AHAs VS BHA: Which One Is Right For You?

by Gio

difference between aha and bha

I thought exfoliating skin was easy.

Pick a scrub. Use it. Done.

Problem was, that often left my skin red and irritated. 🙁

Then, an angel suggested I try chemical exfoliants. But, there was a problem with those, too. No, it’s not because they’re chemicals. Some chemicals are good (water, anyone?).

Nope, chemical exfoliants talked a language I didn’t understand. AHAs? BHA? WTH? How isa girl supposed to make sense of all that?

Like, can’t someone just start talking plain English and tell you what you have to use, please?

Fine, I’ll do it. Here goes:

the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

AHAs

What the heck are AHAs?

AHAs is short for alpha hydroxy acids. I know, that’s not much help. Let me start again.

AHAs are acids derived from sugar, milk, nuts and fruits. The most common types used in cosmetics are:

  • Citric acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Mandelic acid

What do AHAs do?

AHAs are powerful multitaskers. They:

Which AHAs is better?

Well, it depends on your needs. But the best one is definitely glycolic acid. Unlike the other acids, it goes the extra mile. It also boosts collagen production and makes skin thicker and firmer.

If you have sensitive skin, stick to lactic acid. It’s the gentlest member of the AHAs family and will exfoliate your skin without irritating it.

Are There Any Side Effects?

AHAs, especially glycolic acid, can irritate skin and even make it peel at first. That’s why it’s best to start with a small dose (around 5%) a couple of times a week and build up dose and frequency from there slowly.

Also, if you exfoliate in the morning, apply sunscreen afterwards. Like all forms of exfoliation, AHAs increase skin’s sensitivity to UV rays.

Who Should Use Them?

Because they’re so hydrating and can boost collagen too, AHAs are better for:

  • Dry Skin
  • Sun-damaged skin (glycolic acid)
  • Sensitive skin (lactic acid only)

Best Picks:


Related post: Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which One Should You Use?

Dry or sun-damaged skin? Exfoliate with AHAs. Oily skin? BHA works best for you. Click to Tweet

the ordinary salicylic acid 2 solution

BHA

What The Heck Is BHA?

Yes, there’s only one beta hydroxy acid (BHA) used widely in cosmetics. I’m talking about salicylic acid. It’s derived from willow tree bark.

What Does BHA Do?

  • It exfoliates skin by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together
  • Penetrates inside the pores, unclogging them from within
  • Has anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe redness and irritations
  • Reduces the appearance of fine lines and dark spots

Are There Any Side Effects?

Salicylic acid is effective at lower concentrations than AHAs (1% or 2% work a treat). So, it’s less likely to cause irritations. But, it CAN still irritate your skin if you use it too often. Don’t go overboard!

And, of course, it increases skin’s sensitivity to UV rays during the day, so don’t skip your sunscreen!

Who Should Use It?

Both AHAs and BHA exfoliate skin. The main difference is that AHAs are water-soluble while BHA is oil-soluble. So, only BHA can penetrate and unclog pores.

That makes them better for:

  • Oily skin
  • Acne-prone skin

Best picks:

The Bottom Line

Both AHAs and BHA exfoliate skin. But AHAs are hydrating and collagen-boosting, which makes them ideal for dry and sun-damaged skin. BHA, instead, unclogs the pores, making it a must for oily skin.

Do you prefer AHAs or BHA exfoliants? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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51 comments

Pia September 16, 2014 - 2:39 pm

Hello there, I very appreciate your post. Is there any new study showing that AHAs increase the thickness and firmness of the skin? That one quoted above is 18 years old… Thank you!

Reply
Gio September 16, 2014 - 8:00 pm

Pia, I know it’s old, but it hasn’t been disputed yet. 🙂 I found another one, done in 2003. Here’s the link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12839261

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Pia September 16, 2014 - 8:05 pm

Thank you Gio so much! It is just an incredibly fascinating topic, isn’t?

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Gio September 17, 2014 - 9:20 am

It is indeed. And you’re most welcome. 🙂

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Laurie September 16, 2014 - 4:16 pm

I use Paula’s Choice Resist BHA currently — I have large pores on my nose and a fairly shiny T-zone. However, because I almost never break out, I wonder if AHA isn’t better for me. I am 42 and don’t have noticeable wrinkles yet (genetics — thanks, Mom). I don’t get very dry, except for a little on my nose in the winter. But I do have considerable sun damage, including hyperpigmentation on my forehead and cheeks, and of course I’m concerned about preventing more wrinkles.

Also, I notice you recommend exfoliation 2-3X a week, while Paula Begoun seems to recommend it in the morning and evening. Is that too much?

Thanks in advance for any advice you have, Dr. Gio. 😉

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Gio September 16, 2014 - 7:58 pm

Laurie, you could try alternating them, and use AHAs one day and BHA the next. That way, you get the best of both worlds.

Some experts recommend exfoliating every day, others only two or three times a week. I think the frequency depends on what your skin needs, how much exfoliation it can take, and how strong the exfoliant is. Those with very oily skin may benefit from exfoliating daily, while for those with dry or sensitive skin that can be too much. Also, the higher the concentrations of AHAs or BHA, the higher the risk of irritation is. Because overexfoliating can seriously harm skin, I think it’s best to start exfoliating only two or three times a week and, if you see you need more, then increase frequency gradually.

You make me blush. 😳

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Laurie September 16, 2014 - 9:17 pm

That’s great, Gio — thanks so much!

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Gio September 17, 2014 - 9:22 am

Laurie, you’re welcome. 🙂

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Janessa September 16, 2014 - 4:24 pm

I’m using PC’s 2% BHA! I’m going to try out PC’s 5% AHA or PTR’s 10% AHA since I want to use a glycolic for the rest of my face. Right now, I’ve been resorting PC’s 2% BHA for the T-zone and occasional all-over exfoliant.

I use AmorePacific’s Treatment Enzyme peel every few days. I know some use it daily but I just use it when I feel like it. Times when I feel like I need a ‘pick me up’ but most of that mentality stems from just my mood since I doubt I can see when I need to exfoliate haha. (Unless I didn’t exfoliate for weeks would I really really notice?!)

One of my favorite BHA vs AHA posts I’ve read and I’ve looked up a ton. You’re clear, concise, and recommend great products.

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Gio September 16, 2014 - 8:05 pm

Janessa, I think you would notice. Exfoliated skin looks so much better. 😉

With exfoliants it’s always better to start at low concentrations, imo. I’d go with the 5% glycolic and, if you see that works well for your skin, then you can upgrade to the 10%.

Aww thank you! 😳

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[email protected] September 16, 2014 - 4:33 pm

i love your posts for the information I get here.. I never knew BHA’s are the ones that is for oily skin.. Will keep this in mind next time when i buy any skincare product 😀

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Gio September 16, 2014 - 8:17 pm

Purva, I’m glad you enjoy my posts. BHA is great for oily skin. Let me know how you like it when you try it. 🙂

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Chic Readings September 16, 2014 - 5:16 pm

Thank you for this information!:)

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Gio September 17, 2014 - 9:12 am

Helena, you’re welcome. 🙂

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Katie September 16, 2014 - 7:15 pm

I’ve only used AHA’s before (outside of salycilic acid containing spot treatments) but I’m going to look into getting a BHA if I can find one that fits my budget (boo, student!)

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Gio September 17, 2014 - 9:27 am

Katie, if you don’t mind purchasing online or through a representative, you can try Avon Clearskin Professional Acne Mark Treatment. It contains 2% salicylic acid and even some glycolic acid. Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion isn’t too expensive either. But it’s pretty basic and contains only 0.5% salicylic acid.

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Efrain September 16, 2014 - 10:25 pm

Hi Gio I was tempted to try glicolyc acid at 10% but my main problem is acne, oily T-zone, acne marks and dehydration in the cheeks. Do you think I should better choose salicilic acid?

In fact I was tempted to start a regimen which included 5% benzoyl peroxide and a good moisturizer in the morning and in the night 10% glicolic acid and moisturizer, because I was using the Effaclar Duo+ but its expensive for me.

BTW greetings from Mexico.

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Gio September 17, 2014 - 6:30 am

Efrain, hi! I think salicylic acid would be a better option for you. I would try that first and, only if the results don’t satisfy you, opt for glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide. They can be quite irritating when used together, though, so, if you decide to try this combination, use them on alternate days.

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Vivella September 17, 2014 - 10:30 am

Thank you for your always well informed posts, I always enjoy them! I like using Clarins Exfoliating Brightening toner (with glycolic) a few times weekly.

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Gio September 17, 2014 - 12:29 pm

Vivella, you’re welcome, and I’m glad you do!

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Seppo September 19, 2014 - 10:20 am

You should also look into the newer forms of AHA, like gluconolactone. Well, technically they are not AHAs, but anyway. They seem to have many of the positive effects of AHAs without most of the negatives. Gluconolactone, for example, both exfoliates the skin and acts as an antioxidant. It also doesn’t increase sun sensitivity of the skin.

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Gio September 19, 2014 - 4:00 pm

Seppo, they sound wonderful! I will definitely look into them, thank you!

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mariah December 17, 2015 - 11:29 pm

Although AHA+ wouldn’t be my first choice for those struggling with breakouts, it’s an option to alternate with a BHA exfoliant or to use if you’re not as concerned about breakouts but have uneven skin tone, rough texture, or other signs of sun damage. Experiment to see what works best for you. I had the same issue you mentioned, but I have been using the Lady Soma Renew Serum with the Berry Mask they have – and seen great results on healing my sun damage.

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Gio December 21, 2015 - 4:37 pm

Mariah, that’s a great tip. Sometimes, using both gives the best results. It just depends on what issue you’re trying to address. If sun damage, adding glycolic acid to your routine would definitely help. Just as long as you don’t overdo it. That’s always a risk with exfoliation.

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Ajinkya May 16, 2017 - 12:55 pm

Excellent post, I have sensitive acne skin ,I have used alpha face wash it didn’t work as it is an AHA based . Right now I’m taking treatment for side effects( slight rash )occurred due to alpha face wash, doctor has given me dermadew facewash is it AHA or BHA ?? . Clozac face wash which is suitable for me as it is BHA (salicylic acid) based.so can I used that after treatment is over or stick to dermadew face wash ? I’m confused!

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Gio May 21, 2017 - 10:12 am

Ajinka, I don’t think dermadew has any acids so you can use your BHA afterwards.

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Cindy June 1, 2017 - 4:07 am

Thank you for the article…I’m nearing 55 yrs. and I’ve had blackheads since puberty. I don’t get pimples…blackheads and whiteheads. The whiteheads don’t bother me as they are very unnoticeable and easily extractable. The blackheads are my problem…I’m more than a bit OCD about them. Once extracted they leave a hole, which promptly fills up in a day or so. They aren’t huge, but if left alone they become where I can easily pull out with fingernails, tweezers, etc. but I don’t leave them alone because I don’t want them to get to that size stage. I don’t wear make up. I want them gone, and I know it’s near impossible to achieve that topically but I keep trying. It’s mainly my entire nose, and the cheek area next to my nose that are congested the most. Truthfully, almost every pore on my face has a blackhead or whitehead of some size, but not distinguishable to the naked eye as my nose area. So, since I was 13 yrs I have been manually purging them and I have a hard time not purging because they keep returning – it’s a war not a battle. I don’t do this to all areas of my face, just the most active Pores on my entire nose as mentioned. I’ve used various products over the years and at the moment I’ve been doing the oil cleansing method for one year now each night, & all natural non comedogenic oil to moisturize daily [combo of hemp, tea tree, Vit E oil, lavender, & occasionally with a tiny bit of frankincense & rose hip seed oil], weekly Aztec Clay mask with AC Vinegar, and no real chemicals on my face to tone exception being S Acid with my witch hazel toner. I exfoliate every morning with a Clarsonic brush using Shea African Black soap ….I’m fit, I drink plenty of water [no soda’s in 15 yrs or more], do my 10,000 steps and eat healthier than I ever had. I’ve cut out dairy by 98%, eat almost no sugar added or otherwise, don’t eat much meat, have added salmon, greens & various nuts/seeds to my diet and take several supplements [fish oil, MSM, hydrolyzed collagen, Vitamin A, pre and probiotic, women’s all natural multivitamin that has everything under the sun in it to include every Vit B you can think of,, additional oral Vit C, zinc, selenium…..I still have blackheads.
Since I’m older, I’d like to have the collagen inducing benefits of the AHA, too…..but frankly – how well would these 2 products work for me? I’m on a budget so paying to see a Dermatologist probably isn’t going to happen. I do see that I can buy Retin A online – is it time for me to go that route?
Thank you for taking the time to read my story.

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Gio June 3, 2017 - 2:43 pm

Cindy, have you tried salicylic acid? It’s the only exfoliant I know that can get inside the pores and unclog them from within. Retin A is good for wrinkles too so you can certainly go down that route but I’d try the SA first. But you should stop using the Clarisonic because you may overexfoliate your skin otherwise.

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Liz June 25, 2017 - 6:48 pm

Hi Gio! Thanks for the article! I would like to incorporate a BHA into my routine to deal with blackheads, but my skin seems to be too sensitive . I’ve tried Cosrx BHA and Paula’s Choice BHAs of different strengths, but my skin is always left dry and irritated. I’ve heard that some people wash off their BHA after 5-10 minutes to prevent irritation and get desired results. What do you think?

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Gio July 7, 2017 - 10:13 am

Liz, I usually don’t recommend it because BHA loses a lot of its effectiveness when washed off the skin. But if it’s the only way you can use it, then it’s worth a try. Just as long as you are aware you won’t get its full strength.

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LENNI November 9, 2017 - 4:08 am

Hai gio..how to apply BHA…You leave it for how long on your face?after that what product you use?
thx

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Gio November 26, 2017 - 12:08 pm

Hi Lenni, apply BHA right after cleansing and leave it there. Use it light a serum. You’d just apply a cream on top, not removing after a while. What comes next depends on your needs. You may want to use an antiaging serum or go in straight with moisturiser.

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Lindsay July 5, 2017 - 10:58 pm

I can relate to Cindy. Large pores since birth. My one cheek seems to have tunnels under it that are filled with sebum and my entire cheek was hard and shiny. Slow forward, I’m 65 and just read about BHA. I have been using Paula’s Choice BHA for 6 weeks daily and voila, almost all of my t zone and cheek are clear. A lot has been purged in an almost effortless way. We all have different skin types but I will tell you this has been a miracle for me. Thank you for your concise article. I have asked 2 dermatologists about this and they both said there isn’t any difference in BHA and AHA. Very unnerving.

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Gio July 7, 2017 - 10:54 am

Lindsay, so glad salicylic acid has worked so well for you. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

That’s unnerving indeed. Just the other day I watched a video by dermatologist Sam Bunting saying how AHAs aren’t that useful for oily skin. *sighs*

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anisa July 21, 2017 - 4:21 pm

hi gio can you reccomend me the best product to combine with bha? is it okay to combine rosehip oils with bha?

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Gio July 22, 2017 - 11:07 am

Anisa, that depends on your skin type and concern. Rosehip oil is a source of retinol so I would use that at night and BHA in the morning.

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Sarah October 17, 2017 - 7:31 pm

Hi Gio!

I just started incorporating several Korean products into my skincare routine and so far there is just one product that I had to pause on, because of some immediate affects it had on my skin. Hoping you can help me figure out whether I should stop using it or if I just need to change up the process…

I bought MIZON’s AHA/BHA’s Daily Clean Toner, and have only used it twice. I thought that the best way for me to apply this toner was on a cotton ball and dab it gently all over my face. Almost as soon as I started applying it, I felt a slight burning on the apples of my cheeks and they became flushed/stung a bit for several minutes afterwards. ONLY on that part of my face- no burning etc anywhere else, perhaps a bit of pinkishness that went away quickly. I applied all my other products (Niacinamide included). I ended up taking an unexpected shower soon after and on a semi-clean slate i just applied my night moisturizer and a few other products, the sting went away.

Then I found this and a few other articles on what not to mix with AHAs or BHAs, so I adjusted my routine to make sure that my Vitamin C, Retinol and aha/bha, Niacinamide products all had their own place and did not interfere with each other, by alternating times/days that i apply. (Most being in my P.M routine)

So the next time I used the AHA/BHA toner, i got that burning/flushing again, only a little less intense. The next morning, I saw that 2-3 very small white pimples had invaded my cheeks/face where it was most sensitive. I have had VERY little acne since I began building a routine about a year ago, so it was obvious that this product does something very drastic to my face. It was the newest korean product that I have tried and the first AHA/BHA product.

The acne cleared up very quickly, but I was wondering if the stinging/burning reaction I had (have not tried it again since), is a sign that it’s too harsh for my skin? Or do you think I can still use it on other areas and just avoid my cheeks? Or perhaps I should make more time between cleansing and toning/ adding other products? (I cleanse with Neogen’s Green Tea Foam or Burt’s Bee’s Soap Bark & Chamomile, and have been using a non-alcohol witch hazel for toning which I love)

Ideas?

I believe I have combination skin, my T-zone tends to get oily and I used to get a lot of acne on my jawline, but some lifestyle/health changes have cleared most of that up. I feel like my skin has become suddenly more sensitive over the past few years, but I am seeing more and more improvement this year as I find (some through trial + error) products that suit my skin.

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Gio October 19, 2017 - 12:36 pm

Sarah, sorry to hear this toner doesn’t agree with your skin. I had a look at the ingredient list and frankly, the AHAs and BHA are listed towards the end so there shouldn’t be enough here to bother your skin (or exfoliate it). Papaya extract could do some of the exfoliating work. It’s safe for most people but it can cause negative reactions in people with sensitive skin. It also has a lot of alcohol so if you apply it to a dry and sensitive area, it could upset it. If you want to use both AHA and BHA at the same time, I recommend Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycol Night Serum. It’s expensive but it works. You can also use them separately. Both The Ordinary and Paula’s Choice make some good AHA and BHA exfoliants that are reasonably priced. I know they’re not Korean but I find Korean skincare doesn’t like to use acids. Hope this helps.

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Brigadoon August 2, 2018 - 7:29 pm

I have used Clinique basic system since 1968 – it has always kept my skin fabulous – then good old menopause came (no problems at all going through that ) but my skin simply left town !! – Now I am dealing with dehydrated wrinkled skin on face & body – yes I have tried alllll the products out there – (and more than likely paid for some of the tiles on the floor at the dept stores!!) tossed out my BIG box of all sorts of products – Now I am back to clinique – However, even though after using the #2 clairfying lotion (it is not a toner – and has a high quality Salicylic acid – which brought my skin back to great – My body missed the train and is still reallllly dehydrated. I hate anything that is a film on the skin – My question is “what do you think of Marula oil? I thought about buying a high quality Marula oil – But I can not figure out “if my body is dehydrated – how can a oil hydrate my skin when there is no water in a oil? Thank you

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Gio August 5, 2018 - 9:29 am

Brigadoon, if your skin is dehydrated, you need a hyaluronic acid serum. Hyaluronic acid attracts water into the skin and keeps it there. You can follow up with Marula oil to seal it in. But the oil alone won’t work as well without hyaluronic acid.

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M February 14, 2019 - 12:23 pm

Thank you for this awesome article! Up until I was 19, my skin was just fine, very minimal breakouts during that time of the month in high school. Now I’m 20 and since uni and all that stress because of the nature of my degree, my skin has been popping pimples more and more frequently. My skin is not usually dry and its not oily either since skincare cleansing products (especially ones containing tea tree oil) dry up my skin. My pimples appear to pop up in the same place and spread a bit in the same area – mainly the cheeks and sometimes the chin area.
1- is my skin known as “acne-prone”?
2- is it considered cystic if the acne pops up in the same place? Even if your acne is on the milder or mild-moderate side?
3 – if my pimples resurface, it’s a deeper skin problem. So BHAs? Even if my skin isn’t oily.
Note: I have been using vitamin c serum and only recently began the AHA 5% lactic acid from the ordinary

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Gio February 15, 2019 - 1:59 pm

M, sorry to hear stress has been playing tricks on your skin. To answer your questions:

1. As you’re drying out your skin, it’s hard to say if your skin is acne-prone or if your skincare is making it acne-prone. Stop using anything drying and see what happens.
2. No, cystic is when the pimples are large, red and painful. It’s quite rare, luckily.
3. Yes use salicylic acid if you have pimples, even if your skin isn’t oily. Use it instead of lactic acid.

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Effa March 20, 2019 - 11:04 pm

Hi Gio,
Have you tried comparing The Ordinary SA with The Inkey List BHA?

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Gio March 21, 2019 - 3:43 pm

Effa, not yet, but it’s coming!

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Shawnee April 26, 2019 - 10:13 pm

Gio! Thank you so much for your informative article! I’m just today learning about AHAs and BHAs and wow! There’s a lot to learn.
I would greatly appreciate your input as I’m having trouble deciding on what would be best for my skin.
I’m 26 yrs old and generally have very dry skin. I have wrinkles beyond my years because of this (although my forehead gets quite oily, but I have fewer acne issues there).
I have cystic acne, which generally forms around my chin, jaw and neck, but also sometimes my cheeks/nose/forehead. I also have regular acne and large pores all over.
Do you think and AHA or BHA would be more effective for my skin? Or maybe a combination?
I was thinking an AHA for my dry, aged skin would be good, but the deep cleansing abilities of the BHA might suit my deeper issues.
Any input is greatly appreciated!
Thank you so much 🙂

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Gio June 4, 2019 - 7:39 pm

Shawnee, if you any form of acne, salicylic acid. Once you’ve got the acne under control, you can think of adding or switching to glycolic acid.

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Elizabeth June 4, 2019 - 1:00 am

Thank you so much for this. I have been using a physical exfoliant, and i have been having bad pimples for the past few months. It was recommended that i use a chemical exfoliant to wash my face. The one that was recommended was almost $30. I think i will try some of these to help. Thank you so much.

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Gio June 4, 2019 - 5:44 pm

Elizabeth, get a leave-in salicylic acid exfoliant!

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Clara August 15, 2019 - 11:50 pm

Great content and topic, but all the ads area really distracting and take away from the user experience.

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Gio September 14, 2019 - 12:35 pm

Clara, so glad you like the content and thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately, running a blog is very expensive and I need to cover the expenses somehow. Thanks for your understanding.

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