AHA vs. BHA: Know Your Chemical Exfoliators

I was over at my parent’s house with my wife the other day, when Mom did what all Moms are prone to do…

…she pulled out all the old family albums.

She pointed out, (to my wife’s great content) all those embarrassing photos of me as an adolescent teen.

I went through phases when I was a teenager, just like many of you did. I had my own ‘blunder years’ where I thought frosted tips were cool, and so were visors and popped collars. I even had puka shell necklaces.

As we were looking back on all these old photos, I couldn’t help but cringe, but not for the reason you might think.

Those fashion faux-pas weren’t the worst part. The worst part was how my face looked.

I was your stereotypical pimply faced teenager. I had red bumps and marks all over my face. I was clearly not looking after my own skin.

But it wasn’t even that my face was all marked up with pimples and zits that made me cringe.

The worst part was that I didn’t care enough to do anything about it. I could have been using a good exfoliator and my wife and mother wouldn’t be sniggering at old photos of me right now.

After doing an excessive amount of research on skincare, I realize now what I wish I had known back then.

There are skincare products that I should have been using. And I could have prevented and treated major breakouts on my face with a little care from an exfoliant and good cleanser for men.

But I also realize that I am at a natural disadvantage. And if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you are too.

Do you know what your disadvantage is?

You’re a man.

You were born as a man. You’ve been interested in manly things. You’ve been raised to understand manly concepts. And in our culture, exfoliation and skin care don’t fall under that general umbrella of “Manly Interests”.

And so you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the complex nature of skin care and exfoliation. Women seem to be born with a natural inclination to understand skin care.

That is why you’re here, and why I’m here as well.

I want to dispel some of the myths and give you a manly introduction to exfoliation. Mainly, I want to talk about choosing the right exfoliator.

But first…

Understanding Exfoliators Is Hard – Before We Get To The Science, It’s Important To Get You Up To Speed

Unless you’re Harvey Dent, your face is 100% made up of skin. And skin is a living organ.

In fact, it’s the largest organ you have. And it does a great many things for you as well. It keeps all your insides inside of you. It regulates your temperature. It provides you with sensations of touch, heat, and pain. And a great portion of it is actually under the surface.

Your skin’s top layer is called your epidermis. Your epidermal layer is basically a movement of new skin cells forming at the base of your epidermis and gradually working their way to the surface, where they die and slough off.

In fact, when people look at your face, they are really looking at a collection of dead and dying skin cells. That’s not a pretty picture.

Your old skin cells are designed to be shed to make room for the new skin cells.

Still with me here? Because this is where the exfoliator is used.

It removes all those old skin cells by removing the bonds and washing them away. It uncovers the naturally younger skin underneath the surface.

This makes your skin appear younger, fresher, and brighter. And if your face is the first thing people will see of you, it makes sense to give them a young, bright, and fresh looking face to remember.

What Are Exfoliators? – Your Two Choices

When you hear the word exfoliation, there are two methods people use to try and remove those dead skin cells from the surface of their skin.

Physical Exfoliation Methods

By using a wand, brush, or even a wash cloth, you’re physically scrubbing away the dead skin cells from the surface of your skin.

If you’ve ever had a bad sunburn and you’ve rubbed away the flaking skin after it’s healed for a few days, you’re physically exfoliating the dead skin cells from your body.

Physical exfoliators work best on rough and exposed parts of your skin; heels, palms, and anywhere else that works hard. But if you have sensitive skin, you’re likely not going to enjoy this type of exfoliation. And it’s certainly not ideal for the skin on your face.

This also applies if you have a natural oily skin. It can do a poor and uneven job of removing the skin cells, and it can leave you red and raw if you scrub too hard.

In manly terms, it’s like you’re applying a random orbital sander to a fine grained piece of timber. You can do more damage than good trying to smooth out those rough spots.

For this guide, I’m going to assume you already know about scrubs and wands. But there’s something specifically designed for the skin on your face.

Chemical Exfoliation Methods

Chemically-based exfoliators are designed to handle the delicate and exposed skin of your face. They use a chemical compound to do the same job as the physical scrub, but without the rough after effects.

Don’t be put off by the word “chemical” when you’re applying it to your face. These types of exfoliators are perfectly designed to match your skin type and produce safe and consistent results.

Not to mention that they will produce an even and smooth skin if you use the correct formulation.

Because chemical exfoliators can come in two different types:

pulling out an exfoliating wipe from a package

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are literally an acid that eats away the bonds the dead skin cells make on your face without the need to scrub them away. After applying this chemical to your face and letting it sit for a bit, you can get a deeper and more consistent result.

That means a better, brighter, younger face for you.

Before I get into the science of the AHA, it’s important for me to say this: AHAs are water soluble. If you’ll remember way back into your chemistry class, that means it can be dissolved in water.

If something can be dissolved in water, it doesn’t have any effect on oil. So, if you have oily skin, you’re NOT going to get much out of an AHA. An AHA exfoliator is best used on dry to normal skin.

Moving on.

When you look at an AHA-based exfoliator, you’ll notice one of the main ingredients is an acid. Most AHAs that you can buy over the counter have a pH of 4, maybe 3. Dermatologists applying a chemical peel (a more radical version of exfoliation) use a more concentrated version of an AHA with a pH 2-0.6 level acid.

Some of these acids are natural like Glycolic (made from sugar cane), Lactic (made from milk), or Mandelic (extract of bitter almonds). Each acid has their own specific use and could produce better results on your face.

So if you’ve been able to identify your skin type, you’ll have a better chance of picking an AHA with an active acid ingredient to match your requirements.

  • Glycolic Acid: Of all the acids, glycolic is the one that produces the most defined results. It has a naturally strong ability to penetrate the skin and dissolve the old cells.

Besides that, it also improves a skin’s texture by improving the collagen in your skin. That means your face will not only look younger, it will feel smoother and fresher.

Most AHA compounds that advertise wrinkle removal or mark and blemish removal use a glycolic acid as their active ingredient.

If you have a marked or scarred skin, you’re worried about looking older, or you have sun damage, a glycolic-based AHA will work best for you.

  • Lactic Acid: For those worried about their sensitive skin, lactic acid can have the same effect as a glycolic acid, without harming the skin cells.

Lactic acid also boosts collagen in your skin, giving you youthful appearance with a smooth feel on your face. It also is used for wrinkles, pigmentation problems, and scarring, just like the glycolic acid.

The main benefit to using an AHA with lactic acid is that it doesn’t have a pH as low as other acids. It benefits those who have sensitive skin who might otherwise harm their skin with a powerful acid.

  • Mandelic Acid: This produces almost the exact same results as any other acid. It eats away the bond of dead skin cells. It exposes the layer of new cells underneath to promote healthy young skin. It removes wrinkles and marks.

But mandelic acid is unique. It has a larger chemical compound than others. That means that it takes longer to activate. It needs to sit on your skin longer, penetrating deeper into your skin.

Essentially, it takes longer and irritates your skin less. Mandelic and lactic acid-based AHAs would be your best bet if you have a sensitive skin.

So, if you’re still with me, I’ll get to Beta Hydroxy Acids in a minute.

But first, let me just remind you that an AHA exfoliator is best used if you have normal to dry skin. If you have these skin conditions, choose these exfoliators:

  • Normal: Glycolic
  • Dry: Glycolic
  • Sensitive: Lactic, Mandelic
  • Sun Damaged: Glycolic

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

While we talked about the power of an AHA to strip away the dead skin cells, a BHA does roughly the same thing. BHAs are made up an acid that eats away the bonds of dead skin cells. It exposes the younger skin underneath much in the same way that an AHA does.

So why are we talking about two different versions of exfoliators?

Because a BHA is oil soluble.

Well, the actual term is ‘lipid soluble” but for this article, let’s think of it as oils on your face. I could mention the ‘sebum’ (cringe!) word here, but I won’t use it any more than I have to.

BHAs can dissolve the oils on your skin and penetrate deeper into the pores than an AHA exfoliator. If you have an oily skin, you are prone to acne blemishes, or you have wide, exposed pores on your face, a BHA is the choice for you.

The main ingredient of 98% of BHAs out there is a salicylic acid or a related substance. Salicylic acid can cut through the oily barrier of your skin and penetrate deeper into your pores. It can dissolve away the sebum (sorry!) in your pores and remove any built up residue.

You should use a salicylic acid-based BHA if you are prone to excessive acne, blackheads, warts, or cases of psoriasis. Because of its ability to penetrate deeper than an AHA, it can affect these signs of damage on your skin more effectively.

Even if you suffer from rosacea, a BHA can alleviate some of the more egregious forms of discoloration. As always, perform a discreet patch test before you go slathering it all over your face.

Before You Purchase An Exfoliator

I talked a bit about it, but let me just reinforce this right now.

If you’re going to use an exfoliator (and you should for a younger, smoother skin), you must know your skin type.

In basic terms, your skin falls into roughly 5 categories, although you could overlap into a couple.

  • Normal
  • Dry
  • Sensitive
  • Oily
  • Combination

AHAs and BHAs are designed to work more effectively with different skin types. While you can use either, you’ll find the best results using one specifically purposed just for your skin.

And while we’re talking about results…

It could take some time to see the best exfoliator for you.

I’m not going to personally recommend any specific type of exfoliator. One, nobody’s paying me to advertise their products. And two, what I recommend (or any other internet phenomenon) might not work for you.

You need to blindly try a couple options before you find one that works for you. Just a couple things to be aware of while you’re trialing new products on your skin;

  • It could take a few applications before you see the maximum effect. Several AHAs and BHAs require multiple applications over a couple weeks before you notice a major difference. If you put on an exfoliator and wake up the next morning not looking like Ryan Gosling, don’t blame the exfoliator. It could take a little more time. You still won’t look like Gosling, but you will notice improvements in your skin.
  • Because different exfoliators use different acids, try a couple varieties so you know which works best for you. It may be that you need to trial a couple options before you find the combination of chemicals and acids that produce healthy new skin.
  • Worried about spending too much finding a product that works? Many products (and stores) offer a money back policy should you not see results. Do your homework, and you might not end up out of pocket at all.

If you’re blessed with a combination skin type, you might need to apply both types of exfoliators. Many young men have a combination skin with an oily zone on your face. Try a BHA exfoliator on the oily zone, and an AHA using glycolic acid on the other parts of your face. If you don’t use both types, you could end up with an uneven result that gives you a 20-year-old nose and forehead and 45-year-old cheeks and chin. Not cool.

Exfoliate In The Evening

No matter what your daily routine, it’s always advisable to exfoliate at night.

Your exfoliator leaves your skin a little raw and fresh. It is exposed for a short period of time to the elements of the air and pollution. By allowing your body to sleep after exfoliating, you give your skin a chance to heal.

Exfoliators also can cause your skin to become photosensitive. That means you could end up at a greater risk of sun damage if you expose a freshly scrubbed face to the light of day. There’s nothing worse than undoing all that good work with a day out in the sun.

That being said…

Always Wear Sunscreen As A Protective Measure

Always wear sunscreen before going outside. Just because you’ve exfoliated the night before doesn’t mean you’re safe from the sun’s rays.

Even if you’re not exfoliating (don’t worry, I’m judging only a little), sunscreen is a MUST.

Prolonged exfoliation will improve your skin’s healthy appearance, but it will also put you at risk of greater damage if left uncovered for too long. Sunscreen, greater than SPF 30, is a protective barrier against the newly exposed skin cells and the UV rays looking to shrivel and dry them out.

All that’s left for you to do is go out and try it.

Figure out your skin type and get the appropriate exfoliator. AHAs for normal and dry skin: BHAs for oily skin with pimples and blackheads.

And give it time. Your face might need to adjust to this new routine of yours. But when it does, I know you’ll notice a new face looking back at you in the mirror.

If I can give you a bit of advice after all this information dump into your brain, take care of your skin.

Although you naturally will lose the dead skin cells on your face, it can give you the appearance of being older than you are. Without consistent exfoliation, you just aren’t (forgive the pun) putting your best face forward. Your new and fresh appearance is waiting just below the surface.

Adam Williams

As the lead editor of Tools of Men, Adam loves men's grooming products. Particularly of interest is managing facial hair and perfecting the art of the modern man's skincare routine. His work has been featured or quoted in several publications, including New York Magazine, Vice, Sharpologist, MIC, Elite Daily, and more. When Adam isn't working, he enjoys spending time with his two little kids who keep him both on his toes and young at heart.

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