If your complexion is in desperate need of a skin-smoothing radiance boost, the answer is simple: it’s time to exfoliate. But if the thought of scrubbing your face with one of those uncomfortable, gritty formulas of the past just sent shivers down your spine, don’t worry. There’s a whole new generation of exfoliants out there today that accomplish the same retexturizing and glow-boosting results without using those hash physical formulas of the past. They’re called chemical exfoliants, and if you’ve spent any time looking at skincare products recently, chances are you’re already familiar with the two most popular formulas: AHAs and BHAs.
Known as alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, AHAs and BHAs are the gold standards of chemical exfoliation, which is to say, they’re your ticket to achieving a smoother, healthier-looking glow. But what exactly are these exfoliating acids, how do they work, and how do you know which one is ideal for your skin? To help get to the bottom of all of these questions and more, we tapped three of the industry’s leading dermatologists to break down everything you need to know about AHAs vs. BHAs and what it takes to master the art of the glow.
Alpha-hydroxy acids are a type of water-soluble acid typically derived from sugarcane or fruit sources, which is why they are often referred to as the “fruit acids,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel E. Maiman of Marmur Medical. While AHAs provide a wide range of benefits, their main objective is to help break up the bonds between dead skin cells that accumulate on the skin’s surface and gently exfoliate them away so that the complexion appears smoother, less mottled, and more radiant.
There are several different types of AHAs used in skincare. Here are some of the most popular ones that you’ll find in your go-to products:
As Dr. Hartman notes, the primary function of AHAs is to break apart the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, specifically at the outermost layer of the skin (known as the epidermis). Why is this important? As we age, our skin cell cycle naturally slows down, leading to a buildup of dead skin cells. Over time, this buildup can accumulate, causing our complexions to appear dull, rough, and uneven. “What AHAs do is they break down these bonds, thus loosening the dead skin cells and exfoliating them away,” says Dr. Hartman. “The result is skin that appears smoother, clearer, and more even.”
Not only do AHAs work to improve the texture of your skin by shedding dead cells on the surface, but according to Dr. Maiman, they can also address signs of aging. “AHAs, especially glycolic acid (as it penetrates the deepest), have been shown to stimulate hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin production in the skin, thus increasing the skin’s thickness and promoting a greater reduction in deep wrinkles,” she says. “Moreover, AHAs can also help reduce hyperpigmentation by dispersing pigment and accelerating skin cell turnover,” helping to reveal the younger, evenly-pigmented cells underneath.
Here are some of our experts' favorite AHA skincare products: