Understanding The Basics – Everything You Need To Know About AHA-BHA-PHA

Perhaps the title of the most used and abused skincare ingredient in the last few years has to be claimed by the AHA/BHA, and now PHAs. And as overwhelming as they are, they’re all easy to understand if you have even a basic understanding of science. What works best for our skin sometimes does not boil down to the products, but ingredients themselves. And in this case, the most you know, the better! To learn about being on the right kind of acid (tbh there’s not right, all give an amazing effect if you know what I meant), read further.

What are AHA-BHA-PHAs?

These are organic compounds that gently exfoliate the skin without being harsh or abrasive. They are acidic in nature and their specific attributes and molecular size work on exfoliating and producing different results. They unstick or dissolve the gunk holding onto your skin to reveal a fresh layer, and hence trigger skin repair and increase cell turnover, amongst other benefits. They’re active ingredients like Vitamin A or C, which means that they have a direct, active and immediate action on the skin. Right now it might sound confusing, but let us break it down in this way –

  • AHA:
    These are naturally derived, and hence very gentle on the skin. They’re mostly found in apples, pineapples, sugarcanes, wheat, beet, etc. They exfoliate the skin at the surface level, which means, they do not penetrate the skin. They can’t actually. Their molecular size as well as their water solubility forces them to work on the topmost layer only. They work by the process of desquamation – which is the unsticking and dissolving of the adhesion that holds the dirt, oil and gunk together to reveal fresh, glowy skin.
    They’re suitable for all skin types, however, people with dry, dull, sun damaged or aging skin might benefit the most from them. They do make the skin sun sensitive, so it is a great idea to follow up with a broad spectrum SPF to avoid burning your skin or causing additional damage. The most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid, and they’re found the most in skincare everywhere. AHAs resurface the skin texture, even out the skin tone, and have a brightening effect, which is why, they generate the most noticeable results. They also increase skin elasticity and fight age related skin deterioration.
  • BHA:
    Anyone who’s ever struggled with acne knows what salicylic acid is. BHAs are usually derived from citrus fruits or willow bark tree, and are the most popular solutions for acne prone skincare. BHAs are oil soluble, which means they can penetrate deeper into the skin layers and into the pore to dissolve the bacteria, dirt and sebum clogging them and thus decongesting them. By breaking down sebum, they arrest acne, whiteheads, blackheads, and are hence best for oily, acne prone skin. They’re also anti inflammatory in nature and reduce redness, which is an added bonus for anyone with angry break outs.
  • PHA:
    PHAs are the newest additions to the hydroxy family chain. They’re basically cousins to AHAs, and are often considered second generation AHAs as well. They’re the gentlest due to their water solubility and largest molecular structure out of the three, which means they limit themselves to working slowly but effectively only on the top layer. Because of this, they’re also the least irritating. Some common PHAs are lactobionic acid, gluconolactone acid, and galactose acid and are mostly found in milk. They have humectant properties, which means they’re moisturising. PHAs strengthen the skin’s barrier function and do not make you sun sensitive, unlike their cousin AHA. They work by fighting glycation – when the sugars digested by us attach themselves permanently to the collagen bonds and weaken it, therefore reducing elastin and causing premature aging. PHAs are best for people with sensitive, raw, broken skin, or people with rosacea or eczema.

How do I add an AHA/BHA/PHA to my skincare routine?

Acids sound so intimidating and confusing to everybody. It is very easy to overdo it by using it more often than required and hence cause damage that you can not handle. Acids can cause burns or over-exfoliation and damage the skin barrier if not used with proper knowledge, caution or information. But because we’re dealing with everything acid related on this post, we’ll touch base on this as well.

  • For acids to work well, use products that stay on for a longer duration on the face – such as serums, lotions, masks, toners, etc. Face-washes on the other hand, do little to nothing and work mostly as a namesake.
  • If they’re left on for too little time, they are less effective, and if they’re left for too long, they can burn your skin.
  • It is always super important to focus what the label states as directions because they work in tandem with the potency, pH, concentration and type of acids. Do not ignore them.
  • Do not jump to a higher potency if you’ve not tried acids before – it is always a better idea to build it up gradually.
  • Acids are supposed to tingle when they’re first put on and this just means they’re exfoliating or penetrating your skin layers, but if the tingling lasts longer than 1-3 minutes, wash off the product. Ideal pH for acids is 3-5 and this range works the best.

Tips For Beginners:

Here’s a to do list for you if you’ve previously never used acids in your skin care and want to finally include one –

  • Try the products one to three times a week, and limit to one if your skin is extra sensitive
  • Use a small amount on cleansed skin and follow instructions mentioned on the labels
  • Start with a lower concentration and build it up incrementally
  • Always follow up with a sunscreen if you’re using it during daytime
  • Do a patch test before using a product on the face
  • Observe how a product performs when used for a longer duration, for example, overnight treatments or sleeping packs
  • Do not mix Vitamin C or retinol with AHA or BHA

Which products should I use?

Exfoliation caused by acids is usually referred to as chemical exfoliation, and in most chemical peels at the doctor’s office, you’ll find them using these acids too. This is the secret ingredient which can take your skin from drab to fab in almost a minute, and is the secret ingredient which adds oomph to all the glowy, juicy skin you see backstage or before runway appearances. It makes the most sense to include them in your skin regime then, right? Here are some that I recommend you begin with on this new found journey to glass skin.

Now you can hopefully internalise this knowledge, use that secret key to the glow, and slay all the way!

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