skin types.

There are 2 Types of Exfoliation:

Physical vs. Chemical

Despite there being so many exfoliating products on websites, counters, and aisles, there are two types. They are Physical / Mechanical (scrubbing or gommage) and Chemical exfoliants (peeling) that do the same thing – remove dead skin.

However, they do it differently. You should know you are doing it right for your skin to ensure your serums moisturize and other products penetrate your skin much better. In short, the right method gives you more value for your money. Instead of making a mistake, here’s a breakdown of these practices to help you out.

What is Physical exfoliation?

Frankly, physical or mechanical exfoliation involves exfoliating using the help of things like brushes, loofahs, sponges and abrasive scrubs. 

It is the friction it creates that helps loosen and remove dead cells, oils and dirt from the skin. Not all physical exfoliants are the same.

A scrub is ideal for:

  • deep cleaning of your face
  • removing blackheads from your skin
  • toning your face by reactivating the skin’s microcirculation

Check you drugstore’s scrub’s list of ingredients to ensure that there are no large exfoliating agents in it. Avoid using facial brushes with firm bristles and loofahs and sponges that are too abrasive for your skin.

According to a dermatologist and exfoliation expert, your skin deserves to be exfoliated with something soft. So while scrubs are helpful, they have to be handled gently. 

No matter how good they may seem, they aren’t as effective or gentle on the skin as chemical exfoliation. You’ll learn more about this later on.

I love physical exfoliation. Are there ingredients I should be avoiding?

It’s better to look for scrubs with small, smooth exfoliating agents. Something large and jagged like nut shell and fruit pit pieces is abrasive enough to trigger micro-tears in the skin.

What’s a micro-tear?

Don’t worry. These are little skin tears caused by sharp, jagged agents. This is why many dermatologists do not advocate the use of physical exfoliants. 

If you take a look at the micro-tears under a microscope, you find rough, etched tears on the skin. They resemble sandpaper to wood and prove the unevenness of physical exfoliation.

What ingredients do they use?

They use anything natural or synthetic that can brush off dead cells from your skin. The common ingredients are:

  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Apricot kernels
  • Oatmeal
  • Clarisonic bristles
  • Washcloth
  • Walnut shells
  • Silicone brushes or Foreo

Are there any side effects?

They may have jagged edges that scratch and tear the skin. Apricot kernels are the worst of the lot, and best avoided. Physical exfoliants don’t give a uniform exfoliation.

So supposing you scrub your forehead for 1 minute and your cheeks for 2 minutes, you end up with skin that’s more exfoliated in some places than others.

Besides scrubs, are there other forms of physical exfoliants?

There are. They are:

1   Microdermabrasion is where a licensed professional scrubs your face. It’s best for those having scars, stretch marks or wrinkles.

Dermaplaning  where a sterile, single-edged blade is used to safely remove the accumulated dead skin that makes your skin look dull and unhealthy. Sounds like fun right?!

Chemical exfoliation

What is chemical exfoliation?

Yes, you’ve guessed it right. Chemical exfoliation involves using chemicals to remove dead skin cells. They are called peels and are great to smooth and brighten your skin to make it glow.

How Does Chemical Exfoliation Work?

Chemical exfoliants work by dissolving the ‘glue’ holding skin cells together so that they fall off. They also dissolve the dead skin cells.

  • deep cleaning of your face
  • unclogging pores
  • smoothing and softening your skin
AHA vs BHA - chemical exfoliants to reduce acne and brighten skin

If you are thinking of chemical exfoliation, there are some ingredients worth knowing:



Retinol is a great ingredient for mature skin. Its regular use helps improve wrinkles, lines, and even your skin tone and pigmentation. It also encourages the skin to produce collagen, which improves your skin’s appearance.



Let's Start with AHA

AHA is the short-form for alpha-hydroxy acids while BHA is the short-form for beta hydroxy acid. They each have their own properties.

AHA is derived from natural substances like sugar, fruits, milk, and nuts to remove the ‘glue’ holding dead skin cells together. However, unlike BHAs, they cannot penetrate deep into pores because they are water-soluble.

AHAs and BHAs are types of hydroxy acids which you can find in a variety of toners, cleansers, moisturizers, peels, masks, and scrubs. Both work as exfoliants that can remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin depending on the concentration.

What Kind of Acids Are Used for Chemical Peels?

  • Glycolic Acid: Known as the holy grail for exfoliation that helps remove the outer layer of the skin to unravel brighter, radiant complexion.
    The workhorse of exfoliating ingredient that effectively helps with acne, unblock pores and blackheads. Start with a lower percentage (-10%) of glycolic acid and use every 3 days.
  • Lactic Acid: The second most common AHA made from the lactose found in milk. People with Rosacea or sensitive skin will benefit the most from this AHAsa it’s less likely to irritate.
  • Mandelic Acid: Helps your skin’s overall texture, pigmentation and pore size.
  • Citric Acid: This AHA can be found in toners that are for neutralizing the skin’s pH. From oranges to lemon, and grapefruit, citric acid is found in fruits and is an effective antioxidant.
  • Tartaric Acid: Helps signs of sun damage and acne. It is found in unripe grapes.
  • Malic Acid: Great for acne-prone skin, it is mostly found in apples and cherries as well as other fruits. It helps open pores and clears out sebum.

Which acid should you choose?

are Used for :

  • Skin exfoliation by dissolving the ‘glue’ binding dead skin cells
  • Boosting the production of collagen or glycolic acid
  • Hydrating the skin
  • Reducing dark spots and wrinkles

Which AHA is better?

While this depends on you and your needs, glycolic acid is generally the best. This is because, in addition to the abovementioned properties, it also boosts collagen production to give you thicker and firmer skin.

However, those with sensitive skin should use lactic acid, which is the gentlest of the AHAs. It will exfoliate your skin without irritating it.

Are there any side effects?

Yes, AHAs, especially glycolic acid, will irritate and even peel skin at first. This is why it’s better to start with a small 5% dose a few times a week and then slowly increase the dose and frequency.

Also, make it a habit to apply sunscreen after exfoliating in the morning. Like other exfoliants, AHAs increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays.

Who should use them?

AHAs are so hydrating and can boost collagen, which make them the best choice for those with:

  • Dry skin
  • Sensitive skin (using only lactic acid)
  • Sun-damaged skin (using only glycolic acid)

What is BHA?

There’s only one BHA that’s widely used in cosmetics, which is Salicylic Acid that’s derived from willow tree bark.

The most common BHA is Salicylic acid, but it all depends on the range of concentration being used (0.5 % and 5%). It is well-known as an acne treatment, but it can also help calm down general redness and inflammation.

How BHA Benefits Your Skin

BHAs, on the other hand, are primarily used for acne and sun damage. These products go deep into your hair follicles to dry out excess oils and dead skin cells to unclog your pores.

Because of these effects, BHAs are most suitable for combination to oily skin. Lower concentrations may be used to help calm sensitive skin. You may also have more success with BHAs if you wanted to reduce rosacea-related redness.

Credit: Bronwyn

What does BHA do?

It does a lot like:
  • Skin exfoliation by dissolving the ‘glue’ binding skin cells
  • Soothing redness and irritation with its anti-inflammatory properties
  • Reducing fine lines and dark spots
  • Penetrating pores to unclog them from inside

Are there any side effects?

Lower concentrations of about 1-2% of salicylic acid are more effective than AHAs. This means that while it’s less likely to cause irritation, it can irritate the skin if used too much.

So make sure you don’t use it more than required! Also, don’t forget to wear sunscreen because it makes the skin is very sensitive to UV rays during the day.

Who should use it?

Both AHAs and BHA are great for skin exfoliation. If you consider chemical exfoliants AHA vs BHA, AHAs are water-soluble while BHA is oil-soluble. 

This means that only BHA can penetrate to unclog pores while going deep into your hair follicles to dry out excess oils and dead skin cells.

This makes it a better option for those with oily or acne-prone skin.

Is it possible to use AHA and BHA Products together?

Yes, of course,  according to this 2009 review, you can use both because they exfoliate the upper skin layer differently. It’s safe to use them both. BHAs work by breaking down the bonds between cells while AHAs detach the cells.

Though you can use AHA & BHA together, avoid using them on top of one another as these are exfoliators which can cause irritation and dryness on the skin.

Use or work on these products alternately like one type in the morning and one type in the evening.

What's the Difference Between AHA vs BHA?

In a nutshell, while both AHAs and BHA exfoliate the skin, AHAs are hydrating and collagen-boosting. This is what makes them a better choice for dry and sun-damaged skin. However, BHA is better for oily skin because it unclogs pores.


Enzymes (Papain and Bromelain)

Enzymes are gentler at exfoliating the skins superficial layers. They relieve the skin’s dull appearance and help reduce fine lines and mild discoloration.

This is why fruit enzymes like papain (papaya) or bromelain (pineapple) make great exfoliants for people with sensitive skin.

They are not as harsh on the skin as AHAs or BHAs. These enzymes work at breaking down skin keratin by targeting only the epidermis’ outermost layer.

The only disadvantage of enzyme exfoliators is that they turn unstable according to the environment.


Rice extract and rice bran

This is ideal for those with sensitive or mature skin that cannot withstand retinol or even AHAs.

Are there any side effects Using Chemical Exfoliants?

As chemical exfoliants may trigger irritations with frequent use, it’s better to start with small concentrations. Start using a few nights a week and slowly increase the dose and frequency.

Why Is Chemical Exfoliation Better Than Physical Exfoliation?

If you wonder which method is better for aging skin, from my experience, Chemical is always better than Mechanical or Physical.  I feel that chemical exfoliation is better than mechanical exfoliation, especially for those with mature skin because it gives better results.

It also triggers a better cell regrowth and helps remove wrinkles and pigmentation. With facial skin growing delicate with time, abrasive exfoliants will only compromise the skin integrity and trigger some irritation and inflammation.

How often should you exfoliate?

While it’s determined based on your skin type, most dermatologists don’t advise exfoliating more than once or twice a week. People suffering from rosacea or who are redness-prone should use something gentler and less often.

It’s better to do some research and consult your dermatologist. It’s also worth trying samples to find out if any particular exfoliant is ideal for your skin type.

It’s always safer to use products with a sensitive-skin prone formula and to remember to wear an SPF every day. Remember, sun sensitivity is increased in regions where the dead skin layer is removed.

For mature skin:

It’s not advisable to over-exfoliate mature skin because it’s counterproductive. It only slows down the cell turnover, triggers an inflammation to accelerate aging skin and strips the skin of natural oils.

If it’s your first attempt at exfoliation, I suggest you start exfoliating once a week. Slowly increase the number as your body tolerates it.

How do you know what your skin can stand?

The best way to decide how much of exfoliation your skin tolerates is by taking a close look at your skin. If it’s irritating and there’s recurring flaking, redness or inflammation, you have to either reduce the frequency or assess the cause.

Strong chemicals, rough tools or over usage of products are the common causes of irritation and redness. You generally shouldn’t scrub hard because it’s gentle exfoliation that’s always better and more effective for the skin.

Chemical vs. physical exfoliation: Which type is best?

It’s no doubt – Chemical Exfoliation. Why? It’s because it:

  • Evenly exfoliates skin
  • Has a lower chance of skin irritation
  • Do other things like hydrating skin and boosting the production of collagen

So looking at all this, it makes me wonder whoever said that chemicals are bad?!

Things to Expect When You Begin Chemical Exfoliation

While the extreme benefits of chemical exfoliation, like an improved skin texture, fading of hyperpigmentation, elimination of clogged pores, and softening of fine lines and wrinkles take a long time to appear, you will notice some immediate changes in your skin.

These are the kinds of things you might notice that are perfectly fine and normal:

• Mild flaking of dead skin.

• Mild purging of pimples that were previously buried under the skin. It shouldn’t last more than a couple of weeks, and should happen in areas of your face where you normally break out.

• Increased luster and brightness.

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13 thoughts on “AHA vs BHA | All You Need to Know About Chemical Exfoliants”

  1. I actually have milia like small bump-like cysts that get easily noticeable when I’m in direct sunlight. I tried Salicylic acid from Ordinary but gave me break outs. Can you recommend something gentler acid for my Milia problem? Thank you 🙂

    1. @Cornellie,
      You can try Ordinary’s Azelaic Acid Suspension, I know lot of my friends who used this acid and see great results.

  2. hello there… Im 27 and I have a question, hope I could get a reply 🙂 I’m actually torn between lactic acid but I’ve also heard about Ordinary’s Azelaic Acid suspension which is recommended for textured, uneven skin. Any recommendation on what I can try? Thank you.

  3. How often should I exfoliate? I have large pores on my nose and some zits on my forehead. I’ve started using retinol at night and vitamin C in the morning. What do you think is a good option for my skin? Thank you Sienna.

    1. @Bianca,
      To get your pores under control, try using salicylic acid ( this is also great for oily skin). Use this routine 2 or 3x a week.

  4. I’m using retinol (Neutrogena) moisturizer, I am wondering how much percentage of retinol is in there, I cant find it in their website.. thank you again.

  5. Hi Sienna, Do i still need to exfoliate my skin though Im already 70 years old? Will it thin out my skin overtime or should I use retinol? Thank you for the reply

    1. hi Beatrice,
      You can exfoliate your skin 1 or 2x a week. Try using glycolic acid as it helps to make skin thicker if being used regularly.

  6. I love, love glycolic acid..it makes my pores look tiny and my skin feels so smooth. I’m actually using the Ordinary’s glycolic acid, plus rosehip seed oil for my night time routine.

  7. Thank you for the information, now I understand the difference between AHA and BHA… Im going to use salicylic acid because I have oily skin. Love your site btw..

  8. Pingback: How to Get Rid of Sebaceous Filaments - The Everyday Blogger

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