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Dr. Alpana Mohta Ranka, MD, DNB, IFAAD, is a dual-board-certified dermatologist with over 90 research publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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AHA BHA PHA for Skin: Comprehensive Guide

Updated: Jan 13

In this article, we'll explore the world of AHA, BHA, and PHA, three powerful ingredients that have gained popularity in skincare routines. Let's delve into what they are, their benefits, differences, recommended products, potential side effects, and their efficacy in treating acne. As a dermatologist, I use these products on myself and my patients on a daily basis. So, I can provide some insights based on my personal experiences too.

AHA BHA PHA text on a background of a collage of pictures including sugarcane, almonds and milk, willow tree and malic acid with apple
 

Table of Contents

 



What is the full form of AHA BHA PHA?


AHA, BHA, and PHA are abbreviations for different types of exfoliating acids used in skincare. These acronyms stand for Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA), Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), and Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA), respectively.


AHA, BHA, PHA Benefits: Are They Good for the Skin?


These are great for the skin. However, the degree of how much one acid is better than the other depends on the specific acids you are comparing. AHAs are effective for surface exfoliation and addressing hyperpigmentation. BHAs excel in treating acne and pore congestion. PHAs offer gentle exfoliation and are ideal for sensitive skin. To summarize their benefits:

  • Exfoliation: AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs are excellent exfoliants that help remove dead skin cells, revealing a smoother and more radiant complexion.

  • Brightening: These acids aid in reducing discoloration, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots, giving your skin a brighter and more even tone.

  • Anti-Aging: AHAs and PHAs can stimulate collagen production, improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles over time.

  • Acne Treatment: BHAs, such as salicylic acid, penetrate deep into the pores, helping to unclog them and prevent acne breakouts.

AHA BHA PHA Difference:

AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid)

PHA (Polyhydroxy Acid)

Molecular Size

Small

Large

Intermediate

Skin Penetration

Surface

Deeper into pores

Surface to medium

Skin Types

Suitable for most skin types, including normal, dry, and sun-damaged skin

Ideal for oily and acne-prone skin

Ideal for sensitive skin

Exfoliation

Effective

Effective

Gentle

Irritation Potential

Can cause mild irritation, especially in higher concentrations or sensitive skin

Can cause mild irritation, but less likely than AHAs

Minimal irritation potential

Acne Treatment

Helps with mild acne, exfoliates skin surface

Highly effective for acne treatment, penetrates into pores to unclog them

Gentle exfoliation can aid in acne treatment

Hyperpigmentation

Helps reduce discoloration and dark spots

May help with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

Helps reduce hyperpigmentation

Anti-Aging

Stimulates collagen production, improving fine lines and wrinkles

Can help with fine lines and wrinkles

Provides some anti-aging benefits

Sun Sensitivity

Can increase sun sensitivity, making sunscreen essential

No significant increase in sun sensitivity

Minimal increase in sun sensitivity

​pH Level

Usually low pH (around 3-4)

Usually low pH (around 3-4)

Usually higher pH (around 3.5-4.5)

Water Solubility

Water-soluble

Lipid (oil)-soluble

Water-soluble

Source

Sugarcane (glycolic acid), fruits (e.g., citrus), milk (lactic acid), bitter almonds (mandelic acid), etc.

Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark

Lactobionic acid is derived from milk

​Examples

Glycolic acid, Lactic acid, Mandelic Acid

Salicylic acid

Gluconolactone, Lactobionic acid, Galactose-containing acids

Best AHA BHA PHA products


The "best" choice may vary depending on individual skin concerns, tolerance, and preferences. However, based on their effectiveness here are the best acids in each category:

Best AHA

Glycolic Acid is often considered one of the most effective AHAs due to its small molecular size, allowing it to penetrate the skin deeply and provide significant exfoliation. It helps improve skin texture, tone, and appearance, making it a popular choice in many skincare products. Other popular AHAs include mandelic acid and lactic acid.

Best BHA

Salicylic Acid is widely regarded as the top BHA for its exceptional ability to penetrate the pores and target acne and blemishes at the source. Its anti-inflammatory properties help reduce redness and inflammation while effectively unclogging pores and controlling oil production.

Best PHA

Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) have gained recognition for their gentle yet effective exfoliation and skin-rejuvenating properties. Gluconolactone and Lactobionic Acid are two notable PHAs known for their ability to hydrate, improve skin texture, and provide anti-aging benefits. They are particularly suitable for individuals with sensitive skin due to their gentle nature.

AHA, BHA, PHA Side Effects:


While these acids offer numerous benefits, they can cause side effects if not used properly. Common side effects include mild redness, dryness, or sensitivity. Introduce these acids gradually into your routine, starting with lower concentrations and frequency. If you experience persistent or severe irritation, discontinue use and consult with a dermatologist.



Can I Use AHA, BHA, and PHA every day?


The frequency of using AHA, BHA, and PHA products depends on your skin's tolerance and the concentration of the acid used. It is generally recommended to start with 1-2 times per week and gradually increase as tolerated. However, follow the instructions provided by the product manufacturer or consult with a dermatologist for personalized advice.


AHA BHA PHA Serum


Serums containing AHA, BHA, or PHA can be a great addition to your skincare routine. They provide targeted treatment, enhanced absorption and can address specific concerns such as uneven skin tone, acne, or signs of aging. Look for serums with optimal concentrations of these acids suitable for your skin type.


AHA BHA PHA for Acne:


BHA for Acne

BHAs, such as salicylic acid, are particularly effective for treating acne. They penetrate the pores, removing excess oil, dead skin cells and reducing inflammation.


AHA for Acne

AHAs and PHAs can aid in reducing acne marks and promoting a clearer complexion. It's best to leave acne treatments to BHAs and use AHAs for helping with the hyperpigmentation caused due to acne.


However, choosing the right products and consulting a dermatologist for personalized advice is crucial, especially if you have severe or persistent acne.


It's a Wrap


AHA, BHA, and PHA are potent ingredients that offer a range of benefits for your skin, from exfoliation and brightening to anti-aging and acne treatment. Incorporating these acids into your skincare routine can yield positive results when used appropriately. Remember to start slowly, choose products suitable for your skin type, and be mindful of potential side effects. If you have any concerns or specific skin conditions, it's always best to consult a dermatologist for personalized guidance.

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