AHAs vs BHAs; what's the difference?

Vanessa Gibbs

Choosing between skincare ingredients can be tricky at the best at times—but it’s even trickier when they do similar things. AHAs and BHAs both exfoliate the skin, leaving behind a clearer, brighter and younger-looking complexion. But which one should you choose? And do you even have to choose? We’re here to help answer those exact questions. 

At Face Dr, our team of skin experts have decades of experience in the industry. We’ve helped hundreds of clients get the glowing skin they dream of—all by using the best ingredients for them.

Want to skip the research and find out if you should be using AHAs or BHAs in your routine right away? We offer free online skincare consultations where you can get tailored advice from an expert. From the comfort of your home—and in just 30 minutes—one of our skin experts can analyse your skin over a video call and then recommend whether you should be using AHAs, BHAs or a different ingredient altogether to tackle your concerns. 

 

Ready to dive into what sets AHAs and BHAs apart? Here’s what we’ll cover. 

  • What’s the difference between AHAs and BHAs
  • What do AHAs and BHAs do for the skin
  • How to choose between AHAs and BHAs
  • AHAs vs BHAs by skincare concern
  • Can you use AHAs and BHAs together
  • Products with AHAs and BHAs to try 

Want to learn more about other skincare ingredients? We’ve covered lactic acid, glycolic acid and mandelic acid in detail, all of which are different types of AHAs. 

Woman with clear skin

 

What’s the difference between AHAs and BHAs 

 

First up, AHAs and BHAs do very similar things. They both exfoliate the skin, helping to break down dead skin cells. AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid and include acids like glycolic acid, citric acid lactic acid and mandelic acid. BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid and includes salicylic acid, trethocanic acid, beta-hydroxybutyric acid and tropic acid—though by far salicylic acid is the most common BHA in the skincare world. 

AHAs are water soluble. They help to break down the bonds between dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, making them much easier to come off. 

BHA, on the other hand, are oil soluble, meaning they can be absorbed through the oil in our pores to go deeper into the skin. BHAs can help to loosen the bonds between dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, but they also exfoliate within the pores to break down debris and oil. 

Beyond exfoliation, AHAs can help to boost collagen production in the skin which leads to a more full, plump and youthful look. Some studies show that BHAs can do this too. BHAs can also help to reduce the amount of oil your skin produces, meaning there’s less shiny patches on the surface and less breakouts and acne. 


What do AHAs and BHAs do for the skin 

 

We’ve already covered some of the many benefits of AHAs and BHAs—some of them are even the same. Here’s exactly what AHAs and BHAs can do. 

Both AHAs and BHAs can: 

  • Brighten hyperpigmentation
  • Clear acne and breakouts
  • Smooth fine lines and wrinkles
  • Improve skin texture
  • Reduce the look of visible pores 

AHAs can:  

  • Even out skin tone 

BHAs can: 

  • Reduce oiliness and shiny patches 

How to choose between AHAs and BHAs 

 

Want these benefits for yourself? As AHAs and BHAs have many of the same benefits, it can sometimes come down to preference. Maybe you’ve found a salicylic acid product you like the texture of, or your skin reacts best to lactic acid. Looking to target a particular concern? Here’s our guide on how to choose. 

AHA and BHA skincare serum


AHAs vs BHAs by skincare concern 


AHAs vs BHAs for ageing 

Both AHAs and BHAs can help to reduce the signs of ageing, but if this is your main concern, AHAs may do a better job. AHAs can not only lighten age spots and brighten the overall complexion for a more youthful glow, they can also boost collagen to plump the skin and smooth lines and wrinkles.  


AHAs vs BHAs for acne

While AHAs can be beneficial for those with acne, BHAs are the way to go if you’re suffering with acne and breakouts as your main concern. That’s because BHAs not only exfoliate dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, they also go into the deeper layers to work there at clearing out pores. Plus, BHAs can actually impact the amount of oil your skin produces, a key contributor to acne. 


AHAs vs BHAs for hyperpigmentation 

Both AHAs and BHAs can help with hyperpigmentation, but AHAs are seen as the go-to for this. That’s because they do a better job at exfoliating the top layer of dead skin cells which are often where the discolouration lies. If your skin can tolerate it, glycolic acid does a great job at exfoliating the skin to brighten hyperpigmentation. 


AHAS vs BHAs for oily skin 

People with oily skin will see benefits from using both AHAs and BHAs, but if oilliness is your main concern BHAs are the way to go. They can not only target acne and breakouts, but actually impact the amount of oil your skin is producing, leading to less shiny patches and oil build up over time. 


AHAs vs BHAS for dry and sensitive skin 

Some people with dry skin find AHAs too drying. However, BHAs are known to be less irritating, drying and less likely to cause redness. They can even help to calm sensitive skin. Therefore, if you have very dry skin or are prone to sensitivity—or you’ve had reactions to AHAs in the past—you could try BHAs to get a lot of the same benefits. 

Alternatively, you may find that some AHAs work for you while others are too irritating. Glycolic acid is the most drying and potentially irritating AHA, so if you can opt for more gentler AHAs like lactic acid and mandelic acid if you have dry or sensitive skin. 

Face Dr top tip: Just because you find an ingredient drying or irritating doesn’t mean you necessarily have to stop using it all together. Some people find that using an AHA or BHA every day is too irritating, but using it just a few times a week is fine for their skin. Often, a small reaction will even pass once the skin has been exfoliated. Worried about reactions? Reach out to an expert who can advise you on the best way to bring AHAs and BHAs into your routine if you’re new to the ingredients. 


AHAS vs BHAs for combination skin 

If you have combination skin, you’re probably better going for a BHA that can tackle oiliness in your shiny areas. If this isn’t a huge problem for you, you can focus on other concerns—like ageing, acne and hyperpigmentation—and go for either AHAs or BHAs depending on which concerns you want to tackle. 

Man using AHA and BHA skincare products in mirror

 

Can you use AHAs and BHAs together? 

 

The short answer is yes! You can use AHAs and BHAs together to maximise the benefits for your skin. However, while some people can use both ingredients and not see any irritation from it, others may need to be careful they’re not over exfoliating.

You can alternate AHAs and BHAs in your routine. For example, you could use an AHA on one night and a BHA the next night. Or you can look for products which combine both as the ingredients have then been formulated in the right percentages to be used at the same time. 

Face Dr top pick: ZO Oil Control Pads — formulated with both AHAs and BHAs, these pre-soaked pads can target everything from acne to ageing. 


Products with AHAs and BHAs to try 

 

Want to add AHAs and BHAs to your routine? Here are our favourite products to try: 

  • ZO Oil Control Pads — get the benefits of both AHAs and BHAs with these easy-to-use pre-soaked pads. Ideal for targeting excess oil, acne and breakouts. 

  • ZO Exfoliating Cleanser — add BHAs to your routine with this cleanser to exfoliate your way to clearer, younger and brighter complexion.   

  • AllSkin Med Pigment Correction Serum — for those with hyperpigmentation, this serum uses BHAs to lighten discoloration and dark spots. 

  • ZO Skin Health Exfoliation Accelerator — using two types of AHAs (glycolic and lactic acid), this serum is great to brighten the complexion, targeting everything from ageing to dark spots. 

  • AllSkin Med AHA Texturising and Smoothing Serum — with three types of AHAs (glycolic, citric and shikimic acid), this serum smoothes uneven skin texture while brightening the skin for a more youthful look. 


Want to speak to an expert? 

Face Dr skin expert giving online skincare consultation for AHAs and BHAs

Still not sure whether to choose AHAs or BHAs? The best way to know you’re making the right choice for your skin is by speaking with an expert. At Face Dr, we offer free online consultations where you can do exactly that. 

On a 30-minute video call, one of our experts can analyse your skin and ask about your concerns—like acne, ageing, hyperpigmentation or simply taking the best care of your skin. With all this information, they’ll be able to tell you whether AHAs or BHAs are better for the job. They can then recommend products you should add to your routine with the best AHAs or BHAs for you. Plus, if there’s a better ingredient out there—like Matrixyl 3000, bakuchiol or ceramides—they can recommend that and the best products to try. 

When it comes to product recommendations, we only ever share products and brands that we know and trust. This way, you can be sure you’re investing in skincare that will actually deliver results. 

Looking for an ingredient to tackle hyperpigmentation? Hydroquinone may be the answer! Our skin experts cover what exactly hydroquinone is and what it can do for the skin.
Read more
Wondering what exactly hyaluronic acid is? Our skin experts cover what this skincare ingredient can do for your skin and whether you should be using it.
Read more

Top 5 products containing salicylic acid


By Vanessa Gibbs

Want to tackle oily patches, breakouts and blemishes? Salicylic acid may be the answer. Our skin experts round up the five best products with the skincare ingredient.
Read more
Wondering if salicylic acid is right for you? Our skin experts explain what exactly this skincare ingredient does for the skin and whether you should be using it.
Read more
Wondering what niacinamide is? Our skin experts cover what exactly this skincare ingredient does and whether you should add it to your routine.
Read more
Our Face Dr experts share everything you need to know about BHAs, including what they do for the skin and whether you should be using them in your skincare routine.
Read more