Understanding the Difference Between AHAs and BHAs Exfoliants

Our skin has the ability to naturally exfoliate dead cells every day but over time, this natural shedding process slows and may stop altogether. This is because of age and unprotected sun exposure. This results in dry, dull, or flaky skin, clogged and enlarged pores, acne breakouts, saggy skin, and uneven skin tone. 

This is where chemical exfoliants come into the picture. They remove the buildup of dead skin and reveal the healthier and glowing complexion hiding beneath.

The most popular chemical exfoliants are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHA). While poly-hydroxy acids, the gentlest exfoliant group, are also trending right now, the difference between AHAs and BHAs is truly where the confusion occurs the most.

Let's talk about the definition and difference between AHAs and BHAs. 

What are AHAs and BHAs

AHAs and BHAs are the most common ingredients found in several skincare products: cleansers, scrubs, masks, toners, and peels, and sometimes in makeup products: foundations and concealers. 


Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) are derived from fruits and are often called fruit acids. AHAs work best on the surface of the skin and help tackle skin concerns like hyperpigmentation and post-acne scars. They are suitable for dry or sensitive skin types. 

Types of AHAs:

  • Glycolic acid: It sloughs off dead skin cells, helps fade post-acne scars, boosts collagen production, and has several anti-aging benefits.
  • Citric acid: It dries out excess sebum, deep cleans the pores, and clears out dead skin cells. 
  • Malic acid: It provides hydration to the skin, improves skin's texture and tone, and helps fade visible signs of aging.
  • Tartaric acid: It has antioxidant properties that help in fading hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles. 
  • Lactic acid: It reduces post-acne hyperpigmentation, speeds up the cell regeneration process, and has anti-aging, and moisturizing benefits. 


Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) are oil-soluble and they penetrate deeper into the skin. They have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties so they help tackle acne and breakouts and are suitable for oily and acne-prone skin.

Types of BHAs:

  • Salicylic acid: It is one of the most commonly used BHAs. It busts breakouts and blemishes, clears clogged pores, and fights off acne-causing bacteria.
  • Beta-hydroxybutanoic acid: It helps clear acne, blackheads, and whiteheads and has humectant properties.
  • Tropic acid: It reduces the visibility of pigmentation and wrinkles that happen because of sun damage.
  • Trethocanic acid: It tackles skin issues like discoloration, dullness, and pigmentation, and has skin brightening properties.

What is the difference between AHAs and BHAs?



They are water-soluble

They are oil-soluble

They exfoliate on the surface level of the skin

They exfoliate both: the surface level of the skin and penetrate deep inside the pores

They are preferably suitable for normal to dry skin, and sun-damaged skin

They are preferably suitable for oily, acne-prone, blemishes, and enlarged pores 

They have natural moisture-enhancing properties

They have skin-calming properties

They are gentle on the skin, but not more than BHAs

They are gentler on the skin compared to AHAs

They do not posses anti-bacterial properties

They have anti-bacterial properties 

They can lead to sun-sensitivity. Thus sunscreen is a must after applying AHA products

They do not have potential for sun sensitivity


Are AHAs and BHAs good for the skin?

AHAs and BHAs are good for the skin, thanks to the way they exfoliate the skin: in a non-abrasive manner. They weaken the glue that bonds the dull dead skin on the surface, thus promoting the natural shedding process. They have a great number of benefits, they: 

  • gently exfoliate the skin to unveil a healthy and glowing complexion
  • clear pores and prevent acne and breakouts
  • improve the dull complexion and uneven skin tone
  • diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • make skin look and feel firmer
  • hydrate and nourish the skin
  • smooth out the rough and bumpy texture

Can we combine AHA and BHA together?

Despite the difference between AHAs and BHAs, it is advised not to use them together. Since both groups of acids are exfoliating in nature, combining them can irritate the skin. And frankly, no one needs that level of deep exfoliation. 


However, in some cases, you can use them together if their concentration is not high. If you are mixing then apply the thinnest textured acid first and monitor how your skin is responding and adjust the usage accordingly.

Can you include both AHA and BHA in your skincare routine?

Many people find that alternating AHA and BHA exfoliants in their routine is the perfect solution to address their unique skin concerns. If you want to alternate an AHA and BHA in your routine, then you can either:

  • apply one type of exfoliant in the morning and incorporate the other into the night routine. This approach can be great for acne-prone skin and sun-damaged skin 
  • apply AHA one day, and BHA the next day, and keep on alternating
  • apply AHA for a week, and BHA for the next week, and keep switching it every week

Are there any side effects of AHA and BHA?

AHAs and BHAs exfoliants do not damage the skin when used properly and are well-formulated. AHAs strengthen the skin barrier, while BHAs deliver soothing and anti-acne properties.


For best results, AHAs and BHAs need to be formulated within a pH range of 3-4. Do not use too many products with the same formulations in your skincare routine. 

Summing up

Despite being hydroxy-acids, there is a certain difference between AHAs and BHAs. However, these both chemical exfoliants possess several benefits for the skin.