If you’ve had more than one pimple in your life (so that would be everybody), you’ve likely come across salicylic acid. The most popular BHA on the market, salicylic acid is often held up as an alternative to another widely available acne eradicator: benzoyl peroxide.
The downsides to benzoyl peroxide are that the ingredient can be super drying and occasionally trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation—which isn’t a risk associated with salicylic acid. If this sounds like something your skin needs, read on to get the 411 on everything BHA.
What BHAs Are
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are oil-soluble chemical exfoliants that dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together. Unlike physical exfoliants (such as scrubs), which manually tear off dead cells, chemical exfoliants simply loosen these unwanted cells from the skin, allowing them to fall off in their own time for an even exfoliation.
BHA Benefits & Why BHAs Are Great
The oil-soluble aspect of BHAs is a key point to note, among many other BHA benefits. This allows them to permeate the lipid layer between skin cells (something water-soluble AHAs can’t do). As a result, BHAs can carry their bond-melting power deep into a clogged pore to loosen the clump of dead cells that’s helping spur a breakout.
BHAs also have another quality that makes them a boon to acne sufferers: They possess antibacterial properties. This is crucial because an over-proliferation of bacteria, specifically the P. acnes variety, is what’s responsible for the chain reaction that ends up in an inflamed-pustule situation. Inhibit the growth of P. acnes, and you’ll reduce your chances of a flare-up.
And if you’re suffering from acne, there’s a high likelihood that your skin also checks both the red and inflamed boxes. Good news, then, that BHAs work to reduce those two specific issues. And they’re gentle enough for even sensitive skin conditions, like rosacea.
Why BHAs Are Sometimes Misunderstood
You’ll often see skincare products that contain both AHAs and BHAs in a single formula and assume it’s fine to layer your individual AHA and BHA items at home. This is actually not a great idea. AHAs and BHAs together can be too much of a good thing (read: they can end up over-exfoliating and thus, irritate your face).
If you feel you would benefit from both acids, select a product in which they’re already blended together, as the cosmetic chemist behind the formulation will have ensured the acid amounts are correctly calibrated and using it won’t result in redness. Yet another reason to stick with professionally formulated products, as opposed to DIYing it or trying something from a fly-by-night brand.
Speaking of redness, BHAs don’t make the skin as sun sensitive as AHAs do. However, daily SPF application should be as much a part of your morning routine as brushing your teeth, regardless of whatever else you’re putting on your face.
It’s also OK to combine BHAs with your current, dermatologist-prescribed anti-acne protocol. Just discuss with your doctor topics like product application order, as well as the BHA items you want to incorporate into your routine to be sure you are all aligned.
Where To Find BHAs
BHAs are available in all sorts of facial skincare products, from cleansers and toners to serums, peels, and moisturizers. You’ll also find them in products for areas below the neck, like washes, peels, and moisturizers. And because BHAs can penetrate skin so deeply, they’re a secret weapon in callus creams and wart removers (since those skin concerns are essentially large clumps of stuck-together cells).
Who Should Use BHAs
Plagued by pimples? Then BHAs are for you. They’re the enemy of all forms of acne: cystic, blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pimples, and more.
Who Should Avoid BHAs
If your complexion is on the dry side, you probably don’t have the skin issues that BHAs are best known for fixing. And as with any skincare ingredient stronger than “mild,” BHAs are for teens and adults only. Obviously, putting any acid on skin that’s open or broken is going to sting, so don’t do that, OK?
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