dermatologist near me, skin care, healthy skin, west michigan

Exfoliation 101: AHAs vs. BHAs

dermatologist near me, skin care, healthy skin, west michigan

Exfoliation is a major topic these days — everyone is trying to figure out the best (and safest) ways to exfoliate their skin.

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells and other debris that sticks to the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). It’s important to exfoliate both the face and body to maintain healthy skin that both looks and feels its best. Exfoliating consistently will remove the buildup of all those old skin cells and reveal youthful, hydrated, softer skin underneath. It also helps maintain proper skin cell turnover rates, which is very important to keep youthful and healthy skin that helps you feel your best.

There are two main ways to exfoliate at home: chemical exfoliation and mechanical exfoliation. We recommend avoiding mechanical exfoliation (scrubs, brushes, etc.) and only exfoliating with chemical exfoliates three times a week to prevent skin irritation, and worsening acne and rashes.

Chemical exfoliation uses topical formulas which contain ingredients such as hydroxy acids to remove the outer layer of the skin. Hydroxy acids come in many forms such as face masks, cleansers, scrubs, peels, toners, and moisturizers.

There are two types of hydroxy acids, Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA). While they sound similar, they are very different active ingredients.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are extracted from natural sources like sugar cane and other plants. They are also known as fruit acids, as they are also commonly found in grapes, apples, and citrus. AHAs are most commonly used to exfoliate the outer layer of the skin — the epidermis — resulting in a more even skin tone and smoother, youthful appearance. Shedding older skin cells boosts collagen production, which makes AHAs great for those who are looking to eliminate fine lines and wrinkles. AHAs also increase the moisturization of the epidermis.

As AHAs are water soluble, they work best on the skin’s surface rather than deep into the skin where they would need to mix with the skin’s oils. For this reason, they’re great for those who have sensitive skin or those who have normal to dry skin. There are various types of AHAs: glycolic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, and malic acid.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs are extracted from plants such as willow bark or birch trees and they can also be chemically synthesized. BHAs are oil-based, so they are able to mix with the skin’s natural oils to target the deeper layers of the skin and insides of pores. BHAs are usually used by those who are looking to clear up acne, clear pores, and reduce the appearance of large pores. They also have properties of general exfoliating ingredients and can be effective in reducing sun damage and evening out skin tones.

BHAs are fat soluble and work best with oily skin types. In general, they are gentler on the skin than AHAs, so they are also ideal for those with skin that’s more sensitive to over-drying and irritation. Low concentration BHAs can also help to reduce redness or rosacea for those looking to even out their skin tone. There are various types of BHAs: salicylic acid, tropic acid, trethocanic acid, and BHA citric acid.

How to Use AHAs and BHAs

Depending on what type of product you’re using, you can use AHAs or BHAs in the morning or at night. If your product has a higher concentration, it might be meant for use at night or worn overnight, while lower concentrations can safely be applied in the morning, or both day and night.


AHAs result in significant exfoliation, so it’s best practice to use them every other day, so your skin won’t become overly dry or irritated. AHAs also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so make sure you also apply a daily moisturizer with sunscreen.


BHAs are typically safer to use every day, but you should still slowly incorporate them into your routine rather than going full force right away. They won’t make your skin as sensitive to the sun as AHAs might, but it’s still smart to combine your BHA use with a daily sunscreen to prevent sun damage.

Our Clear Skin Pads combine Salicylic acid USP and glycolic acid with hydrating ingredients in easy-to-use pads to promote exfoliation, control oil, reduce breakouts and clogged pores. They help enhance skin clarity and are pH balanced — these pads are a great chemical exfoliation and very tolerable.

Aside from regularly exfoliating, you should also get medical-grade chemical peels every 1–3 months for even better exfoliation; you’ll be left with healthier, glowing skin. At The Derm Institute of West Michigan, we tailor peels based on your skin type and needs, ensuring you get the best treatment and high-quality results for your skin.

Should you use both AHAs and BHAs?

As both AHAs and BHAs have wonderful benefits to fight acne, wrinkles, and sun damage, there isn’t a reason to not use both. However, try to avoid applying both twice a day, as it might overwhelm your skin. Both active ingredients are exfoliants, and when they are used together, they can irritate the skin, cause over-drying, or cause excessive oil production. When your skin is stripped of its natural oils, it will try to correct itself by causing excessive oil production.

To get the benefits of both AHAs and BHAs, try any of the following strategies and stick with what works best for you and your skin:

  • Use BHAs in the morning, AHAs at night
  • Use one in the morning or at night, and alternate daily
  • Use one once or twice a day, and alternate weekly
  • Use lower concentrated products in the morning and higher concentrated products at night
  • Use a higher concentration peel once per week, alternating types

The bottom line

There is no “right” or “wrong” way of combining AHAs and BHAs. It’s best to use one of our suggestions above and see what works best for you and your skin. Give your skin at least 2–4 weeks to ease into your new skincare routine before deciding to make any further changes.

Got any questions about exfoliation, AHAs, or BHAs? Contact us below and we’d love to help!