How to use AHAs, BHAs and Retinol in your daily skincare routine

Victorian Dermal Group
Victorian Dermal Group
March 4, 2020
minute read

Which is better: retinol or glycolic acid?

Most people know that it’s the active ingredients in skincare products that do the work to improve skin tone and texture. These ingredients can be manufactured in a laboratory, or sourced from natural sources such as fruits.

Discover how active skincare ingredients AHAs, BHAs and retinol work, how to use them, and whether they are right for your skin type.

A trained clinician can provide you with a personalised daily skin care plan. We’ll can give you details on what’s best suited to your skin type so you can start your journey to sustainable skin health. Book a consultation for advice on how to get glowing skin.

What are AHAs, BHA and retinol?

AHAs and BHAs are hydroxy acids which act as chemical exfoliants for the skin. AHA stands for ‘alpha-hydroxy acid’ and includes glycolic, citric, mandelic and lactic acid. AHAs are usually derived from sugary fruits.

BHA stands for ‘beta-hydroxy acid’. The BHA most commonly used in skincare is salicylic acid. BHAs can also be in the form of willow bark extract, tropic acid or sodium salicylate.

Retinol is a form of natural or synthetic vitamin A. Vitamin A is an antioxidant often found in serums or creams.

AHAs BHAs Retinol
Used for Exfoliating skin surface Acne, inflammation and sensitive skin Reduces acne and signs of ageing
What it is Water-soluble acid, usually derived from sugary fruit Oil-soluble acid Vitamin A
Skin type Normal to dry Oily and sensitive Any skin type
Potential side effects Can be harsh on sensitive skin May increase UV sensitivity Can be drying to the skin
Where it acts Skin surface Deep pores Deep layers of the skin
What is does Exfoliates skin surface to smooth texture and tone Kills bacteria and exfoliates deep pores This antioxidant stimulates cell turnover
When to use At night At night  At night
Avoid use with Retinol or other harsh acids (it's better to use these on alternating nights) Retinol or other harsh acids (it's better to use these on alternating nights) AHAs and BHAs, avoid before wax or laser procedures

What do these products do for your skin?

Both hydroxy acids and retinol help to resurface the skin, reduce the appearance of large pores, fade dark spots and soften fine lines and wrinkles.

AHAs and BHAs are chemical exfoliants. They work gently to break bonds on the skin’s surface, allowing dead skin cells to be removed without a manual scrub. These hydroxy acids help to kill bacteria and increase skin cell turnover.

AHAs act at the surface of the skin, removing dead skin cells to brighten your skin, improving texture and tone. AHAs are water-soluble, and are often found in water-based products suitable for normal to dry skin types.

BHAs act both at the surface of the skin and into the deep pores. BHAs are oil-soluble and have soothing and anti-inflammatory properties. Beta-hydroxy acid helps to unclog congested pores for clearer skin and is effective on oily skin.

Retinol is an antioxidant that treats the early signs of ageing by stimulating cell turnover at the deep layers of the skin. Some people may find this results in flaking of dead skin cells at the surface of the skin. Evidence-based research has proven retinol’s effectiveness in treating acne, photoaging, hyperpigmentation and mild acne scarring.

Retinol stimulates collagen synthesis and the production of new blood vessels in the skin to improve skin colour. The term ‘retinol’ is generally used to refer to over-the-counter Vitamin A skin products, while retinoids are prescription strength variations.

women looking at herself in the mirror

What should I use for my skin type?

AHAs can hydrate and exfoliate to enhance the skin’s radiance. Alpha-hydroxy acids can resurface and enhance normal, dry or mature skin. If your skin is sensitive, oily or prone to congestion, BHAs can help to clear deep pores, reduce inflammation and prevent acne or breakouts.

Retinol can help to clear acne, and it’s also an effective anti-aging ingredient. It can be used on all skin types. The strength you select will depend on the skin issue you want to improve.

If you aren’t sure which skin type you fall into, or you think your skin fits more than one category, try one product for a few weeks to see what results you get.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be advised to use hydroxy acid over retinol. For some, hydroxy acids may cause irritation and dryness. In this case, using retinol may be more beneficial for the skin.

How should I combine active skincare products?

AHAs and BHAs are found in a variety of cleansers, toners, moisturisers, scrubs, peels and masks. Retinol is usually an active ingredient in creams or serums.

Using a gentle moisturiser that contains hyaluronic acid can help to balance the effects of hydroxy acids and retinol. When using any exfoliating product or retinol, you should always wear sunscreen every day to prevent sun damage and pigmentation.

With so many different at-home products available, it can be easy to overstimulate the skin. Combining too many products may have the opposite effect to what you are trying to achieve. A skin therapist can assess your skin and guide you to find your ideal daily routine for radiant skin.

Can you use BHA and retinol together?

Acids and retinol don't always work well together. But, you can use both in your skin care routine, as long as you apply them at the right times, in the right order, to minimise irritation and achieve the best results.

You should use retinol at night, as it can break down in light and make your skin more prone to sunburn. In the morning, use BHA to get rid of any dead skin cells caused by your nighttime retinol application.

Can you use AHA and retinol together?

The same rules for BHA and retinol apply for AHA and retinol, too. In fact, some people use all three. But, again, it's important to remember to use them at different times of the day. This way, you skin has time to absorb the product, and rejuvenate before the next product application.

When do I use AHAs, BHAs and retinol?

There is some laboratory evidence that hydroxy acids and retinol may be less effective if applied simultaneously. While it’s not clear if this neutralisation translates into a real-world environment, using these products at different times can ensure that you get the maximum benefit of each.

Applying hydroxy acids in the morning can help to remove dead skin cells and provides smooth, clear skin for optimal makeup application. Whenever you exfoliate your skin, you should always wear an SPF sunscreen to protect the fresh skin from sun damage.

When you start using any new exfoliant, apply the product every second day until your skin gets used to it.

Prescription-strength retinol can break down in sunlight and make the skin more sensitive to sunburn. Stronger retinol formulations should always be used at night, though many over-the-counter retinol products can be used under a high SPF sunscreen.

One way to combine hydroxy acids and retinol into your skincare routine is to use the products on alternate nights. Find a routine that works for your skin to reduce any irritation, and remember to give your skin a night off where you use just a moisturiser.

If you have time, you can use hydroxy acids and retinol sequentially. After applying an AHA or BHA product, wait for 30 minutes to allow your skin’s pH to return to normal, and then apply the retinol product.

For those who find using hydroxy acids too harsh for their skin, you might benefit from a chemical peel once a month or so.

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