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AHA vs BHA vs PHA: Which Exfoliating Acid Is Right For Your Skin?

Unsure which exfoliating acid is right for your skin?

Whether you're suffering from dull skin or have acne scars or pigmentation marks that just won't budge, exfoliating acids could be the missing step in your skincare routine.

Hydroxy Acids are split up into 3 groups;

  • Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

  • Beta-Hydroxy Acids BHAs)

  • Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs)

These acids all have slightly different molecular sizes and function slightly differently within the skin. Therefore it's important to know which one is suitable for your skin type before you start using them.

Studies have shown the use of hydroxy acids has pretty impressive skin results, from;

  • Hydration

  • Reducing pigmentation marks and acne scars

  • Balancing oily skin/acne-prone skin type and clearing clogged pores

  • Stimulating collagen and cell turnover for a more youthful, plump, and glowing appearance

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Glycolic Acid (AHA)

First off, don't be scared by the word 'acid', because Hydroxy Acids are actually derived from fruits, vegetables, or plants.

AHAs are a group of naturally occurring acids, derived from sugars in particular plants and fruit. For example; Glycol Acid (sugar cane), Lactic Acid (fermented milk, fruits), Citric Acid (citrus fruits), Mandelic Acid (bitter almonds), Tartaric Acid, and Malic Acid (grapes, apples, pears, and cherries).

Glycolic Acid facial peels in varying concentrations have been proven to greatly reduce melasma/hyperpigmentation and acne scarring.

Tartaric and Malic Acid is considered the more gentle and therefore better suited for sensitive skin types or beginners. It's best to start off at a low concentration and build up. Even for normal skin types.


Alpha-Hydroxy Acids get to work primarily on the surface of the skin dissolving the 'glue-like' cement that holds dead skin cells together accelerating the natural shedding process.

These dead skin cells that lay on the surface of our skin (especially when combined with dry, damaged, or dehydrated skin) are the main cause of a dull complexion. It literally stops our skin from glowing.

*Suitable for dry, mature, and oily/acne skin types.

Salicylic Acid (BHA)

BHA gives the same skin renewal and texture-improving results as AHAs, but this acid has a couple of extra benefits.

BHA can penetrate deeper into the skin and unlike its water-loving counterpart is an oil-loving molecule. This means it is able to get deep inside blocked pores, dissolving oil, and dead skin cells that cause blackheads making it great for oily and acne-prone skin.

While AHA works on the surface of the skin BHA penetrates deeper into the epidermis. It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties making it a popular ingredient in acne treatments.

Salicylic Acid is a Beta-Hydroxy Acid used in lots of skincare products. It belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates, which are found naturally in plants such as willow bark and wintergreen leaves. They are thought to protect the plant against insect damage and disease.

Aspirin is a derivative of salicylic acid. Low doses of salicylates are used primarily for mild to moderate pain relief or fever. High doses are used for treating rheumatoid arthritis.

*Suitable for dry, mature, and especially oily/acne skin types.

Poly-Hydroxy Acid (PHAs)

A new family of hydroxy Acids, PHAs are very similar to AHAs in improving texture and skin tone. But, unlike AHAs and BHAs they’re way less irritating because they have a bigger molecular size. Making them gentle enough for sensitive skin.

Since they’re a relatively new find, there isn’t much information about them quite yet. What we do know is that PHAs are probably the most multitasking of all acids.

They protect the skin from free radicals, strengthen skin barrier function and protect against collagen and elastin degradation.

Gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid are some examples of PHAs.

*Suitable for all skin types especially sensitive.


The Ordinary Peeling Solution contains 30% AHAs (Glycolic, Lactic, Tartaric and Acids), and 2% BHA (Salicylic Acid). It also contains Hyaluronic Acid, Vitamin B5, Black Carrot, and Tasmanian Pepperberry which helps reduce irritation/stinging. Black Carrot acts as an antioxidant.

For more complex/scientific information on things like pH levels, which is really important when using acid peels, check out The Ordinary website.

It's one of my favorite AHA products and if you can commit to using it every week you will begin to see dark marks and scars lift for a brighter, smoother complexion.

It does sting, but apparently, the Tasmanian Pepperberry helps to combat this slightly, so keeping it on your face for ten minutes is definitely manageable.

It has improved the texture of my skin and lightened my pigmentation marks a little. But I do it alongside my kojic acid serum and Facetheory Clarifying Cleanser.

Be sure to apply an SPF after using this peel - or any skincare products containing AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs.

*Please note that this is not a beginner’s product. It has a very high concentration of acids and it could potentially irritate sensitive skin types. If you’re new to exfoliating acids I would suggest starting with a lower concentration of acids.


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Welcome to my little piece of cyberspace! I'm Gabrielle, and I show women how to cut through the marketing BS, understand skincare labels, find non-toxic beauty products —and achieve their skin glow goals!

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