What Is AHA? The Difference Between AHA And BHA Explained!

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If you’re like me, then the first time you saw “AHA” and “BHA” written out, you thought someone was just laughing. You might have wondered to yourself, “Is this the new lol these days? And why are they yelling?” But alas, no need to worry about falling behind on the lingo.

AHA and BHA refer to acids that we find in our cosmetics. Sounds scary, right? Well, the truth is that there are plenty of acids in the makeup and cosmetics that we use daily. In fact, there is a multitude of ingredients in them that we never even give a second thought to!

But maybe it’s time that we change that. Time that we start understanding what we put on our bodies translates into what we put in our bodies, and that we have to be thoughtful about which products we use. So keep on reading to discover the difference between AHA and BHA and become a more educated consumer.  

What Is AHA? What Does AHA Mean?

Hand holding serum dropper.

AHA facial serum with dropper.

Let’s start with one of the main points. What is AHA? What does AHA mean? AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid. AHA acids can be made synthetically, yet they also occur naturally in the foods that we eat. Examples that may sound familiar to you include citric acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, and malic acid.

AHA acids are pretty popular in the cosmetics industry, with many companies including them in skin products targeting wrinkles or benefiting the look and feel of the skin. You can find them in anything from creams to lotions to skin peels. Overall, they help with issues such as acne and acne scarring, aging, and dry skin. The function of AHA is essentially to exfoliate your skin. How does it achieve all of these wonderful results? It rids your skin of the top layer of dead skin cells. Plus, it promotes the thickness of deeper layers of skin, which helps make your skin firmer.

In addition to these more common uses, AHAs can also help with dry mouth, fibromyalgia, and dark skin patches.

AHAs are most often applied topically, but is it safe to do so? When included at a concentration of 10% or less in a product, it’s generally safe for people to use on the skin as per the product’s directions. It is possible that the AHAs will make some people’s skin sensitive to light, so make sure to use sunscreen when using products with AHA if you’re going outside. You should only use products with a concentration higher than 10% at the recommendation of a medical professional. Ingesting certain kinds of AHA may be safe with short-term use. However, there is a risk of side effects, so you should consult with your doctor before use.

AHA Vs BHA: What Is AHA And BHA?  

You’re probably wondering about AHA vs BHA, and maybe even what BHA is in the first place. Well, BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid. It’s closely related to AHA and is merely separated from it by one carbon atom.

In the cosmetics world, BHA refers to salicylic acid. Companies often use it in anti-aging creams and acne treatments, and it helps to target inflammation.

Before we decide on AHA vs BHA, let’s review what they have in common. Both types of acids serve as exfoliants for our skin. They decrease inflammation, boost skin texture, unclog pores, minimize the appearance of wrinkles and pores, balance skin tone, and get rid of dead skin cells.

Yet there are of course differences between the two. AHAs are water-soluble. They peel away the surface of your skin so that your body can generate new cells to replace the old ones. Conversely, BHAs are oil-soluble. They can get deeper into your pores to help eliminate dead skin cells and extra sebum.

Due to their differences in makeup and function, AHAs and BHAs are typically used to address different issues. AHAs are best for treating mild hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, large pores, and fine lines and wrinkles. BHAs are best for addressing issues relating to acne and sun damage. They’re also the best option for you if you have combination or oily skin.   

Is Glycolic Acid An AHA?  

African American woman with clear skin.

Woman with clear skin.

Not only is glycolic acid an AHA, but it’s also actually the most common type of AHA. Perhaps this is because it comes from the abundant sugar cane plant.

Glycolic acid is part of how AHAs got their name as great exfoliants. It also has antimicrobial properties, letting it serve in the prevention of acne and pesky breakouts. You can easily find glycolic acid in various peels, among other skin care items.

The a-peel (sorry, I had to!) of glycolic acid is that it can easily and effectively penetrate your skin. This is all thanks to its simple molecular structure and having a low molecular weight.

As we’ve said, there are different kinds of AHAs. Glycolic acid specifically can work as a great exfoliant and works on the top layer of our skin to shed dead skin cells and let new, fresh cells take over. Typically, the stratum corneum layer of our skin includes many dead skin cells packed together tightly, and glycolic acid works by loosening them.

If you’re nervous about using glycolic acid and how you might react to it, start small. This is especially true if you have sensitive skin. For instance, you can test it out by using a cleanser that contains glycolic acid and is rinsed off quickly, rather than starting with a leave-on product. People with dry skin should probably stay away from it, while it’s great for people with normal, combination, and oily skin types.

AHA Vs Retinol: AHA And Retinol Explained  

Chances are that you’ve heard of retinol, especially in the context of acne products and treatments. Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A, and it has plenty of functions. Similar to AHA, retinol can help with acne because it helps with cell turnover. This prevents dead cells from hanging around and clogging up your pores. Retinol also helps to promote collagen production, which helps us fight off signs of aging. It will work to minimize fine lines and wrinkles, and it can assist with improving your skin’s texture as well.

When it comes to the AHA vs retinol debate, there are several things to consider. Firstly, the AHA glycolic acid is milder than retinol, and it’s better if you want to address dull skin. Meanwhile, retinol is great when it comes to dealing with zits. Overall, you don’t need to pick just one product to use. AHA and retinol are different, so using both of them in your beauty regimen will help to maximize results. This is especially relevant for people in their mid-twenties, as this is when cell turnover and collagen production start to slow.

Take note that both AHA and retinol can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. And since we know that sun damage will only cause further skin problems, you’ll, therefore, want to take extra care to protect your skin when going outside after using one of these ingredients.

AHA Benefits For Skin

Woman checking her skin in the mirror.

Woman checking her complexion in the mirror.

We’ve reviewed some of the pros of AHAs above, but let’s delve a bit deeper into AHA benefits for skin, shall we? After all, it’s not for nothing that we can benefit from AHA peels, AHA serums, AHA body washes, AHA exfoliants, and AHA cleansers.

As we said, AHAs are great exfoliators. Your body tends to shed and regrow skin cells in a natural process, but this slows down as you age. The result is dead skin cells hanging around on your face and the formation of age spots and dark skin, which is precisely where AHA comes to the rescue.

As we age, and as we’re exposed to sun damage and environmental damage to our skin, our skin’s collagen production decreases. AHA steps in to help boost collagen regeneration by getting rid of old collagen fibers.

Another perk of AHA? Increasing the effectiveness of your skin care products. By breaking the layer of dead skin cells in your skin, your skin’s ability to absorb creams and other products is improved. Consequently, these items will be better at doing their job!

AHAs are a better option than BHAs for normal to dry sun-damaged skin because they can enhance natural moisturizing factors in the skin. They’re also useful in minimizing the signs of sun damage, such as wrinkles. 


I hope that by now you’ve had your aha moment when it comes to AHA and BHA. It’s always better to be aware of what we’re putting onto and into our bodies, and these acids are no exception to the rule.

The good news is that while the word “acid” can sound bad, AHA and BHA are both common, and generally safe, ingredients that pop up in our cosmetics. It’s amazing what they can do for our acne, skin tone, signs of aging, and overall skin health. So no need to fear, feel free to use these ingredients for healthier and better-looking skin!  

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