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The Benefits of BHA (Salicylic Acid) in Skincare

By Celia Shatzman, she/her

Though you’re likely familiar with a lot of buzzwords in the beauty world, you may not know exactly what they are or what they do. If that’s the case with this powerful ingredient, let’s get a few things straight about the benefits of BHA (or salicylic acid) in skincare.

“BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid,” explains Lauren Cummings, regional sales and education executive for Chicago and Midwest for Youth To The People. “It’s oil-soluble, meaning it loves oil, and it’s an exfoliating acid. Technically, there’s only one kind of BHA: salicylic acid.” 

Chances are you’ve seen salicylic acid in the ingredients list for an acne product, since it’s great for busting breakouts as it penetrates the skin very deeply. Salicylic acid exfoliates by removing dead skin cells, which is why it’s often suggested for complexions that need more exfoliation as well as for treating acne and oily skin. 

“Through exfoliation with acids, you can rid yourself of those topical things you see happen to the skin, such as breakouts, clogged pores, blackheads and whiteheads,” Cummings says. Over time, salicylic acid will decrease oil secretion as well as reduce redness and inflammation. 

So, how often should you use products with BHA? 

“It absolutely first and foremost depends on skin type, and the BHA in the product,” Cummings says. “The general rule is you only want to exfoliate two to three times a week for skin that isn’t experiencing breakouts or oil. If your skin struggles with acne or excess oil, you can use a lower percentage of BHA every day to clear skin of debris, excess oil, dirt and makeup.” Specifically, 1% or 2% salicylic acid is often gentle enough to use every single day for the purpose of treating acne or a breakout. Products with higher percentages of BHAs, such as peels, are designed to be used once a week.

BHAs can be found in a range of skincare products. 

“There are several categories where BHAs are useful, in cleansers of course, as well as products that stay on skin, including topical treatments like toners, serums, or spot treatments,” Cummings says. 

BHAs and AHAs often appear together, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the same thing. AHAs—alpha hydroxy acids—are also exfoliating acids, but there are several key differences:

“BHAs are oil-soluble, love oily skin, and penetrate skin deeper,” Cummings says. “AHAs are more water soluble, stay more on top of the skin, affecting the top layer of skin and they don’t penetrate as deeply. BHAs are suggested for oily skin, while AHAs are more often recommended for dry skin.” If you’re treating adult acne and your skin is on the thirsty side, Cummings recommends opting for AHAs over a BHAs.  

Since BHAs are an adept exfoliator, you’ll want to take a look at the rest of your skincare routine.  

Retinol is a very powerful active ingredient,” Cummings says. “People are loving retinols, but you definitely don’t want to layer retinol and BHA together.” 

For more details on what actives to mix and when, click here.

BHA (salicylic acid) stars in the new Superclay Purify + Clear Power Mask, in which it works alongside a trio of active clays and 2% niacinamide to exfoliate skin, bust breakouts, and de-slick complexions. Get it here—and find out how to use it in your routine here. 

Written by Celia Shatzman for Youth To The People