What is the difference between alpha and beta hydroxy acids in skincare?

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When it comes to skincare, perhaps you’ve noticed ‘hydroxy acids’ on the label of your favorite product. 

Maybe you’ve heard of glycolic, lactic, mandelic, and salicylic acids. What are they? How do they differ? And which one is best for you? 

We’ll try to answer those questions in this post.

Before we proceed with alpha, beta, and the different types of hydroxy acids under each category, let us first discuss hydroxy acids in general and how they work on the skin. 

Hydroxy acids

When we talk about acids, many think about those dangerous acids that can erode skin or metal. But different acids behave in different ways. Hydroxy acids cover a range of natural, organic acids found in the body or nature. These acids can have positive effects when used in different forms. Hydroxy acids, especially in higher concentrations, have been used professionally and cosmetically for decades. In lower concentrations, these acids are tolerable on the skin. As such, they are usually applied to smoothen, brighten, and tighten the skin.


How does that happen?

Hydroxy acids prevent the dead skin cells from sticking together by weakening the ‘cellular glue’. Followed up with exfoliation, this reveals healthier, younger-looking skin. At medium or higher concentrations, hydroxy acids can be used to treat deeper skin layers. Among such treatments are collagen and elastin remodeling, pigment lightening, and melanin suppression. 


The Alpha and Beta hydroxy acids

Alpha and beta are categories of hydroxy acids that are most frequently used for skin care. There’s also the poly-hydroxy acids, PHAs, which are considered the “new generation of AHAs” (we’ll be happy to cover those another time). For now, let’s focus on the alpha and beta hydrody- acids. These hydroxy acids are chemical exfoliants, which are usually formulated within pH ranges 3 and 4 to be effective without compromising gentleness on the skin. Both of them can do the following:

  • Reduce fine lines and wrinkles
  • Make skin look and feel firmer
  • Rehydrate your skin
  • Restore the glow from your dull, uneven skin tone
  • Smoothen rough and bumpy areas

However, one big difference is that they both have unique properties that can address specific skin types and concerns.


AHA! aka Alpha hydroxy acids

These are called superficial exfoliators because they are useful only on the top layer of the skin. When applied on the surface, AHAs disperse melanin and increase the synthesis of collagen, which lessens hyperpigmentation. As a result, you’ll have a brighter skin tone and an overall healthier appearance. 

However, AHAs are not specifically meant to treat dry skin. But they can address symptoms such as dullness and flaking. Try applying AHAs only once or twice a week to deal with flaking.

Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid are all AHA’s. Among these, perhaps you’ve heard of the glycolic acid since it is the most popular and most effective compound. If you have dry, aging skin, mandelic acid may be best for you, as it that it is more gentle on the skin compared to other AHAs. Because of this, it is ideal for those with sensitive skin. Mandelic acid is one of the largest AHAs. As a result, it penetrates the skin more slowly, therefore making it less irritating.


As AHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, consistent daily sunscreen use with reapplication throughout the day is a must. If you have severe acne, be sure to speak with your dermatologist about prescription acne medications. Your doctor may also recommend a chemical peel to help unclog your pores so that your acne medications can work faster. Our lead physician, Dr. Ife Rodney, MD, FAAD, is a chemical peel specialist in Columbia MD and surrounding areas.


Bet on BHAs (Beta hydroxy acids)

Beta hydroxy acids or BHAs penetrates through skin pores to aid in clearing out debris. Although there are different BHAs, the most popular is salicylic acid, which comes from willow bark. Salicylic acid is particularly useful to treat oily skin because it is oil-soluble. It penetrates through the oil glands and dislodges any of the gunk that might be clogging your pores. This process stops the build-up of oil and dead skin cells and therefore prevents acne breakout. Additionally, BHAs have natural skin-calming properties making them gentle enough to treat sensitive skin and those prone to redness.


Can you combine AHA and BHA?

It’s logical to ask, “Do I need to use both AHA and BHA products to get the best results?” 

The general answer to that is, it’s actually up to you

As mentioned, both work differently for different types and concerns of the skin, so individual results may vary. You should take the time to figure out which one works best for you before including it in your skincare routine.


 “Is it safe to use them both at the same time?”

Provided that you use dermatologist-recommended products, there should be no harm in applying them at the same time since they are gentle and carefully formulated.

You don’t have to use AHA and BHA exfoliants at the same time EXCEPT when you need to exfoliate your skin thoroughly. This could be because of deep wrinkles, dull and flaky skin, heavy signs of sun damage, or stubborn clogged pores and bumps.


How to use both AHA and BHA in your skincare routine

Using  AHA and BHA both at the same time is not necessary. But, if you still wish to try, then make sure you do it the right way. Apply the exfoliant after your cleanser. When applying, start with the exfoliant that has a thinner texture. 

For instance, If one is liquid while the other one is a gel, then apply the liquid first then the gel. You may use the products right after the other, without any waiting period since they will not affect the pH level of one another. You may also proceed with the rest of your routine afterward.

Some prefer to alternate AHA and BHA on their face to experience both benefits. If you wish to do this, try applying one in the morning and the other in the evening. For example, use a BHA product in your morning routine and an AHA for the evening routine. You may also alternate per day or week. Use one exfoliant for one day or week then the other for the next day or week.


Too much of a good thing: Is there such a thing as over-exfoliation?

The short answer is Yes.

Ideally, you only need to exfoliate 1 to 2 times a week. Since you are still using chemicals, you should also be careful about how many exfoliants you are applying to your skin. You might need to tone down your exfoliation when you notice these signs:

  • Redness
  • Skin tightness
  • Soreness or increased sensitivity
  • More shiny or not oily

Those are clear indications that you are over-exfoliating.

If you have lessened the frequency of using these chemical exfoliants, yet the above signs still show on your skin, maybe the chemical exfoliation is not the right approach for your skin. If that happens, speak with your dermatologist. Don’t worry because they are not fundamental to your skincare routine, and your doctor can come up with an alternative plan.  

Alpha and beta hydroxy acids can both do wonders on your skin. Yet, given their different properties, it is best to assess your skin first and identify the concerns that needed to be addressed. Once you’ve chosen your exfoliant, experiment first on small amounts for a few weeks before incorporating it into your routine. Be careful not to over-exfoliate to avoid more significant and more visible damage to your skin. 


So what’s next?

For an expert skincare consultation, call us or book an appointment online. Dr. Ife Rodney is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. She is an expert in skincare, anti-aging, and skin rejuvenation for all skin types. Eternal Dermatology is conveniently located in Fulton, MD, and serves Clarksville, Columbia, Ellicott City, Laurel, Bowie, Silver Spring,  and Howard County, Maryland.


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