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Beta-hydroxy acids: When to use BHA in your routine for radiant skin

These chemical exfoliants may help you to achieve your skincare goals—when used correctly.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 25, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
BHA
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 25, 2023 • 7 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

When it comes to achieving healthy and radiant skin, an effective routine—that incorporates the right ingredients—is key. Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) have gained significant popularity among the many skincare ingredients available, and if you have acne-prone skin, they may be worth adding to your routine. 

That said, BHAs are just one type of chemical exfoliant you can choose from—so how do you know if they’re the right choice for your skin goals? Here, we’ll explain what you need to know about BHAs and how you can incorporate them into your skincare routine safely and effectively. Let’s get into it!. 

What are beta-hydroxy acids (BHA)? 

BHAs are a group of chemical compounds widely used in skincare products for their exfoliating and clarifying properties. The most common BHA is salicylic acid, but related substances are also categorized as BHAs.¹ These include:

  • Salicylate

  • Sodium salicylate

  • Willow extract

  • Beta hydroxybutanoic acid

  • Tropic acid and 

  • Trethocanic acid 

Some BHAs, such as malic acid and citric acid, are also alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). AHAs are another type of chemical exfoliant, but they have different properties and are more suited for surface-level exfoliation. Citric acid, in particular, is known for its antioxidant properties and anti-aging benefits when used in skincare formulations.²

What are the benefits of beta-hydroxy acids? 

Incorporating skincare products that contain BHAs such as salicylic acid at a 2-4% concentration can provide several skin benefits for your complexion.³ Here are the key advantages of using BHAs in skincare:

Exfoliation: BHAs promote exfoliation by facilitating desquamation, which is the shedding of the outermost layer of your skin.⁴ By encouraging the removal of dead skin cells, BHAs reveal a fresher layer of skin, resulting in a smoother and more radiant complexion.

Acne treatment: BHAs are effective in treating acne due to their multifaceted properties. They possess keratolytic or peeling properties. BHAs are also comedolytic, meaning they help to break down comedones (blackheads and whiteheads).⁵

Deep cleansing: BHAs are lipid-soluble, which allows them to penetrate the skin through sebaceous follicles. This characteristic makes BHAs particularly suitable for individuals with oily skin and open comedones (blackheads). By effectively penetrating pores, BHAs provide a deep cleansing action, removing excess oil, debris, and bacteria that can contribute to acne breakouts.⁶

Anti-inflammatory effects: Certain BHAs have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties.⁷

It’s important to note that individual results may vary, and it’s always recommended to patch-test new products and gradually introduce BHAs into your skincare routine.

Are beta-hydroxy acids safe? 

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid, are generally considered safe when used in skincare products. Granted, you should follow certain precautions and guidelines to ensure their safe use.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), BHAs are considered safe when formulated to avoid irritation and to minimize increased sun sensitivity. Products containing salicylic acid should either include sunscreen or provide directions advising users to use additional sun protection.

The FDA is actively conducting studies to evaluate the long-term safety of salicylic acid in cosmetics. Until these safety assessments are completed, similar precautions are advised for using cosmetics containing BHAs and AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids). Here are the recommended precautions:⁸

  • Test any product containing a BHA on a small area of skin before applying it to a larger area. This helps identify any potential skin irritation or adverse reactions.

  • Follow the use instructions provided on the product label. Do not exceed the recommended applications or concentrations.

  • Avoid using BHA-containing products on infants and children, as their skin may be more sensitive.

  • If you use a product containing BHAs, it’s important to use sun protection measures, such as wearing sunscreen.

By adhering to these precautions and guidelines, you can safely incorporate BHAs into your skincare routine. If you experience skin irritation or prolonged stinging after using products with BHAs, discontinue use and consult a medical provider.

How do I use BHA in my skincare routine?

To incorporate BHA (such as salicylic acid) into your skincare routine, it’s typical to apply the BHA product after cleansing. Of course, if you’re using a salicylic acid cleanser, you’d use this first. Begin with a small amount first, and you can gradually increase it over time if your skin tolerates it well. BHAs may cause dryness, so make sure you apply a moisturizer afterwards.⁹ Apply the BHA after cleansing and before moisturizing to allow it to penetrate your skin effectively. Monitor your skin for any signs of irritation, such as redness or discomfort. If you experience irritation, discontinue use and consult a dermatologist. Be sure to always check the product’s instructions for correct use. 

What’s the difference between BHA and AHA?

The main difference between beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) lies in their solubility and effects on your skin. Let’s take a closer look:

Solubility: BHAs, such as salicylic acid, are lipid-soluble, while AHAs are water-soluble. This difference in solubility affects their ability to penetrate your skin. BHAs can penetrate through the sebaceous follicles, making them suitable for individuals with oily skin and open comedones (blackheads).¹⁰

Exfoliation: Both BHAs and AHAs promote exfoliation, but they work on different levels of the skin. AHAs primarily act on the epidermal level and stimulate the exfoliation of the outermost layer of skin (stratum corneum). BHAs, on the other hand, have a similar exfoliating effect but can also penetrate deeper into your pores due to their lipid solubility, effectively treating acne and unclogging pores.¹¹

Skin Irritancy: BHAs have been found to have less skin irritancy compared to AHAs.¹² This makes BHAs a suitable choice for individuals with sensitive skin who may experience irritation with AHAs.

In terms of their applications, AHAs are commonly used to treat various skin conditions such as acne, scarring, pigmentation issues, dryness, and wrinkles. BHAs, specifically salicylic acid, are often utilized for acne treatment.¹³

Both BHAs and AHAs have their benefits and considerations, and the choice between them depends on your skin type and specific skincare goals. Speak with a dermatology provider to get personalized and expert skincare advice.

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FAQs

How do you use BHA in a routine?

When incorporating a BHA exfoliant into your routine for acne-clearing, pore cleansing, and exfoliation purposes, it’s typical to apply it after cleansing and before moisturizing. This allows the BHA to effectively exfoliate and remove dead skin cells, enabling your moisturizer to better penetrate and hydrate your skin. Of course, check the instructions on your specific product for proper use.

Do you use BHA exfoliant before or after moisturizing?

It’s generally recommended to use BHA after cleansing and before applying moisturizer. The BHA exfoliant helps to remove dead skin cells, allowing your moisturizer to penetrate your skin more effectively and deliver its benefits. Of course, always check your product’s instructions for proper use!

Is it better to use BHA in the morning or at night?

There isn’t a definitive answer to whether it’s better to use BHA in the morning or at night, as it largely depends on your skin type, skincare routine, and personal preference. However, if you’re using a BHA product alongside other active ingredients like AHAs or retinoids, you may want to use BHA in the morning to avoid potential irritation from combining too many activities in one routine.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Beta Hydroxy Acids. (2022, February 25)

  2. Kornhauser, A.,et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2010, November 24)

  3. Kornhauser, A.,et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  4. Kornhauser, A.,et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  5. Kornhauser, A.,et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  6. Kornhauser, A.,et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  7. Kornhauser, A.,et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  8. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Beta Hydroxy Acids. (2022, February 25)

  9. National Institutes of Health. THE INKEY LIST BETA HYDROXY ACID SERUM. DailyMed. (May 2021)

  10. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. (2012)

  11. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

  12. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

  13. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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