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Chemical exfoliants are commonly used in skincare routines to address a variety of skin concerns like breakouts, excess oil, pigmentation, dullness, uneven texture and fine lines. Both AHA and BHA exfoliants can act as powerful agents in stimulating the skin cell renewal process, sloughing dead skin cells and unclogging pores to reveal fresher, healthier-looking skin. Before identifying which type of exfoliant is going to be most beneficial for your skin, La Roche-Posay has created an in-depth guide to help you understand the difference between AHA and BHA exfoliants and what these hydroxy acids can do for your complexion.

aha image


Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are water-soluble chemical exfoliants derived from sugar cane and other natural sources like milk and fruit. Some of the more commonly found AHAs in skincare products include glycolic acid, lactic acid and citric acid.

So, what does an AHA do for skin? When applied topically, AHAs help to accelerate the shedding of dead skin cells from the epidermis and reveal visibly clearer, brighter skin. Since AHAs penetrate the skin’s most outer layer, they are typically more suited for surface-level concerns experienced by dry or ageing skin types, though they are still effective in minimising breakouts in blemish-prone skin.

BHA benefits


Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) behave similarly to AHAs in that they loosen the bonds between dead skin cells to encourage greater skin cell turnover and uncover healthier-looking skin. BHAs also have natural origins in plant sources, particularly willow bark – the tree from which salicylic acid, the most common BHA, is primarily obtained.

BHA chemical exfoliants are lipid-soluble, meaning they break down in oil and can thus penetrate the skin’s pores rather than just the epidermis (like an AHA). These deep-exfoliating properties make BHAs highly effective in managing the byproducts of oily and mild acne-prone skin.

woman's face after using LHA


Knowing which types of exfoliants are right for your skin type and concerns is the key to harnessing the benefits of hydroxy acids for robust skin cell turnover. While both AHA and BHA exfoliants assist in exfoliating dead skin cells and unclogging pores, you should avoid taking a one-size-fits-all approach with your skincare regime. So, which one is right for you? Continue reading for a breakdown of the individual benefits of these chemical exfoliants for common skin concerns.

older womans face


There are several commonly used AHAs that you can introduce into your skincare regimen to target visible signs of ageing as well as uneven skin tone and texture. While they each have the intended effect of removing dead skin cells, they can interact with the skin in different ways: 

Glycolic acid: as one of the gentler types of exfoliants in the AHA family, glycolic acid is used to address irregular skin tone and uneven texture, boosting skin softness and encouraging greater collagen production during skin cell renewal.

Lactic acid: like the name suggests, this AHA is found naturally in milk. In addition to gently exfoliating and targeting signs of pigmentation, lactic acid also has moisturising properties to help keep the skin smooth and supple.

Citric acid: another anti-ageing ingredient but a lesser-used AHA, citric acid also assists with skin cell turnover to improve the overall texture and tone of photodamaged skin.

DUO + M moisturiser with salicylic acid


While most skin types can benefit from the use of an alpha hydroxy acid, more stubborn skin concerns like excess sebum and recurring breakouts may require salicylic acid to deeply exfoliate and unclog pores. There are many benefits of using salicylic acid for mild acne-prone skin. In addition to unblocking pores, this BHA chemical exfoliant also regulates sebum production, smooths skin texture and can help reduce the appearance of blemish-related marks and redness.

If you experience either oily or blemish-prone skin, consider Effaclar Micro-Peeling Purifying Gel Cleanser. This product is formulated with salicylic acid and LHA (beta-lipohydroxy acid derived from salicylic acid) to deeply unclog pores, refine the skin, control oil and reduce the recurrence of comedones. For particularly congested skin, you may consider using Effaclar Duo+M Anti Imperfections Moisturiser which has been formulated with salicylic acid and LHA to help reduce breakouts while other ingredients keep the skin moisturised. 

salicylic acid serum


AHA and BHA exfoliants can be formulated in a range of skincare products including facial serums, cleansers, toners and peels. It should also be noted that the use of chemical exfoliants can make the skin more susceptible to sun damage, so ensure you continue to apply broad spectrum SPF every day.

If you are trying to determine how often to exfoliate with an AHA or BHA, it ultimately comes down to your skin’s tolerance levels. Individuals with oily, normal and mild acne-prone skin may be able to use a chemical exfoliant 3 times per week – sometimes even nightly. For instance, La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Anti-Acne Salicylic Acid Serum is formulated for daily use to help target breakouts, fine lines and wrinkles.

However, more sensitive skin types may only tolerate an exfoliant once per week. As with any potent ingredient, start slow, and monitor your skin for redness, dryness and tightness. Ensure that you use a moisturiser to help mitigate any signs of sensitivity and opt for a gentle cleanser like Toleriane Caring Wash Hydrating Cleanser that won’t rob the skin of moisture. 

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