How BHA Exfoliants Work

How BHA Exfoliants Work

Written by:Bryan Barron

Medically Reviewed by:Debra Jaliman MD Board-Certified Dermatologist

Extensive research has made it clear that daily exfoliation is essential for smooth, even-toned, hydrated skin—and a leave-on BHA product is among the best ways to exfoliate.

Leave-on exfoliants gently and quickly remove built-up layers of dead surface skin to reveal the softer, younger-looking complexion hiding beneath. But our BHA products go even farther, helping with blemishes, blackheads, and enlarged pores; they also benefit skin with hydrating and anti-aging ingredients.

And, because Paula’s Choice Skincare has many BHA options to choose from, one is sure to be perfect for your skin type and skin concerns.

What is BHA? Is BHA the same as salicylic acid?

BHA is short for beta hydroxy acid, which is the same thing as salicylic acid. But don’t let the word “acid” scare you. BHA is completely non-abrasive and has soothing and calming properties—so this leave-on exfoliating ingredient is gentler on your skin than virtually any scrub or cleansing brush could be.

Does BHA dissolve blackheads?

BHA exfoliants work on the uppermost layers of skin’s surface, loosening the bonds between dead surface layers and uncovering the radiant skin beneath them. But BHA also works inside the pore. So, while BHAs (like AHAs) have benefits for all skin types—hydrating, diminishing the look of lines and wrinkles, visibly improving skin’s firmness, texture, and tone—its multi-tasking, standout properties make it ideal for those with normal to oily, bumpy or congested skin that may be showing signs of aging. They’re even suitable for skin prone to milia.

What does this mean with respect to blackheads? Since blackheads are caused by dead skin mixing with oil inside pores that oxidizes at skin’s surface, helping shed skin and normalize oil flow within the pore makes blackheads less likely to form. So, while your blackheads aren’t exactly dissolved, you will notice a large reduction in their appearance– and fewer blackheads in the future.

Since BHA exfoliants help with so many skin concerns, they’re in nearly all our collections, including our RESIST line for anti-aging, our CLEAR line for anti-acne, and our CALM line for anti-redness. BHA exfoliants can change the look and feel of your skin in ways you may have thought weren’t possible; they’re suitable for skin prone to milia, and their soothing and calming properties make them gentle enough even for skin prone to rosacea.

Our BHA formulas

The pH of any BHA exfoliant is crucial. Salicylic acid works best at a pH between 3 and 4, so any product not adhering to this tight pH range will be less effective, or possibly ineffective. All Paula’s Choice Skincare BHA exfoliants, however, are formulated in the ideal pH range so you’ll experience the best results.

What does BHA Liquid do?

BHA Liquid weightlessly exfoliates skin, delivering a smoother, healthier-looking complexion, while decongesting clogged pores. This Paula’s Choice fan favorite works fast and in a gentle manner (thanks to its optimal pH range of 3.2–3.8 in a fragrance-free and alcohol-free base). The penetration-enhancing methylpropanediol helps the BHA work more effectively and doubles as a hydrating agent, while green tea imparts extra skin-soothing action. Last but not least, the opaque, air-restrictive packaging keeps the formula stable for greater efficacy.

Why not use a scrub?

The word exfoliation often brings to mind abrasive face or body scrubs, but most scrubs are too harsh, and actually harmful to skin. They almost always contain rough-edged ingredients that create micro-tears in skin’s surface, leading to visible damage over time. BHA is not in any way like a harsh scrub, and that’s a good thing.

A gentle scrub (applied with a light touch), a soft washcloth, or a very soft-bristled cleansing brush can be good options for a more thorough cleansing; but those techniques can’t unclog pores or reveal even-toned, bump-free, young-looking skin the way a BHA exfoliant can.

Is a BHA exfoliant right for you?

Many people wonder if they should be using a BHA exfoliant, an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) exfoliant, or a combination of both. Although some people do use both, it’s fine to stick with one or the other.

If you're only concerned with issues that affect the surface of skin—and you aren't dealing with sensitivity, redness, or clogged pores— an AHA exfoliant may be the right choice. BHA is probably best if you’re concerned about:

  • Clogged pores and bumpson your face or body: BHA is oil soluble, so it can reach in to clear excess oil and other substances that clog pores (3). The result is fewer bumps and, in a short period of time, minimized pore size. It’s even suitable for skin prone to keratosis pilaris  especially when paired with a gentle, water-soluble body wash (2).
  • Sensitive skin: BHA’s natural soothing properties are ideal for those with sensitive, reddened skin, regardless of skin type.

You may also want to consider the combined benefits possible from weekly use of a rinse-off salicylic acid peel that also contains a blend of resurfacing alpha hydroxy acids. Occasional use of such exfoliants is a great way to target stubborn concerns and advanced signs of aging.

How to apply a BHA exfoliant

Whichever exfoliant you choose, it should be applied after cleansing and toning. The other products in your routine, like serums, boosters, and moisturizers, go on after your exfoliant in order from thinnest to thickest texture. (Don’t forget to finish with sunscreen during the day.) An occasional-use rinse-off BHA peel should be applied to cleansed skin and rinsed after several minutes. Pat skin dry and follow with the rest of your routine.

How often should I use Paula's Choice BHA Exfoliant?

You can use Paula's Choice BHA every day— exfoliating once either in the morning or evening (pick whichever is most convenient for you). Many people with stubborn clogged pores have great results using a Paula’s Choice BHA exfoliant twice per day.

Note: Those new to using BHA should start by only applying every other day and note skin's response before moving on to more frequent application.

Tips to get the best results for large pores from a BHA Exfoliant

  • You don’t need to wait between steps for each product to absorb.The BHA will work even if you apply another product immediately before or after.
  • It’s fine to apply an exfoliant to your undereye area, up to the edge of the orbital bone.
  • Although daily exfoliation is optimal for many people, you might find that exfoliating every other day works best for you. Again, it takes some experimentation.
  • Consider one of our more potent BHA exfoliants for special skin care needs. BHA 9is excellent for spot application of imperfections, while RESIST Advanced Pore-Refining Treatment 4% BHA can dramatically improve signs of aging and rough, bumpy skin.

Learn more about exfoliants.

Learn more about large pores.

References for this information:

  1. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, August 2015, pages 451–455
  2. Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, ePublication
  3. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651–663
  4. International Journal of Toxicology, 2003 Supplement, pages 1–108
  5. Archives of Dermatological Research, June 1997, pages 404–409