Skincare products seem to be in love with acronyms recently, and sometimes it can make your head spin. You’ve probably seen so many of them brandishing skincare and beauty product labels, sounding more and more inscrutable: AHA, BHA, ACV, BP, CF, HCB, SPF, LA, LAA, SDS, SLP, HA…
The list goes on and on. At this rate, we’ll soon need a separate university course on decoding all the acronyms that the skincare industry - and culture - is so fond of. But before that happens - Misumi Skincare is here to help. Today, we’ll focus on BHA for skin, which is not to be confused with AHA (and no, I don’t mean the band).
Well, the acronym itself stands for beta-hydroxy acid. But saying either BHA or beta-hydroxy acid doesn’t tell me much, and I bet it doesn’t tell you much either. However, if I use the more popular name for BHA, namely - salicylic acid - then, it’s sure to ring some bells.
Yes, BHA is salicylic acid, one of the most popular substances used in organic cleansers and exfoliators. A plant hormone of sorts, the molecular structure of BHA (separated by two atoms of carbon) is what makes it so useful. The BHA molecule (C7H6O3) is shaped just the right way for it to achieve oil solubility, allowing it to penetrate skin pores easily and clean them from the inside.
If the “acid” part is giving you pause, however, you should rest easy. Skincare products that contain BHA (aka salicylic acid) have it in small concentrations, which makes BHA one of the safest ingredients to use on your skin.
Additionally, BHA is completely natural - it’s derived from plants, with one of the main sources being the bark of the willow tree which has anti-inflammatory properties. Other sources of BHA include vegetables such as tomatoes, olives, green peppers, radishes, mushrooms, chicory and so on.
But just what is it that makes BHA, also known as salicylic acid, so special? Well, BHA is famous for its triad of powerful skincare properties. BHA is lipolytic, keratolytic, and comedolytic. Let’s see what that means.
When scientists say that something is lipolytic, what they’re actually getting at is that the substance dissolves oils and fats. This oil solubility is perhaps one of the most significant properties of BHA and it makes it stand out from the competition. Since it’s oil-soluble, BHA is particularly well-suited for people with oily skin, or people who tend to have acne or clogged pores. BHA dissolves the oil, penetrates the deeper layers of the skin, and cleans the clogged pores from the inside. Of course, using BHA in tandem with the appropriate skincare routines for oily skin will further maximize its effectiveness.
For a substance to be keratolytic, on the other hand, it has to have an uncanny ability to dissolve dead skin cells. If left unchecked, dead skin cells end up clogging your pores, causing whiteheads or blackheads, then acne, warts, calluses, and so on and on. It doesn’t help that, according to some, nearly 90% of the dust around your home is comprised of dead skin cells. All in all, if you want a young looking skin, you need to get rid of all those dead skin cells. And that’s where BHA comes in - it’s the ultimate dead skin cell disposal exfoliator.
Finally, BHA is also comedolytic. Which means that it prevents the clogging of pores, which then leads to the appearance of comedones. If you recall, clogged pores and comedones are practically the first stages of the formation of acne. This is why it’s crucial to act in time and remove the possibility for acne to even form. And in order to do that, you’ll need to clean your face with BHA, also known as salicylic acid. It dissolves the sebum (or skin oil), and it makes short work of your dead skin cells too, both of which are the main factors for clogging your pores and giving you an acne inflammation. So, if you have an acne problem and wish to prevent that, including BHA in your skincare routine is a very good way to do that.
Before we go on, a word of advice: the ideal pH value of the BHA, or the product containing it, needs to be between 3 and 4, or at most 5. If the pH value of the BHA goes above 4, it quickly loses its effectiveness in exfoliating your skin and unclogging your pores. However, if its pH value falls below 3, it can irritate your skin. So, it pays off to be mindful and attentive when shopping for a BHA product.
Being mainly used in exfoliators and cleansers, BHA finds application in treating almost all of the aspects of the skin. Additionally, BHA can target all of the links in the acne-causing chain of cause and effect, making it one of the best ingredients out there for acne prevention. BHA treatments are typically used to treat the following:
I’m sure you’ve come across this dilemma - one product uses BHA, while the other uses AHA. You have the inkling they’re pretty similar, but there’s bound to be a relevant difference if they’re separated into different products. So, what’s the catch?
BHA, as we already mentioned, is basically salicylic acid. Since it’s oil soluble, BHA (salicylic acid) is generally more useful for people with oily skin. That’s because BHA can dissolve your skin’s natural oil (called sebum) and in doing so enter your pores and clean them. So, if you’re someone who’s prone to having acne, and being pestered by blackheads, BHA is perfect for you. As we pointed out above, BHA is naturally based, and possesses antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is often recommended for people with rosacea, although, it’s always wise to consult with your doctor or dermatologist before you do that.
On the other hand, AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) are not just one substance, but an entire class of acids. AHA acids include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, citric acid and so on. AHAs are also naturally based, but unlike BHAs, they can be derived from animal sources as well. Typical sources of AHA acids include grapes, sugar cane, milk and so on. Contrary to the oil-loving BHA, however, AHAs are water soluble. While that makes them less efficient in dealing with oily skin and clogged pores, it makes them powerful moisturizing agents. For that reason, AHAs are often used in sunscreen products and for the treatment of dry and sunburnt skin. While they don’t penetrate as deeply as BHA, AHAs are better suited to treat surface features of the skin, which makes them good for reducing signs of aging.
However, these classes of acids have similarities too. Both BHA and AHA are used as exfoliants and cleansers, and they can both be used to reduce inflammation, as well as reduce the appearance of acne, rosacea, wrinkles and large pores. Additionally, both BHA and AHA can help you even out your skin tone, normalizing any discoloration you might have. These substances are also popular exfoliators, helping remove dead skin cells from the surface layers of the skin, unclog your pores, and just improve your skin’s appearance in general.
Despite all the similarities, the answer is yes - they are different in a very important way.
The difference is that AHAs are water-soluble and better suited for addressing features on the surface of your skin (like for example, removing discoloration, and sunburnt skin cells during summer). Since they are water-soluble, AHAs can’t really help you much with oily skin or closed comedones.
BHA, on the other hand, is oil-soluble and is perfect for whisking away any extra oil from your skin. Their oil-solubility makes them the perfect molecular ninjas, being able not only to sweep your skin’s surface, but also infiltrate your pores and the deeper layers of skin. However, while BHA offers a deeper cleaning of your skin, it’s not as efficient as the AHAs in dealing with the surface features of the skin, such as signs of aging.
Yes, and chances are you’ve already done that, and not once. Seeing as BHA is just another name for salicylic acid, and that there are tons of products out there that contain it, you can absolutely buy BHA over the counter. It should be noted, however, that most BHA products sold over the counter contain between 2% and 5% of BHA. If this seems little to you, you don’t need to worry. The amount is just enough for what those products intend to do - which is mainly exfoliation or moisturizing. However, if you want a BHA that packs a punch, you can easily purchase a batch of pure, concentrated BHA. I just hope that you know what you’re doing, because BHA has to be diluted before use, and you will have to do that on your own.
There are a number of ways in which you can use BHA. Often times, it’s used by people who have a problem with acne, where BHA (salicylic acid) is an integral part of their cleansing routines. Additionally, BHA can be used as a spot treatment, exfoliator, a wash, as well as the main substance in chemical peeling. Finally, BHA, as you have probably noticed yourself, is found in tons of skincare and beauty products, such as creams, gels, toners, sunscreens, moisturizers and so on.
Whichever product you use, though, you should always follow the instructions that come with it. That’s the surest way that you won’t experience any irritation or other kinds of side effects or allergic reactions. But sometimes even following the instructions won’t be enough if your skin type simply does not tolerate the product you’re using. In order to avoid hurting yourself, or burning your skin, it’s wise to do a patch test before using every new product. That way, you’ll be certain how your skin will react to the product - ideally, it won’t - and you’ll spare yourself a lot of trouble in the meantime.
Finally, if you have any health concerns or doubts whether you should be using products that contain BHA, you can always consult a professional. Better safe than sorry, so, in case of doubt, schedule a visit to your doctor or dermatologist to discuss the issue.
Due to the exfoliating properties of BHA, most products contain appropriate concentrations of it and are mainly used topically, as spot treatments. As you can expect, spot treatments that contain BHA can be readily purchased over the counter, without a doctor’s prescription. BHA spot treatments are designed to treat skin problems that are fairly limited in size or the area they affect. So, a BHA spot treatment will be very useful if you’re dealing with acne, rosacea, or perhaps an area of your skin that is prone to clogged pores.
A word of caution: you should avoid applying BHA spot treatments over healthy skin. This is especially important for people with sensitive and combination skin, since it can react to BHA and experience irritation.
Spot treatments, as the name suggests, means that these products need to be applied precisely and sparingly - only over the desired “spot” of the skin. Whether that’s a pimple, an acne scab, a large comedone, or merely a spot on your skin that needs some attention, a BHA spot treatment is the way to go. Whatever the problem is, BHA will help make the area brighter, cleaner, smoother, and less inflamed.
Besides being used as a powerful cleanser that dissolves all the skin oil and unclogs your pores, BHA is also a very efficient and generally safe exfoliant. Depending on your needs, you can use an exfoliator that contains BHA either every day, or just once a week. In any case, always make sure to be following the instructions that come with the specific product. if you have any reservations or worries, it doesn’t hurt to consult your doctor or dermatologist either. (If anything, hurt often comes as the result of not consulting them.)
But just what is it that makes BHA such a popular exfoliator?
Well, all the “ordinary” mechanical exfoliators and scrubs usually involve tiny grains that you need to rub over your skin. While that sometimes gets the job done, it can come at a cost, leaving your skin red, sore, and bruised. But BHA can achieve the same, without all the hassle and the side effects. And for most products, it takes a lot shorter too - you can just leave BHA to work its magic for 30 seconds over the area of the skin you’ve applied it to. As soon as it touches your skin, BHA begins exhibiting its lipolytic and keratolytic properties - dissolving hardened, sticky sebum (skin oil) and dissolving all the dead skin cells. After it does that, all you need to do is wash your face with water.
And that’s it. No preparation. No rubbing. No soreness. No redness. Only bright, clear, smooth skin. That’s what makes BHA such a popular exfoliator.
Besides using BHA as a spot treatment, or exfoliator, you can use it as a wash preventively too. Contrary to spot treatments, using face wash products that contain BHA will need to be applied over a wider area of skin. Of course, you’ll have to follow the instructions, but most BHA washes contain fairly small concentrations of BHA, making them pretty safe. However, you should avoid rubbing your face too roughly after applying a BHA face wash. Just wash your face with water gently after the treatment, or use a soft cloth to dab any moisture off your skin.
Most chemical peeling products that employ BHA as their main ingredient contain fairly high concentrations of the acid - around 30%. This means that if you decide to try out a BHA chemical peel, you should take special care to follow the instructions. In case you’re not sure how your skin will react it’s always a good decision to perform a patch test first. If you experience no irritation, redness, itching or other adverse reactions, you’re good to go. However if your skin reacts negatively to any BHA chemical peeling product, you should abandon the idea immediately.
Of course, all of this only counts if you decide to purchase a BHA chemical peel product that you can apply on your own. But if you choose to get a BHA chemical peel performed by someone else, make sure to go to a verified professional with a lot of experience. You don’t want your face irritated just because someone isn’t experienced enough or because it cost less.
BHA is one of the most effective natural based cleansers and exfoliators, and its reputation is well earned. Its specific chemical composition makes it oil-soluble and able to penetrate the deeper layers of the skin. BHA possesses three major skincare properties. It is lipolytic, which makes it great for people with oily skin. It is also keratolytic, which makes it good for everyone, because we all need to clean our faces from all the dead skin cells once in a while. And finally, BHA is comedolytic, meaning that it does an amazing job at unclogging pores and preventing acne from happening.
All of these properties make BHA, or salicylic acid, one of the most popular substances in today’s skincare and beauty industries. BHA has a wide range of uses, including cleansing, moisturization, exfoliation, skin whitening, and chemical peeling. As always, you should always perform a patch test before beginning treatment, and consult with your doctor and dermatologist if necessary.
This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.