Exfoliants & Acids decoded. Get the lowdown on AHAs and BHAs

Exfoliants & Acids decoded. Get the lowdown on AHAs and BHAs

When you think of an exfoliator you probably look to the tube of gritty consistency, ready to scrub away the dead skin. But these days you can ditch the grains and make a beneficial switch to the liquid exfoliator. To newcomers, it can be easily mistaken for a toner so make sure you reach for the right product because they do a totally different job! A liquid exfoliant works hard into the surface to muster the dead skin cells, unblock pores, and remove surface debris.

Regular exfoliation increases skin renewal to further increase the vitality of the skin and leave a radiant, bright, even tone.

What are AHAs and BHAs – and what’s the difference between them?

Hydroxy acids decoded. The good bit is, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand it and it’s the best ingredient in your complexion handy book.

These are two types of acid exfoliants that are presenting themselves to us more and more in today’s market. The ‘acid’ bit might sound a little scary at first but when you know how to use it and how it actually works, you’ll be putting your hand up to reach for the benefits!  Neither type is better than the other, they just do different jobs. AHAs and BHAs are organic acids, so they can be found naturally occurring in nature so that might make you feel a little easier about getting acquainted.

Firstly, what is an AHA?

AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid—a type of water-soluble acid that is derived from sugarcane and sugary fruits.

They help peel away the surface of your skin so that new, fresh skin cells from underneath can be revealed.  So you could say that these A’s stimulate collagen as the exfoliant boosts the shedding of dead surface skin cells… great for anti-aging.

Onto the BHA’s

BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid— an oil-soluble acid found in tree bark and leaves. Unlike AHAs, BHAs can get deeper into the pores to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum so they are great for combatting sun damage and acne. You may also have more success with BHAs if you wanted to reduce rosacea-related redness. It also works wonders on blackheads and enlarged pores. Although it’s more gentle than an AHA, BHA can still dry and sensitize the skin, so it’s best to be conscious about the amount you really need.

BHA is also referred to as salicylic acid which is drawn to oils. Therefore, it will not only exfoliate the top layer but also target the sebaceous glands down in the pores, clearing the clog ups that create acne (whiteheads and blackheads) while also helping fade the pink marks that are leftover from old outbreaks. It’s a super ingredient of our time!

AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) –

Alpha Hydroxy Acids or AHA’s, are a range of acids found in foods that can help to rejuvenate the skin. Their use in skincare dates as far back as the Ancient Egyptian times, when Cleopatra used to bathe in milk to soften and rejuvenate her skin, and since then, AHA’s have become a staple ingredient in many skincare products and treatments. But what can the AHA’s actually do for your skin? We explain all the ins and outs of the different types, their benefits, and the best products you can use to get the most out of your skincare regime.

AHA: Glycolic Acid

Derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is a small molecule so it can reach deeper layers of the skin, and is the strongest of the AHA’s. It’s great for inflammatory conditions such as acne, and can reach most areas of the skin. It regenerates collagen and thickens the epidermis and dermis, leaving skin feeling and looking plump and youthful. Due to its potency, it’s important to build up a tolerance, so skincare products containing glycolic acid such as the Dermatech Glycolic cream are available in varying percentages.

Recommended treatment: Vitamin Infusion Facial with a Glycolic Peel

Best skincare products with Glycolic Acid: Dermatech Glycolic Cream

AHA: Lactic Acid

Derived from sour milk, lactic acid is known for its ability to stimulate hyaluronic acid in the skin, supporting collagen synthesis, plumping and firming the skin, as well as smoothing and refining the skin’s texture. It’s suitable for all skin types, for hydration and collagen stimulation, so it’s best suited for dehydrated and mature skin types.

Recommended treatment; Lactic Peel in a 60 Minute Facial

Best skincare products with Lactic Acid: The Ultraceuticals ‘Even Skintone’ range; Ultra Brightening SerumUltra Replenishing Mask.

AHA: Mandelic Acid

Derived from bitter almonds, this acid is known for its ability to reduce inflammation, kill acne bacteria by reducing congestion, reduce pores and oils and smooth and refine skin textures. It also contains properties that work to lighten and brighten the skin, reducing pigmentation and scarring. It’s suitable for all skin types, and specifically for treating acne, breakouts, pigmentation and scarring. As the most gentle AHA, it’s also great for sensitive skin.

As an alpha hydroxy acid Mandelic Acid works by breaking up the bond between skin cells, leading to an increased rate of cellular turnover. This is beneficial because it purges the skin of dead skin cells, which can contribute to wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and acne. Mandelic Acid has also long been known to have antibacterial properties, which are especially beneficial in the treatment of acne and oily skin.

Mandelic Acid works on two levels: as a mild exfoliant and as an antibacterial. It reduces hyperpigmentation in the skin and is very effective for acne. It also reduces fine lines and wrinkles. At higher concentrations Mandelic Acid makes a great chemical peel and is less irritating than a glycolic or lactic peel.

Recommended treatment: Mandelic Peel in a 60 Minute Facial

Best skincare products with Mandelic Acid: The Ultraceuticals ‘Ultra Clear’ range; cleanser, treatment lotion, purifying mask.

What’s the difference between Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid?

Glycolic Acid (GA) is a skincare ingredient you’ll want in your bag of tricks.

The gold standard of the chemical exfoliants, it comes in so many varying formulas and strengths there’s the perfect pairing whatever your skin type and need. Also an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), Glycolic acid falls into the family of non-abrasive exfoliators. It’s a goodie for exfoliating gently, without causing irritation and again, promotes luminosity and reduces pigmentation. It works hard by entering the skin and loosening up of the dead skin cells so they can be removed, hence provoking new ones to form. New cell turnover gives you ‘that’ glow because you’ll have a more even skin tone and the radiance of newness! This can also go hand-in-hand with collagen production which we all know and love for the slowing down in the aging process so that means less of those dreaded fine lines and wrinkles. It’s risen in the fame steaks for its multitasking abilities to clear acne and pigmentation.

We recommend that when you start to see the first signs of aging; fine lines or just a change in texture (you’re losing that baby dolphin feel), it is well worth getting these GA beauties into your routine. It can also be a quencher for dry skin so all up, you’re going to be retaining that marble smoothness you so wish to hold onto. You can expect a little tingling (that satisfying, arghhh it’s working feeling), but we do know that some ingredients don’t suit everyone. If it continues to sting or you get the burn… stop using it. It’s best for newcomers to start with a face wash. You can build up the tolerance by using for 2 nights a week, slowly increasing over the weeks until you are comfortable using it every night. Think little steps for big improvements. Like all products, it depends on your skin type and too much of a good thing can be true, so tread carefully and don’t shock your skin with a new product!

Because acids reveal so many new skin cells, it leaves your skin a little more vulnerable to sun damage and burning. Take care of your skin barriers and they will take care of you. We know you don’t need telling as we trust you already do, but remember how important it is to use SPF especially after the use of acids. It’s nothing to be afraid of. Use correctly and your skin will thank you.


You could call it glycolic’s gentler little sister: Introducing Lactic Acid.

Lactic Acid is a natural AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) known to accelerate cell turnover while delivering hydration. It has a lighter degree of exfoliation due to the larger molecules that won’t penetrate the skin so it’s a bit more of a surface clean up! But this doesn’t mean it’s not working hard! It’s great for eliminating acne and diminishing the look of wrinkles,  uneven skin tone, and even psoriasis. It’s still an effective exfoliator without causing irritation as it gets to work on the top layers and dissolves those unwanted dead skin cells. So those with more sensitive skin might feel more comfortable (literally), reaching for this type of acid. But the same rule applies, if you’re totally new to the game, it pays to start small and slowly build up a tolerance.

With so many products claiming the benefits of this wonder ingredient, you might be stumped on where to start. Lactic Acid is not just found in exfoliators so feel free to harness the goodness with the intro into your daily skincare routine in the form of cleansers, body creams, and even hand creams. So you can promote luminosity and reduce pigmentation from top to toe!

Can you use AHAs and BHAs together?

Radiance boost alert – Yes, you can use them together! The reason why BHAs are so effective is that they’re oil-soluble—so they can actually penetrate the pore to exfoliate whereas AHAs can only exfoliate superficially. Let’s breakdown the benefits of each in a more simplistic overview! We know, there’s lots to take in but stay with us!

Benefits of AHAs

  • Fades sun spots, melasma, mild acne scars, and other forms of hyperpigmentation
  • Tackles signs of aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines
  • Brightens dull skin

Benefits of BHAs

  • Fights acne by unclogging pores
  • Calms down skin redness and fades inflammation
  • Decreases oil secretion

So by using a little overlap of each in varying products, we can actually reap more benefits and all told, that’s actually the aim right?! While BHAs will work to keep acne from forming, AHAs will decrease inflammation and get rid of the red marks that acne leaves behind so they team up very nicely. Although there are products that combine AHAs and BHAs together, if your skin is on the sensitive side, you may want to consider applying these acids separately, by applying one in the morning and one at night, or alternating which days you apply each.

And remember, that whenever you exfoliate, you need to add that moisture after which can also help support the new skin renewal so complete the steps for optimum skincare.

If you liked this blog, head over to our Journal page to read more of our helpful skincare guides! If you live in Christchurch and new to the world of facials, get in contact with us or make a facial appointment here. Meet the Total Body Concept team on this page, or head over to our online store for some skincare retail therapy!