In this introductory post I’ll tell you the properties of BHA and what role it plays in skincare. You’ll also find out who should be using BHA, and more specifically if BHA would be a good complement to your existing routine. Then there’ll be a quick overview on how BHA should be layered with other actives so it’s actually effective and finally, where you can get your own.
What is BHA?
BHA aka beta hydroxy acid is an exfoliating acid used in skincare for it’s anti-inflammatory, oil regulating and pore clearing properties. Generally you’ll see it labelled on the package at salicylic acid (which incidentally is the same willow bark derived ingredient that’s in asprin.)
While both BHA and AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids, of which there are many forms) work to ““unglue” the bonds holding dull, dead skin on the surface” BHA is better for reducing redness and regulating oil production, which helps with acne and also improves the appearance of large pores, blackheads or otherwise congested looking skin. On the other hand, AHAs are better for what we generally think of as peeling action: removing the outer layers of skin faster so imperfections like lines, scars and dark spots can fade away faster. AHAs and BHAs both play an important role in a complete skincare routine so this isn’t a “this vs that” scenario.
BHA usually comes in the form of a liquid, but it can also be a gel. It’s usually a leave on formula (like Paula’s Choice BHA) but you’ll also find it in peels that need to be rinsed (like The Ordinary AHA BHA Peeling Solution.) Usually you’ll see a concentration in the range of 2% – 4%. As with all things skincare, if a percentage isn’t indicated for the active ingredient then it’s probably not a formulation that’s going to be effective in any meaningful and targeted way.
A good formulation will have a very low pH (anywhere between 3 and 4), which makes it ideal for exfoliating while maintaining a healthy acid mantle, but not so ideal for layering with other cosmetics. It isn’t impossible by any means though so keep reading if you want to find out how it should be done.
Why should you be using BHA
There are very few people who wouldn’t benefit from adding BHA to their routine. If you have any kind of acne from cystic to the occasional breakout, BHA is something you should at the very least try for a few weeks. The oil regulating and anti-inflammatory properties make it ideal for treating acne.
If you just have dull looking skin, likewise it can make a big difference.
BHA can be sensitizing to some people. Of the 10 people I’ve hooked onto BHA, only 2 had initial sensitivities in the form of dryness and minor redness or flaking but both continued using it because they saw the benefits even when only using it every two days.
How to use BHA
BHA is best applied directly after cleansing onto dry skin (since water can interact with the pH of the BHA). I’ve heard before that vitamin C serums need to go on first and over time I’ve tried different things with my BHA and vitamin C application. BHA and then vitamin C is my preferred method and I haven’t seen any reduction in efficacy of my vitamin C. You could try both options and see for yourself.
If you are using other actives they should go on after your BHA (and vitamin C if using) with moisturizer at the very end followed by sunscreen if it’s daytime.
One problem I’ve noticed with most BHA formulations is that if I leave them on long enough to work (4-5 minutes) it dries out my skin considerably, especially if it’s winter or a particularly dry climate. Until I find a more hydrating BHA formulation my solution is to either pat my skin lightly with wet fingers after BHA and then continue my routine or otherwise (if my skin isn’t already too dry) to use a bit of hyaluronic acid. I also like doing what I call a hydration bomb – a few drops of an oil (like The Ordinary retinols and retinoids) combined with a water based moisturizer (must be fragrance free.)
Where to get BHA
There are three brands that produce the most well known BHA formulations: Paula’s Choice, Cosrx and The Ordinary. I’ve tried all three brands and you can read my comparison here.
If you live in the US, Canada or Europe The Ordinary offers free shipping after spending $25 and they have so many high quality products that cost way less than you’d expect that you can walk away with 4 or 5 new products and free shipping.
Paula’s Choice doesn’t have as generous of a shipping policy (free shipping after spending $70) but if you just want to try a few things they sell 5ml samples which are great for testing out new products for a few weeks.
Cosrx comes from Korea so the shipping is generally even more dodgy if you live in the west. You can try well known korean beauty sites or otherwise just order on Amazon.
Both Paula’s Choice and Cosrx are priced reasonably on Amazon but I’ve noticed that The Ordinary comes at a huge markup so buyer beware.