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What doctors say you need to know about BHAs

Doctors explain how BHAs can help improve oily skin and congested pores and share their favorite products.
BHAs help new skin cells replace old ones, exfoliate the top layer of skin and dissolve excess oil.
BHAs help new skin cells replace old ones, exfoliate the top layer of skin and dissolve excess oil.

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When your face feels greasy and your pores become congested, you can remove gunk and control oil by incorporating beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, into your daily skin care routine. But what exactly are BHAs? And which BHA skin care products should you get?

We asked board-certified dermatologists all about BHAs, their benefits and limitations and how they compare to alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs. In addition to sharing expert-recommended products, we followed their guidance to gather a few top-rated BHA items that are commonly available.

SKIP AHEAD BHA products

What are BHAs?

BHAs are organic compounds with anti-inflammatory properties. They help new skin cells replace old ones, exfoliate the top layer of skin and dissolve excess oil and sebum, an oily wax found in congested pores. Given their exfoliating nature, BHAs are best suited for those with oily or acne-prone skin, but they aren’t exclusively useful to any one skin type. In fact, the biggest misconception about BHAs is that only people with acne or blackheads should use them.

For example, beta hydroxy acids are “great” for helping to address signs of premature aging, said New York City-based dermatologist Michele Green, MD.

BHAs can help soothe inflammation in those with sensitive skin or rosacea, Green added. You’ll just need to use them less frequently — a few times a week to start — and pick products with a lower concentration of active ingredients. The concentration of BHAs in skin care products typically ranges between 0.5 and 5 percent. Anyone with sensitive skin should stick to concentrations below 2 percent — anything stronger may cause dryness or irritation, Green said.

Additionally, if you have sensitive skin and are shopping for BHA products, consider BHA face washes to gently exfoliate without causing dryness, said Michele Farber, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia. Unlike face masks or creams, cleansers don't stay on your face for an extended time, so you’ll run a lower risk of irritation.

Expert-recommended BHA products

Farber shared a few of her go-to BHA product recommendations, which include a direct-to-consumer brand and mainstream lines available from popular places like Sephora, Amazon and Walmart.

BHA face wash: Neutrogena

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash

Neutrogena’s “gentle” salicylic acid-infused wash earned a recommendation from Farber because it “helps fight acne without drying skin.” Additionally, she appreciated that it has a oil-free formula that won’t cause blackheads. Two other board-certified dermatologists recently recommended this relatively affordable cleanser ($9 for 6 ounces) in our guide to the best acne face washes. It boasts a 4.7-star average rating from nearly 5,670 reviews on Amazon.

BHA pads: SkinBetter Science

SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads

Farber suggested you use these “great” exfoliating pads a few times weekly because they combine salicylic acid with AHAs (glycolic and lactic acids), which together help address fine lines, wrinkles and uneven texture. SkinBetter Science claims these pads are dermatologist-tested and free of dyes, fragrances and parabens.

BHA face mask: Drunk Elephant

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial

Farber called this a “nice option” for a weekly exfoliating face mask treatment that combines salicylic acid with four AHAs, including glycolic acid, which helps add a glow to the skin. There's also chickpea flour, which the brand claims will help balance and brighten your face. The Babyfacial mask garnered a 4.7-star average rating from nearly 1,290 reviews at Drunk Elephant.

Other BHA products to consider

Though they didn’t come specifically recommended by our experts, these highly rated BHA skin care items align with our experts’ guidance and may meet your specific needs — the Herbivore moisturizer, for example, includes a hydrating ingredient to offset the drying properties of BHAs. These picks are available at well-known stores like Kohl's, Target and Ulta.

BHA cleanser: Cosrx

Cosrx Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser

This popular face wash utilizes a combination of salicylic acid and anti-inflammatory tea tree oil extract to help keep acne under control. There's also glycerin and hydrogenated castor oil, which help balance out the drying nature of salicylic acid. The Cosrx face wash received a 4.6-star average rating from nearly 1,090 reviews on Amazon.

BHA scrub: Paula's Choice

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant boasts an impressive 4.6-star average rating from more than 42,600 reviews on Amazon. The fragrance-free product uses salicylic acid to help exfoliate the skin and treat acne. It also contains soothing and antioxidant-rich green-tea extract.

BHA serum: The Inkey List

The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid

This relatively affordable serum ($10.99 for 30 milliliters) received a 4.1-star average rating from 325 reviews at Sephora. The Inkey List earned the Clean at Sephora seal of approval, meaning all of the products in its line are free of synthetic ingredients like parabens and sulfates. Instead of relying on chemicals like those, this serum combines salicylic acid with zinc to improve oil control, while hyaluronic acid helps prevent irritation.

BHA moisturizer: Herbivore

Herbivore Aquarius Pore Purifying Clarity Cream

Herbivore's Clarity Cream, which contains salicylic acid naturally derived from willow bark, garnered a 4.8-star average rating from more than 110 reviews at Sephora. The blue cream also contains hydrating squalene and oil-zapping zinc. Like the Paula's Choice exfoliant, Herbivore's cream also received the Clean at Sephora seal of approval.

Beta hydroxy acids vs. alpha hydroxy acids

Despite their similar-sounding names and popularity in skin care products, BHAs and AHAs are not the same. For starters, BHAs are oil-soluble, meaning they help reduce oil and congested pores, which is why the doctors we consulted recommend them to patients with acne-prone skin.

Alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble acids that can be made synthetically or derived from sources like plants and milk. They cause "controlled trauma to the skin," resulting in quicker cell turnover, a process that helps minimize hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone, Illinois-based board-certified dermatologist Jessie Cheung, MD, explained in our guide to AHAs. Cheung said that they also provide "almost instant gratification" and can help brighten a dull complexion. In addition, Farber said, AHAs are usually "less drying and more tolerable" to and less likely to dry out sensitive skin.

Downsides of BHAS

If you have dry skin, Green said, it’s best to avoid BHAs entirely, because they might cause the skin to become irritated, flaky and dehydrated.

Regardless of which ingredient you use, both BHAs and AHAs are exfoliants that have a few downsides, including possible itching, peeling and sun sensitivity. If you incorporate either ingredient or combine both into your skin care routine, you'll need to prioritize wearing sunscreen. Experts generally advise reapplying broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunblock at least every two hours or after your sweat or swim.

Types of BHAs

Salicylic acid, which occurs naturally in several plants, is the most well-known type of BHA and is commonly found in various beauty products ranging from acne face washes and body scrubs to pimple spot treatments and scalp acne shampoos. In addition, dermatologists consider it the gold standard for treating congested pores.

Less common forms of BHAs include tropic acid, trethocanic acid and beta-hydroxybutanoic acid. There's also willow bark, a "natural alternative" that’s one of the primary sources of salicylic acid, Farber said. Regardless of which BHA product you use, you’ll typically see noticeable results within two months, she said.

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