If you are new to exfoliation, it might be pretty daunting to decide as to how to go about doing exfoliation, should you go for physical exfoliation or chemical exfoliation and how to go about choosing the AHA, BHA or PHA that is right for you and what frequency should you adopt for the same. In this article let’s try to understand the answers to all your questions regarding exfoliation, AHA’s, BHA’s and PHA’s.
- What is exfoliation?
- What are the benefits of exfoliation?
- What is physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation?
- What are AHA’s and different types of AHA’s?
- What are BHAs and different types of BHAs?
- What are PHAs?
- How to use AHAs and BHAs
What is exfoliation?
Exfoliation is a process of removing the dead skin cells that cluster on the top of your skin, as we grow older our cell turnover rate decreases and thus causing more and more dead skin cells to accumulate on top of our skin, which are not completely shed off resulting in dry, flaky skin and also clogged pores, which makes our skin look dull and uneven and your pores look big and open.
By removing these dead skin cells by exfoliation makes your skin look brighter and refreshed.
What are the benefits of exfoliation?
Some of the many amazing benefits of regular exfoliation include :
- Naturally brightening your skin by removing the dull layer on top
- Reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Even out your skin tone
- Fading age spots and sunspots on your skin
- Reducing pigmentation left over due to acne scars
- Helping with PIE & Hyperpigmentation
- Unclogging your skin pores
- Help minimize the size of your pores
What is physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation?
Physical exfoliation is generally when you use an exfoliator like a scrub or dry brush to scrub your face to remove the dead cell layer from your skin, physical exfoliators can also include things like Clarisonic brushes, facial cleansing brushes, silicone face scrubbers, cleansing pads, towels or even cleansers with beads and also peeling gels.
Physical exfoliators do work in exfoliating your skin, but the risk with this is that you tend to get micro-tears in your skin and your epidermis layer, which will lead to further damage and hyperpigmentation in your skin, if you are not careful enough, which is how most people use physical exfoliators, so it is generally advised to stay away from these.
Chemical exfoliation is when you are using acids such as Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA’s) and Polyhydroxy Acids (PHA’s) to remove the dead cell layer from your skin. Though initially, it might sound scary to apply acids on your face, these acids are naturally derived and are very effective and very helpful in gentle exfoliation of your skin and increasing your cell turnover rate among other benefits.
How chemical exfoliants basically work is that they work on unsticking the glue that holds the dead cell layer with the epidermis, which is the main reason for clogging of pores, which ultimately cause breakouts and inflammation.
What are AHA’s and different types of AHA’s
AHA is basically the abbreviation for Alpha Hydroxy Acid and even though they are acids, they are naturally derived from sugar cane, apples or fruits and because they are naturally derived AHA’s are gentle enough to use for oily and acne-prone skin and also by people with sensitive skin.
AHA’s are hydrophilic substances, i.e, they are soluble in water and thus cannot penetrate into the deep layers of the skin and hence can work only on the top layers of the skin, thus making it a perfect choice for chemical exfoliation of your skin. At low concentrations, AHAs are great humectants and are not harsh, so they really just hydrate your skin.
In general, there are 6 AHA’s which are popularly used in cosmetic products around the world and these are:
- Glycolic Acid
- Lactic Acid
- Mandelic Acid
- Malic Acid
- Citric Acid
- Tartaric Acid
Glycolic acid is the most popular Alpha Hydroxy Acid in the skincare world because it is highly effective and is super potent, it is derived from Sugar cane and it has the smallest molecular size among the other AHA’s making it more effective in penetrating the deeper layers of skin. And because it penetrates deep into the skin layers, when people start using AHA’s they find Glycolic acid to be irritating, especially the ones with dry and very sensitive skin.
Glycolic acid is not advised to be used over 10% concentrations at home and anything above 10% would need medical supervision and should only be administered by your dermatologist.
Lactic acid is the second most popular Alpha Hydroxy Acid after Glycolic acid, especially because it has a larger molecular size than Glycolic acid, which makes it more tolerable by people with sensitive skin. Lactic acid is derived from sour milk and has some amazing humectant properties and at low concentrations is used in a lot of moisturizer products.
Lactic acid is also anti-bacterial and anti-microbial in nature and can help a lot in reducing hyperpigmentation.
Mandelic acid is probably the most underrated AHA and is also the best for Indian skin. Mandelic acid is derived from bitter almonds and is very popular among Asian beauty products and is also widely studied for acne because of it’s amazing anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties.
Mandelic acid has a larger molecular size compared to Glycolic acid and Lactic acid, making it a very good choice for people with sensitive skin too.
Malic acid is another AHA that is found in many fruits and vegetables, primarily it is extracted from apples, grapes, peaches, and pears. This is an AHA that is used in skincare products to hydrate, exfoliate and remove dead skin cells and malic acid is the reason where a lot of skincare products formulated with apple cider vinegar are marketed for skin brightening and pore tightening.
Malic acid is generally used in combination with other AHA’s like Glycolic acid and Lactic acid.
As the name suggests, Citric acid is derived from citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruits and berries and is an amazing exfoliant and is popular for its skin brightening properties. Alike Malic acid, Citric acid is also used in combination with other AHA’s in the formulation of products.
As citric acid is helpful in balancing pH levels of the formulations and also can act as a preservative so you can see this in a lot of formulations along with other ingredients in skin brightening products.
Tartaric acid is not as popular as the other AHA’s in this list, but it is known for its moisturizing properties. Tartaric acid is found in a lot of plants, including grapes and tamarinds and is rich in anti-oxidants. This is one AHA that is not well studied and apparently is unstable in formulations and not easy to work with.
What are BHAs and different types of BHAs?
BHA is an abbreviation for Beta Hydroxy acid, BHAs are lipophilic acids, i.e., these are oil soluble and because of their lipophilic nature, they can reach into the fatty parts of our skin, such as our hair follicles and pores, thus making them an excellent solution for unclogging pores, clearing acne and controlling sebum production on your skin.
BHAs are able to soak up the excess buildup of sebum and oils from within the pores that will otherwise clog up and cause breakouts. BHAs are also known for calming down the inflammation and minimizing the appearance of large pores.
Some of the popular BHAs that are used in skincare products include
- Salicylic acid
- Lipohydroxy acid
Salicylic acid is a very popular BHA and is found in a lot of products including, face washes, face cleansers, toners, moisturizers and even acne spot treatments. Salicylic acid is great at cleansing excess oil and sebum from your skin pores, soothing inflammation, exfoliating dead cells from the skin and unclogging clogged pores. Which makes it an attractive ingredient for oily and acne-prone skin and thus a popular ingredient in all skincare products, targeted for oily and acne-prone skin.
Lipohydroxy acid or LHA is a salicylic acid derivative. Like salicylic acid Lipohydroxy acid also has amazing exfoliation, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Because of its large molecular size, higher molecular weight and stronger oil solubility properties, it is less harsh on your skin compared to Salicylic acid and is a great choice for people with sensitive skin.
What are PHAs?
Polyhydroxy Acid or PHAs are distant cousins of Alpha Hydroxy Acids and are also water-soluble and have larger molecular size compared to AHAs and BHAs, thus cannot penetrate into deeper layers of the skin, making it less harsh and a great choice for people with sensitive skin. PHAs offer less irritation and work on the top layer of the skin and exfoliate it.
When AHAs seem too harsh for you, or if you have very sensitive skin or if you are suffering from Eczema or Rosacea, PHA is an alternative that you can opt for exfoliating your skin. But PHA is relatively very new to skincare and you will not find a lot of products using PHA in their formulations yet.
How to use AHAs and BHAs
When you are starting with AHAs and BHAs it is always best to start with products with low concentrations of acids and then slowly increase your concentrations
Best AHA and BHA Products
With AHAs and BHAs it is best to find leave-on products that can get enough contact time to be able to work on your skin, as too little a contact time will not yield any results for you. Products such as serums, lotions and masks are great options.
Use as instructed
It is always suggested to use AHAs and BHAs as suggested by the manufacturer because depending on the percentages of these ingredients they can react differently on your skin
Burning and Tingling
AHAs and BHAs are acids, so you can definitely expect a slight burning sensation or tingling which should last for about 3 to 5 seconds, if your product is burning for long, like 1 to 2 minutes, immediately wash off the product. Also even initially if the burning sensation seems to be not right and too much wash it off immediately.
Combining with actives
When you are just starting off with AHAs and BHAs it is better to not use products containing actives like Retinol or Vitamin C, initially. Especially if your skin gets irritated, you will not be able to identify the cause if you are using too many products along with AHAs and BHAs
Regardless of all the benefits that AHAs and BHAs offer, make sure you never over-exfoliate your skin, as over-exfoliation damages your skin barrier , which might lead to all kinds of skin problems that you are trying to avoid. If you have oily, acne-prone skin you can exfoliate 2 to 3 times a week, if you have normal skin you can exfoliate 2 times a week and if you have dry to sensitive skin, limit your exfoliation to 1 to 2 times a week. If your skin is too sensitive you might start with exfoliating only once every two weeks.
This article is medically reviewed by our expert dermatologist, Dr Nagakeerthana Sunder, M.D. DVL