“How often should you exfoliate with AHAs/BHA? The instructions on my glycolic acid exfoliant say I need to apply it every night. But then why is my skin so dry all of a sudden?”
Exfoliating acids are double-edged swords. Use them right and they’ll brighten up your skin, smooth out your wrinkles and unclog your pores. Overdo them, and they’ll punish you with dryness and irritation.
How do you get the balance right? It all comes down to your skin type and what type of acid you’re using:
What The Heck Are AHAs/BHA?
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) are two families of exfoliants. They work by dissolving the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together.
These dead cells are old. They’ve been battered by UV rays, pollution, freezing winds… They’ve become rough and lost their glow. When you get them off your face, your whole complexion is softer and brighter.
Not all acids are created equal. Each of them has its own skincare superpower. No matter what skin type/concern you have, there’s an exfoliating acid out there that can deal with it. Here are the most common:
- Glycolic acid: The smallest member of the AHAs family, it hydrates skin, fades away dark spots and (at 10% or higher concentrations) boosts collagen production. It’s the ideal choice for dry, sun-damaged skin – as long as it’s not sensitive. It’s the most irritating of the lot.
- Lactic acid: The least irritating member of the AHAs family, it exfoliates and hydrates sensitive skin at the same time.
- Mandelic acid: The new kid on the block, this AHA is a large mocule that easily penetrates the skin’s lipid layer and gets into the pores. It helps unclog them, but it works more slowly than salicylic acid. I only recommend it to oily, acne-prone skin that can’t tolerate salicylic acid.
- Salicylic acid: The only member of the BHA family used in skincare, it can get inside the pores and unclog them from within. Bye bye, blackheads and pimples! Plus, it has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce redness and irritation. It’s my top choice for oily and acne-prone skin.
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What Happens When You Use AHAs/BHA Too Often?
Using AHAs/BHA too often terribly backfires. I totally get it you want to get rid of the dead skin cells that are roughening up your skin and stealing its glow.
But you CAN’T remove ALL dead cells. You see, those cells are there for a reason. They protect the newer, healthier cells that aren’t ready to come to the surface yet.
When you remove too many layers, you’re destroying your skin’s protective barrier and exposing skin that’s not ready to be exposed yet. It’s ugly. And it hurts like hell.
How Often Can You Exfoliate With AHAs/BHA?
It depends on your skin type and what acid you’re using:
- Glycolic acid: On dry, sun-damaged skin, you can use it every other night.
- Lactic acid: Use it once or twice a week at night on sensitive skin. Other skin types can use it more often.
- Mandelic acid: On oily skin, it’s safe to use once a day, either morning or night.
- Salicylic acid: You can use it every day, either morning or night, on oily, acne-prone skin. If you’re having a bad breakout, you may use it both morning and night.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that these are just guidelines. If your skin starts experiencing any sign of dryness – flaky patches, redness, irritation – cut back usage.
Exception #1: Exfoliating Cleansers
Some cleansers contain acids to remove makeup, impurities and dead cells all in one go. In this case, the acid won’t stay on your skin for long. When you rinse off your cleanser, the exfoliating acids go down the drain with it.
You know what this means? They don’t have the time to do much exfoliation. That’s why they’re safe for daily use, no matter your skin type.
If your skin tolerates leave-on exfoliants, go down that route. You’ll get better results. But if your skin is sensitive and doesn’t react to acid well, trying an exfoliating cleanser makes sense.
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Exception #2: Chemical Peels
Gone are the days when you could get a chemical peel only at the doctor’s office. The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution and Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial have brought these peels to the drugstore.
This may surprise you, but I’m NOT happy about it. These high concentrations can be very irritating. They’re for people who built up tolerance to acids over the years, not someone who just wants to try what’s new at Sephora.
If your skin can take them, use them no more than once every 7/10 days. They remove way more dead cells than an acid toner or serum, so DON’T use them as often. Less is more with peels.
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The Bottom Line
Exfoliating acids are the quickest way to get a brighter, smoother complexion. But they can dry out and irritate skin if you overdo them. Use them in moderation!
How often do you use AHAs/BHA exfoliants? Share your experience in the comments below.