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The Difference Between AHAs & BHAs

These are the game-changers you need in your routine.

Beauty & Fashion

If you ever wondered about using acid-based skincare products as part of your skincare routine, you're probably familiar with Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA). Most skincare brands have at least a few products with these key ingredients. But what are they? How do they help our skin stay flawless? And what's the difference between the two?


Well, let's start by defining what AHAs and BHAs are. These types of acids are categorized as hydroxy acids. And hydroxy acids help remove dead skin cells through exfoliation which allows new skin cells to surface. Some hydroxy acids you might have heard of are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. We usually find these ingredients in skincare products (chemical peels) that are made to treat common skin conditions like acne. When these acids are topically applied, they smooth, tighten, firm, and brighten the skin.

The key benefits of both AHAs and BHAs are that they work as an exfoliant, provide moisture, and repair sun-damaged skin. The main difference between the two is that AHAs are water-soluble and BHAs are lipid or oil soluble.

Whether you choose to use alpha-hydroxy acids or beta-hydroxy acids, here is how your skin can benefit from them and the products you should try.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids Do It All

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According to Healthline, alpha hydroxy acids are primarily used for hyperpigmentation, enlarged pores, fine lines, melasma, and uneven skin tone. Common alpha hydroxy acids include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, citric acid, and mandelic acid. Most AHAs are derived from a plant-based source like fruits, nuts, and sugar cane, but lactic acid is sourced from milk. This means it's much gentler on the skin and safe to use on sensitive skin.

You can add AHAs a few times a week to your morning skincare routine. See how your skin feels or reacts to it. And be sure to use moisturizer and sunscreen to prevent burns or irritation.

Beta Hydroxy Acids Are Your Acne Solution

Compared to alpha hydroxy acids, there is only one beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid, which it's derived from willow bark. Many over-the-counter facial cleansers contain salicylic acid as well because of its acne-fighting properties. In a Glamour article, dermatologist Robert Anolik, M.D. said, "BHA is lipophilic, so it's drawn to oils. That means it will not only exfoliate the top layer but also target the sebaceous glands down in the pores, clearing the clogs that create whiteheads and blackheads while also helping fade the pink marks that are left over from old outbreaks."

Salicylic acid can also correct dark spots without skin irritation because of its anti-inflammatory properties. BHAs can be used a few times a week too.

How To Use AHAs and BHAs

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The beauty of AHAs and BHAs is that you can use them together. Try alternating each product by using one type in the morning and the other as part of your nighttime routine. You can use AHAs and BHAs on alternating days too. But never layer these two products together! Remember, these are acids that act as exfoliants—so they can cause dryness and irritation.

Make sure to use low concentrations because higher concentrations can irritate the skin. Anything with a concentration of 10% or less is what you want. If you're not sure, ask your esthetician or dermatologist how to incorporate these acids into your skincare routine.

Must-Try Alpha Hydroxy and Beta Hydroxy Acid Products

Alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acid-based products can be found at your favorite beauty stores like Ulta or Sephora. They can also be found at online skin stores like Amazon, Dermastore.com, or from your favorite skincare brands.

Here are a few trending AHA and BHA products you can try:

Neutrogena Pore Refining Exfoliating Facial Cleanser

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

Clinique iD: Moisturizer + Concentrate for Pores & Uneven Texture

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum

SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF

Paula's Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Herbivore Botanicals Prism 12 AHA + 3 BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum

I swear by The Ordinary brand because it's high-end quality and affordable AF, but try whatever beauty brand you like. The skincare brands I use vary, but I do include a medical-grade salicylic acid and glycolic acid scrub in my skincare regime. It helps with my acne, and I definitely feel the difference in my skin texture after one wash.

Listen, AHAs and BHAs are the game-changers you need in your skincare routine.

So, get your glow on sis.

To get your beauty fix and to stay up to date with the latest trends, check out the xoNecole Beauty section here.

Featured image via Getty Images

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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