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Chemical Exfoliants: Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids

If you like taking care of your skin, then you will know that exfoliation is one of the best things you can do to refresh and rejuvenate it. After a while, our skin gathers quite a lot of impurities from day to day life; a build-up of dead skin, dirt, and sebum can linger on the surface of your skin and eventually clog your pores. Often times, this can be the cause of breakouts, blackheads, roughness, and dry skin. When your face feels rough to the touch and you start to see blackheads and breakouts, it might be time to give your skin an exfoliation session to have it feeling fresh and smooth again.

Chemical Exfoliants vs Physical Exfoliants

Physical Exfoliants

When someone says “exfoliation”, a lot of the times, people think about those physical exfoliants or scrubs that can help scrub off the dead skin cells. However, these exfoliants aren’t actually that good for your face, especially if you have sensitive or acne prone skin. The beads that are supposed to exfoliate your skin can cause friction and be quite harsh on the face. Instead of preventing breakouts and other skin problems, you may find it to be irritated and aggravated.In fact, microbeads, the component that is found in a lot of “scrub” exfoliants, are banned in most places including the US and UK.

That said, physical exfoliation isn’t all bad. It can still be beneficial to those with skin that will suit this method such as: clear oily skin, clear combo skin, or those with flaky, dry, but clear skin. It’s also much better to use “natural” or organic exfoliants that do not contain artificial microbeads or even exfoliators such as face brushes or microdermabrasion.

Chemical Exfoliants

So now, in comes the chemical exfoliants Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids. These are the exfoliants that don’t use microbeads or “scrubs” to get rid of the dry skin and impurities. Instead, they contain acids that break down old skin cells which will then remove that unwanted layer of dead skin from the surface.

There is no abrasive friction that may irritate or aggravate the skin further, which is why this is usually the method that a dermatologist will recommend or prescribe to those with sensitive or acne prone skin.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid and Beta Hydroxy Acid

Alpha Hydroxy Acid and Beta Hydroxy Acid are the two main chemical exfoliants used in cosmetics and skincare products. These acids don’t scrub off the dead skin on the surface of your face, but rather, break down the bond between the cells and basically cause the skin to peel off on its own. This method will not only protect your skin from possible irritation, but also provide a stronger exfoliation. The skin peeling cleanses the face more thoroughly of impurities and even helps with existing acne, hyperpigmentation, and blemishes.

So, what is the difference between Alpha Hydroxy Acid and Beta Hydroxy Acid? Let’s talk about them here. There are actually quite a few.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are more commonly used by and recommended for those who have drier or aging skin. They have anti-aging and texture improving qualities that suit and will improve those with dry or aging skin. AHAs tend to have moisturizing qualities that will hydrate dry skin to prevent wrinkles and roughness, it exfoliates specifically the surface of the skin which tends to be gentler than an exfoliator that gets down to the pores, its humectant qualities also help preserve and prevent the loss of moisture. Another feature that people love about AHAs is that it helps build collagen which will help improve the skin’s elasticity and actually replaces the dead skin cells that you have just exfoliated.

Beta Hydroxy Acid

Beta Hydroxy Acids specialize in improving acne prone skin.This is the bad boy that really digs deep and cleanses even down to your pores. While Alpha Hydroxy Acids tend to only exfoliate the surface of the skin, BHAs exfoliate the surface with all the dead skin, as well as dirt that may have gotten into your pores, which makes it quite ideal for those that want to prevent any new acne breakouts or blackheads. BHAs, unlike AHAs, tend to have a drying effect on the skin. It’s recommended for those that really want a more intense exfoliation that will get rid of hyperpigmentation and even scarring, but not for those who want something that is moisturizing. This also has some antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities that will help prevent and improve any future or existing acne.

AHAs vs BHAs

Now that you know the differences between Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids, which one is going to be right for your skin? Well, surprisingly, there is no deliberate answer for that. Even though AHAs are more recommended for those with dry or aging skin and BHAs are recommended for those who have acne prone skin, that is not to say that you can’t use AHAs on acne prone skin or BHAs on dry or aging skin. BHAs and AHAs can have other components besides the exfoliants that might suit your skin better despite the obvious choice. You might want to try out a few formulas or consult a dermatologist to find out what is best for your skin.

Types of AHAs and BHAs

Types of AHAs

Glycolic Acid

This particular AHA will probably look quite familiar to you as it is included in a lot of skincare products and is the most popular and most used AHA out there. This is most effective with 8% or 10% concentrations. Some use even more potent concentrations with a dermatological clinic’s help to get a really intense peel that will get rid of hyperpigmentation, light scars, and improve the skin texture. Once your skin starts adapting to this AHA, you can use higher concentrations as well. Glycolic acid is pretty much odorless, colorless, and has a simple molecular structure. It is an AHA that can definitely be recommended to combat acne, reduce hyperpigmentation, acne scarring, and even wrinkles. However, unlike some other AHAs, Glycolic Acid isn’t that moisturizing. And it’s also more likely to irritate your skin.

Also known as: hydroxyacetic acid, hydroxyethanoic acid 

Lactic Acid

Lactic Acid is another AHA that you may be familiar with. You have probably encountered this AHA not only in skincare but also some of your favorite fermented foods. However, it definitely has a very different use for your skin. This is most effective with 5% to 10% concentrations. Depending on the level of exfoliation you want, you can go with a lower concentration for a mild surface peel to improve the skin texture, or you can go with a higher concentration to get a deeper, more cleansing peel. This AHA is recommended for those who have dry or wrinkled skin as it is very moisturizing and humectant. It’s been proven to reduce the number of fine lines and wrinkles, and improve the skin texture by eliminating dryness or flakiness. Heads up though, this particular AHA may be derived from animals.

Also known as: milk acid, hydroxypropanoic acid

Mandelic Acid

Mandelic Acid is the equivalent of the new guy in school when it comes to AHAs. What we do know about it though, is that it is derived from almonds and that it is definitely one to watch out for! This AHA has a larger molecular structure, making it much gentler on the skin unlike Lactic Acid or Glycolic Acid. Unlike other gentler AHAs though, Mandelic Acid still packs a punch and can work on its own to exfoliate your face. This is recommended for those with sensitive skin because of it is less likely to be an irritant because of its molecular structure. This is also advisable for oily and acne prone skin because of its antimicrobial and sebum controlling properties. Those with aging skin will also benefit from the humectant and collagen strengthening properties of Mandelic Acid as well as the way it helps accelerate the production of new cells.

Also known as: amygdalic acid, almond acid, benzeneacetic acid 

Malic Acid

Malic Acid is an AHA that shows up as a component in a lot of food that we eat. Mostly, it is derived from apples and unripe fruit. Malic Acid has a larger molecular structure, much like Mandelic acid, so it is recommended for those who have more sensitive or reactive skin as it is much gentler and much less likely to irritate. This is commonly used with a combination of other AHAs for full effectivity, however, it is proven that on its own, it can give you a deep exfoliation and moisturization.

Also known as: Apple Acid, Fruit Acid 

Citric Acid

Citric acid is another AHA that might already sound familiar to you. And yes, you’ve guessed it, it is derived from citrus fruits and juices. This is actually the component that gives your favorite fruits that acidic or sour taste. Citric acid is usually combined with other ingredients for full effectiveness. It’s also used to adjust the pH of other formulations of AHA chemical exfoliants to their most effective level.

Also known as: aciletten

Tartaric Acid

Tartaric acid is an AHA that can be found in both grapes and wine.It actually has a lot of similarities to citric acid in the way that they are both fruit acids, Tartaric acid also has a larger molecular structure which makes it very gentle on the skin, and it is also used to adjust the pH of certain ingredients in a lot of skincare products as well as be used in conjunction with other formulations of AHA chemical exfoliants.

Also known as: threaric acid, uvic acid

Types of BHAs

Salicylic Acid

Now, our BHA education is going to be a lot simpler because there is actually only one type of BHA that is used for skincare and that is: Salicylic acid. It’s most effective in 1% to 2% concentrations. This is most commonly used by those who have very acne prone skin. In higher concentrations, it can even be used for spot treatment. Its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and deep cleansing qualities help to really prevent acne from flaring up, causing new breakouts, and treating already existing spots on your skin. Salicylic can be quite drying, so it is not recommended for those that have dry skin or want to get rid of any wrinkles or fine lines. It is however, great for those that have really oily skin because of its drying properties. Those with Aspirin allergies should stay away from this though, because its anti-inflammatory qualities come from the same ingredients as Aspirin.

Also known as: 2-hydroxybenzoic acid, benzoic acid

What You Need To Know When Using AHA and BHA Exfoliants

Before using chemical exfoliants, there are some things that you may need to know first. Don’t freak out! This little section of our article is precisely so that you will know what to expect once you start using AHA or BHA exfoliants and not freak out if something a bit odd happens or even just to maintain some realistic expectations for these products. So here are a few things that you should watch out for when using chemical exfoliants:

The Purging Period

Now, I have some good news and some bad news. Let’s go with the bad news first. As with a lot of acne clearing or skin improvement products, there may be what is called the “purging” period. This is when your skin gets the worst before it gets any better. Your acne will flare up and your skin will probably feel a bit nasty for some time. But here’s the good news: ideally, this purging period should not last too long and your skin will start to improve drastically after a month or so of usage. It’s called the purging period because this is the time where the product you’re using will purge all the remaining impurities in your skin by making it break out. If the chemical exfoliant formula you’re using suits your skin though, once this period is over, your skin is going to get so much better and it will be all worth it.

Some Formulations May Not Work On You

Here is a harsh reality for us: skincare is a lot of trial and error. There are a lot of times when skincare products just does not suit or go well with one’s skin. Same goes with chemical exfoliants. After more than a month of usage, if you still don’t notice any improvements in your skin, then it’s probably time to move on and change up what you are using. The formulation you are using might just not be working out with your skin; try out a few different formulas until you get the results that you want.

The Honeymoon Period

If there is a “purging” period when using chemical exfoliants, there also comes its counterpart which is the Honeymoon Period. Everyone is different and can experience different effects using different products. Sometimes, you get the Purge. Sometimes, you get the Honeymoon Period. And sometimes, you get both. Basically, the Honeymoon Period is when your skin starts to improve drastically, becoming super clear and smooth. Unfortunately, though, the harsh reality won’t make this so forever. As your skin starts to acclimate to the formula you are using, it won’t have the same effect anymore. Your skin will still maintain its good quality when using your product regularly. However, the drastic improvements you experienced in the Honeymoon Period won’t really be happening anymore.

You Need to Use It Regularly

Once you’ve found the AHA or BHA formula that works for you, you will need to keep using it regularly. Your skin condition will definitely improve over time as you use it, but sometimes, that will make some people a bit lazy and skimp on using their AHA or BHA exfoliant. That is a no-no! Once you notice a remarkable difference, keep using your product regularly and religiously, or else all of the flakiness, spots, hyperpigmentation that you want to get rid of will just come back. So, make sure you keep using your AHA or BHA exfoliantregularly even after your skin has improved.

A Chemical Peel Is Different From a Chemical Exfoliant

Technically, a chemical peel and a chemical exfoliation can be done with the same AHA or BHA. However, a chemical peel has a much higher concentration than a chemical exfoliation. For an AHA, it’s usually about 20% to 30% concentration or even 70% for a really intense peel. For a BHA peel, it’s about 20% to 30% concentration. AHA or BHA chemical exfoliantsusually don’t need to be higher than 10% concentration, 12% concentration at most for AHAs and only about 1% to 2% for BHAs. For a chemical peel, it is recommended that you don’t do it yourself at home and get a professional’s help. Chemical peels can be quite harsh and definitely easy to mess up if you don’t really know what you are doing. Chemical exfoliants, however, are milder and can definitely be done at home very easily.

You Need to Be Wary of Irritation

Here is the harsh truth: exfoliation can very easily irritate especially if you have sensitive skin. Usually, physical exfoliants can irritate skin more, however, chemical exfoliants can still definitely irritate skin. If you experience any stinging, itchiness, redness, inflammation,or just any uncomfortable sensation on your skin after exfoliating, that means that your skin is irritated and you’re probably either using your exfoliant too frequently, using a much too high concentration, or you may need to change up the formulation of your exfoliant and find something that will suit your skin better.

Chemical Exfoliants Can Make Your Skincare Work Better

If a dermatologist has recommended a chemical exfoliant for your skin, you might notice that they tend to advise to use it before applying moisturizers, serums, lotions, or acne treatments. If you’ve just been doing things over-the-counter however, here is a tip for you: use your chemical exfoliant after cleansing and before applying any other skin care products. This is because AHAs and BHAs can improve the effectiveness of those other products by basically prepping your skin and even adjusting their pH to the most effective level.

You Need Lots of Sunscreen

In general, it is always necessary to protect your skin from the sun by using sunscreen every single day. However, this cannot be emphasized enough once you start using chemical exfoliants. Their very purpose is to clear the dead skin away from the surface of your face, leaving behind those new skin cells that are smooth, pure, but definitely much more sensitive to sunlight. When you use a chemical exfoliant, there is a much bigger chance of getting burnt. You will probably notice it immediately if you forget to put sunscreen on for a day. Your face will either be redder, there will be some discoloration, or your hyperpigmentation will darken. If you’re using a chemical exfoliant regularly make sure that you also apply a liberal amount of sunscreen regularly before going about your day.

Do Natural AHA and BHA Sources Work As Well?

If you have acne prone skin or even if you just find that putting something “natural” or homegrown on your face and body much more appealing than just slapping some chemicals on them, you will be glad to know that AHAs and BHAs can come from natural sources. Keep in mind, AHAs and BHAs have to go through some processes before getting to be an effective chemical exfoliant. Concentrations have to go a bit higher and there are a few components mixed in there and removed to make them more effective. You may find that you won’t get as “noticeable” results with some of these organic sources, but there is no harm in trying, right? So, which natural sources are ones that you can actually try out as an exfoliant? Let’s talk about them here.

Salicylic Acid = White Willow Bark Extract

Salicylic acid comes from white willow bark. While it does take a few processes to actually make salicylic acid, salicin, which comes from white willow bark and the kind of “simple” version of salicylic acid, can still be used as a gentler skincare alternative. It won’t be an exfoliant like actual salicylic acid because it’s not actually a BHA quite yet. It does, however, still have some antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties, so it will still help with improving your skin and getting rid of acne.

If you get a hold of white willow bark extract, go ahead and steep it in some boiling water (just like tea!) and use that remaining liquid to soak a cotton pad and apply all over the face.

Malic Acid/Lactic Acid = Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)

Apple Cider Vinegar is practically the magic liquid that can be used for just about everything. And yes, you can also use it for skincare because, you’ve guessed it. It contains both malic and lactic acid in it which are both AHAs. Like most of these natural alternatives, the concentration of AHAs in ACV is going to be lower than actual skincare products you can buy. However, it can still be ACV is still a great natural alternative because of its pH (3) that is actually perfect for chemical exfoliation.

You can use Apple Cider Vinegar as a toner by soaking a cotton ball, applying it on the face, and leaving it on for about 20 minutes. After that, just rinse it right off.

Lactic Acid = Plain Yogurt or Buttermilk

Lactic acid can be found in both plain yogurt (the sour, unsweetened kind!) and buttermilk. It can actually be found in other types of sour dairy products, however, for our purpose of finding a natural alternative to chemical exfoliants, these two are probably the best options. Plain yogurt has a pH of 4.0which makes it ideal for exfoliation and an effective AHA. However, the lactic acid is concentration in plain yogurt is a measly 1%, which isn’t really ideal. Buttermilk has 3% to 4% lactic acid concentration but a pH of 4.5 which is just a tiny bit too high to make it an effective AHA. But, if we are looking for a natural alternative, you can definitely try them out to see if they produce ideal results.

You can use plain yogurt as a mask and leave it on for about 20 minutes and then rinsing thoroughly. Buttermilk can be used as a sort of toner by lightly soaking a cotton ball and applying it all over the place. You can leave it on for about 20 minutes and then rinse it off.

Tartaric Acid/Malic Acid = Unripe Grapes

Grapes have trace concentrations of Tartaric and Malic Acids. It isn’t much, but unripe grapes have a pH of around 2.8 to 3.8, which fits right in the range of a good chemical exfoliant. Be careful to really pick out some unripe grapes though, because as grapes ripen, those acids are replaced by glucose or sugar, which is what makes them sweet and delicious. Not so great for exfoliation though.

You can try out the unripe grape AHA method by mashing those bad boys up and slathering it on your face as a mask. Leave it on for 20 minutes, then rinse it right off.

Glycolic Acid = Unripe Papayaand Pineapple

Basically, a lot of unripe fruits with lots of acidity contain trace amounts of AHAs. Glycolic acid is found in unripe Papaya, Pineapple, and other fruits. Pineapples’ pH is about 3.20 to 4.00, which fits in the range chemical exfoliants. While Papayas have a 5.20 to 6.00 pH, which is a tiny bit too high to be effective. The more unripe the fruit is, the more appropriate the pH levels are for chemical exfoliation.

If you’d like to try out unripe papaya or pineapple as a skincare component, you can blend the fruit up (both papaya and pineapple) and a blender to create a fairly thick juice and apply it to your whole face. Leave on for about 20 minutes and then rinse it off.

Citric Acid – Lemon, Orange, Lime, Grapefruit

Citric acid is basically in all citrus fruits. It’s what makes that tangy, sour taste that we all know and love. A pretty popular way of using this method for homemade skincare is to rub some lemon juice on your face to get rid of hyperpigmentation and even whiten the skin a little bit. The bad news is: this is so totally a myth. Lemons are actually quite phototoxic, which basically means that you will burn super easily under the sun. Not only will your hyperpigmentation and discoloration not go away, it might actually get worse and darken if you use this method. It’s best not to believe all the hype about citrus skincare and not try out this alternative.

In Conclusion

Do natural alternatives for AHAs and BHAs really work as a chemical exfoliant? The truthful answer is that there is actually no scientific evidence that these methods will produce ideal results. The AHA and BHA concentrations in these alternatives are really low and might not make much of a difference, some do not have the right pH levels, as well. If you really want to go the natural route, you can try out these organic alternatives to chemical exfoliants and see if you see a difference.

In reality, it might just be better to consult a professional what BHA or AHA product you should use or just find yourself a really good brand and product over the counter. These natural sources might be alright to experiment with if you don’t have really sensitive skin or any allergies at all. However, if you do have allergies and your skin irritates quite easily, it’s best to just use a carefully formulated chemical exfoliant that will suit your skin type.

Everything AHA and BHA

This article will have hopefully given you a good idea of what AHA and BHA chemical exfoliants are and what you can expect from them. It’s always good to know what you are putting on your face, especially if you are trying to get rid of acne and other skin problems. Exfoliation definitely plays a big part when it comes to this.

One thing to remember is that skincare varies from person to person. Sometimes, even consulting a dermatologist will still result in a few trial and errors. Don’t be discouraged if a few formulas don’t work out for you. Do some research about the products that you are using and then decide what might suit your skin the best. Soon enough, you’ll be having healthyand glowing skin and it will all be so worth it.



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