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Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Beta Hydroxy Acid


When you hear the word “acid” you might be transported back to chemistry, but acids have gone from the classroom to the beauty cabinet and have quickly become the multitasking hero in our skincare routines. Enter beta-hydroxy acid (or BHA). Gentle enough for daily use, this potent miracle-worker is basically acne’s kryptonite. Not only can it banish a pesky pimple overnight, but it also sloughs off dead skin cells and eliminates dirt and bacteria, all while preventing future breakouts and leaving you with a younger-looking complexion. Ready to banish breakouts and bid farewell to wrinkles? Read on for the 411 on BHA.

So, what are BHAs?

BHA is a powerful, oil-soluble acid that penetrates deep below the skin’s surface to treat and target two acne-causing culprits: excess oil and dead skin. “There is only one BHA (beta-hydroxy acid) used in skincare: salicylic acid,” says Loretta Ciraldo, MD, Miami-based dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skincare. “It was originally derived from willow bark.”

This beta-hydroxy acid has the ability to stop bad breakouts and further prevent flare-ups in the future, thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It can penetrate deep below the skin’s surface, below oil and bacteria, to help normalize the lining of the pore and prevent future breakouts. While there are a variety of acids in skincare, they typically fall into two groups: alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acid.

What are the benefits of BHAs?

Not only can BHAs clear up pimples but they also work overtime to decrease oil production and slough off dead skin cells, all while reducing fine lines and wrinkles. The result? A clearer, brighter, younger-looking complexion.  

  1. They’re great acne-fighters. 

When it comes to acne, salicylic acid is public enemy number one. Not only does it work to unclog dirt, dead skin cells, and bacteria that cause bad breakouts, but it also contains anti-inflammatory properties that alleviate swelling and redness caused by pimples. “All acne lesions, from a simple whitehead or blackhead up to a painful acne pustule or cyst, start with a plug of dead cells that gets stuck in the pore,” says Dr. Loretta. “Salicylic acid works by ungluing dead cells to resolve the plug and preventing the formation of new plugs and clogged pores.”

This powerful BHA works overtime to clear up existing blemishes and goes a step further to prevent acne by controlling how much oil your skin produces. “Salicylic acid will decrease sebum production while exfoliating,” says Jessie Cheung, MD, board-certified dermatologist. Unlike other ingredients that can further strip your skin and kick your oil glands into overdrive, this potent BHA prevents excess oil build up to keep your complexion clearer, longer. 

  1. They help minimize the look of fine lines and wrinkles. 

As we get older our cellular turnover rate naturally slows, leading to an accumulation of dead skin cells on the surface. This contributes to uneven skin tone and accentuates the appearance of fine lines, leaving us with a lackluster, dull complexion. By using this multitasking BHA, you can even out the surface of your skin and unveil the soft, smooth layer that’s currently hiding beneath your formerly dull complexion. “One of the hallmarks of aging skin is a slowdown in cell renewal, leaving skin with less luminosity and vibrancy,” says Dr. Loretta. “Since BHA literally lifts dead cells off the skin surface, it is a nice and gentle exfoliator to help these signs of aging,” says Dr. Loretta.

  1. They’re awesome exfoliators. 

Exfoliation is key to banishing breakouts, and the primary purpose of a BHA like salicylic acid is to work as a chemical exfoliator. It loosens up pore-clogging gunk then sloughs off dead skin cells, dirt, and bacteria to reveal a new layer of skin. “BHA will unglue dead cells from each other,” says Dr. Loretta. Since they’re oil-soluble the smaller molecule size is able to penetrate deep below the skin’s surface to normalize the pore and prevent future breakouts. By encouraging cellular turnover you’ll also unveil a brighter, more even complexion. 

What skin types can use BHAs?

If you have oily, acne-prone skin, beta-hydroxy acid is the answer to all your skin woes. “Salicylic acid is more often used to treat oily skin or in topical acne treatments because it is oil-soluble and thus gets into your pores, unlike alpha-hydroxy acids, which are water-soluble,” says Dr. Cheung.

While you’ll typically want to steer clear of AHAs if you have sensitive skin or suffer from rosacea or redness, this BHA is a safe alternative. “Salicylic acid has an anti-inflammatory and anesthetic effect,” says Dr. Cheung.

While typically considered more gentle compared to other acids, it’s best to avoid BHA if you’re pregnant, trying to conceive, or breastfeeding. Opt for a chemical exfoliator that employs AHAs, like lactic acid or glycolic acid, instead.

Are there any side effects?

While BHAs are more gentle than most AHAs, you’ll still need to gradually build up to using a BHA product on a daily basis. Start incorporating salicylic acid into your routine a few times a week before adding it every other day and then finally working up to daily use. While typically suitable for more sensitive skin types, “it may cause redness, stinging and even peeling in very sensitive or post-procedure skin,” says Dr. Loretta. You should also use sunscreen daily, but especially if you’re using acids in your skincare routine.

What’s the difference between BHAs and AHAs?

BHA and AHAs often go hand-in-hand and many effective products combine a potent combination of the two acids to exfoliate, fight acne, and reduce signs of aging, however, there are some differences between the two groups worth pointing out. While BHA is ideal for acne-prone skin, AHAs are best suited for reducing fine lines and wrinkles. That’s because the beta-hydroxy acid is separated by two-carbon atoms. Alpha-hydroxy acids, on the other hand, only have one. Thanks to this composition, beta-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble, which means they’re able to penetrate deep below the skin’s surface to evaporate excess oil and unplug dirt and bacteria that are responsible for whiteheads and blackheads. AHAs, however, work on the surface of the skin to loosen and exfoliate dead skin cells. While there are seven main alpha-hydroxy acids found in skincare products, when it comes to BHAs, there’s only one: salicylic acid.

Ready to incorporate this skin-perfecting ingredient into your skincare routine? The powerful, acne-fighting exfoliant is gentle enough for use on sensitive skin types yet still packs a punch when it comes to keeping pimples away.

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Article Last Updated May 25, 2020 12:00 AM