Courtney Leiva
Updated May 18, 2020 @ 2:07 pm
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Credit: Paula's Choice, Mario Badescu, Drunk Elephant

Beauty products with AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) are everywhere in skincare lately, with many popular skincare brands incorporating these super-powered, complexion-smoothing ingredients in their products. If you are stumped on what AHA and BHA are and what they do for your skin, we asked Nathan Rivas, the Director of Education for Drunk Elephant, all our most pressing questions around the buzzy ingredients.

Although AHA and BHA ingredients usually go hand-in-hand, Rivas says that AHAs are usually lactic, citric, and glycolic acids, which are derived from vegan and non-vegan sources. These sorts of acids function as leave-on exfoliants, which work to gradually dissolve the bonds holding dead skin cells together. Additionally, he says that these acids are helpful in improving skin texture and tone and in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

If you are interested in adding AHA into your beauty routine, Rivas recommends using AHA products at 8% and 15%. However, he warns that glycolic acid (the most common AHA) at 10% is already strong enough, so you’ll want to be cautious with how much you actually apply to your face, especially if you have sensitive skin. And while AHAs have their many benefits, they’re not the best at unclogging pores.

However, BHA, or beta hydroxy acid goes a deeper into the skin than AHA and do unclog pores.

Rivas says these acids gradually exfoliate the skin while also working to penetrate and exfoliate deep into your pores, too. Because these acids tend to go a little deeper into the skin than AHAs, BHA acids help your products (think serums and creams) absorb better.

Salicylic acid is one the most common forms of beta hydroxy acids.

Salicylic acid decongest pores of dead skin cell buildup on the surface level, which helps reveal brighter skin. This form of BHA can also go beyond the surface of the skin and into the pore, where its secondary function as an antimicrobial comes into place to help treat existing acne and prevent future blemishes. It also has soothing properties and can correct uneven skin texture. It can be a hero ingredient when used correctly, but Rivas cautions users not to go overboard.

“A little salicylic acid goes a long way. Concentrations of 0.5% to 2% (1% is a great middle-ground for most) are all that is needed for daily use,” he said, adding that any higher could cause sensitization.

Rivas also warns of the misconceptions surrounding both alpha and beta hydroxy acids, as he says anyone can use these products if they are free of irritants and are formulated at the right pH level. However, when using AHA and BHA together you’ll want to make sure to avoid certain irritants, such as alcohol and essential oils.

But at the end of the day, Rivas says both hydroxy acids are very beneficial to the skin. When used on a daily basis, they help manage breakouts, fix uneven tone, and make skin glow.

Now that you know how to AHA and BHA like a pro, here are 10 products that will reveal brighter and firmer-feeling skin.

1The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

Credit: The Ordinary

Shop it! $7.20, Sephora.com

This exfoliating mask will help keep breakouts under control, and at such an affordable price, it’s such a steal. It combines glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid, and it has a 4.5 star-rating from over one thousand reviewers. To use, apply a thin layer onto clean skin and leave it on for ten minutes before washing off with lukewarm water. For best results, use twice a week.

2Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial

Credit: Drunk Elephant

Shop it! $80, Sephora.com

This resurfacing face mask has a cult following, and for good reason. As the product name alludes, it will give you baby-smooth skin with continued use. Yes, really. Plus, it works to smooth out uneven skin tone, fine lines, and wrinkles. Leave it on for 20 minutes and use once a week for best results. Even better? Use the Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum for daily upkeep.

3Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Credit: Paula's Choice

Shop it! $29.50, Nordstrom.com

Our Senior Beauty Editor swears by this game-changing product, which she says skyrocketed her confidence. To use, apply a generous amount to a cotton ball and swipe it across clean skin. Let it sit and absorb into the skin before applying another product, like your favorite moisturizer or eye cream. “You’ll probably see results very quickly,” she says. “in my case, I saw a massive improvement in skin texture after using it for just one night.

4Mario Badescu A.H.A. Botanical Body Soap

Credit: Mario Badescu

Shop it! $8, Ulta.com

Remember, body care is important, too. This rejuvenating AHA-based formula helps soften and brighten dull skin, and it’s so easy to use in the shower.

5Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel

Credit: Dr. Dennis Gross

Shop it! $88 ($102 value), Sephora.com

Almost every skincare enthusiast has heard of or tried (and loved!) this product. Each wipe is infused with lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acid and helps skin achieve its smoothest complexion. To use, first use the exfoliating pad and wait two minutes before using the neutralizing pad which helps to smooth and hydrate the skin. Unlike some other AHA/BHA products, this one is recommended for daily use. If you don’t drop serious cash on a new skincare product, you can test it out with the brand’s mini version that includes five treatments for $17.

6Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Credit: Murad

Shop it! $40, Sephora.com

The first step to a clear and smooth complexion is a cleanser, so using an AHA and BHA-infused one just makes sense. Apart from its chemical exfoliants, this product also uses jojoba beads to gently buff away any dry and dead skin cells.

7Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion with Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 15

Credit: Neutrogena

Shop it! $14.79, Walgreens.com

Yes, you need to use sunscreen everyday, even when you’re indoors. This multi-vitamin and alpha hydroxy acid blend keeps your face smooth and shielded from harmful sun damage.

8Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

Credit: Drunk Elephant

Shop it! $90, Sephora.com

This intensive serum uses 12 percent AHA and BHA blend to keep your complexion smooth and ultra-radiant. Use it every day for best results.

9COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner

Credit: COSRX

Shop it! $19, Ulta.com

We love a convenient skincare product, and this toning mist is everything our face needs right now. This exfoliating liquid uses AHA and BHA acids to keep your skin acne-free—just spritz throughout the day!

10Derma E Overnight Peel

Credit: Derma E

Shop it! $18.99, Ulta.com

Clean beauty lovers will love this overnight peel that uses fruit acids and five percent AHAs to diminish age spots and blemishes like a pro.