Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are amazing for dealing with clogged and enlarged pores, blackheads, blemishes, or oily skin in general. If you’ve ever dealt with acne, it’s likely that you’ve even tried a BHA product before. If you’re unsure whether BHAs are the exfoliating acids for you, look no further! We’ll cover exactly what BHAs are, what they do for your skin, and how to add it to your routine.
What are BHAs?
BHAs are a group of organic acid compounds that work on both the skin’s surface and deep inside the pore. The most common form of BHA is salicylic acid, an ingredient extracted from willow tree bark. In almost any BHA-based skincare product, you will find salicylic acid as an active ingredient.
Before explaining how BHAs work, we need to understand how breakouts form. When bacteria, debris, dead skin cells, and sebum (AKA your skin’s natural oils) are mixed together it clogs the pores, resulting in a breakout. BHAs are able to cut through oil to exfoliate deep within the pores to remove those blockages. They also exfoliate the skin’s surface by dissolving the glue that holds dead skin cells together, making it easier to shed the cells. All of these factors add up to why BHAs are a long-time favourite for those with oily and acne-prone skin.
- Exfoliates the top layers of the skin: BHAs soften, separate and shed the top layer of dead skin cells. By sloughing off the dead skin, it encourages cellular turnover to improve skin dullness and texture.
- Removes excess oil: BHAs are oil-soluble. This means they can work beneath the skin’s surface to clean out excess oil from the pores to reduce oiliness. This can then lead to an improvement in the appearance of pores.
- Cleanses clogged pores: BHAs are able to penetrate the pores and loosen the glue that holds skin cells and debris together, removing the contents of the clogged pore.
- Prevents superficial breakouts: Not only do BHAs directly treat existing breakouts by cleaning out clogged pores, but they also prevent them from returning.
- Reduces inflammation: Due to the anti-inflammatory properties of BHAs, it helps with any irritation and redness caused by breakouts.
BHAs are the holy grail for oily and acne-prone skin, but for those with dry, eczema-prone, or sensitive skin, this drying ingredient could be too harsh. However, lower concentrations of BHAs can be gentle enough to treat redness and rosacea in many sensitive skin types. A good rule of thumb is to do a patch test if you have sensitive skin. You can then slowly build up the skin’s tolerance over time.
Additionally, BHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, meaning it is especially important to apply sun protection after using a BHA product. Limit sun exposure and reapply sunscreen to prevent any irritations and sun damage, or alternatively, use your BHA-based products in your PM routine.
How to Incorporate BHAs into Your Routine
- Start slow
Use BHAs in moderation until you know that your skin can tolerate it. Start by applying it every few days before working your way up to using it more regularly, depending on your skin’s needs. At most, BHAs should not be used more than twice daily (with limited sun exposure) unless directed by professionals.
- Find the right concentration
The recommended concentration of BHAs varies from person to person and their specific needs. The key is to listen to your skin – if it’s getting irritated, take a day or two off from using your product and be more vigilant with moisturising. It is recommended to start with lower concentrations (such as 0.5% salicylic acid products) or wash-off products a few times a week before gradually building up tolerance.
- Follow instructions
Be sure to read product labels for instructions about application and usage. Don’t use it for longer than recommended, and don’t use too much product either. Apply according to product instructions or as directed by a specialist.
- Be cautious of combining with other active ingredients
BHAs (and all exfoliating acids, for that matter) can cause irritation when used with certain active ingredients. Be sure to avoid using exfoliating acids with vitamin C, retinol, and benzoyl peroxide. Mixing these ingredients can cause a reaction and an imbalance in the skin’s pH levels, causing excessive dryness, redness and irritation.
- Combining with AHAs
Many products make use of both AHAs and BHAs which can be great for when your skin needs some extra TLC. However, be careful when combining AHAs and BHAs yourself as it can cause irritation if doses are too high. If you’re looking to use both in the same routine, it’s best to use products that contain a balanced blend of the acids instead. For more information about blending BHAs with AHAs, check out The Beginner’s Guide to Exfoliating Acids.
This anti-blemish cream is formulated to reduce the appearance of blemishes, unclog pores and refine skin texture. With key ingredients such as salicylic acid and niacinamide, this cream is great for acne-prone skin types with sensitivity.
With a 0.5% salicylic acid formulation, this gentle exfoliant helps prep the skin to help with the absorption of your products in the next steps of your routine. Gentle enough for daily use, this product is great for clearing up blocked pores and blackheads.
This gentle exfoliant penetrates deep into the pores to clear out impurities, dead skin cells and excess sebum. It is also formulated to help the skin rebuild its natural moisture barrier, ensuring that the skin is not stripped of its oils.
Infused with activated charcoal and clays, this face mask is formulated to target blemishes and to even texture. This can be a relatively intense form of BHA so be sure to follow product instructions carefully and use only 1-2 times a week.
This cleanser is a favourite amongst those struggling with oily, acne-prone skin. Along with salicylic acid, this formula includes a zinc compound to help control excess oil production and reduce the appearance of enlarged pores.