What Are BHAs? Salicylic Acid Explained

Struggle with breakouts, blocked pores and acne? Chances are you’ve used a BHA product at some point in your life without even knowing it. Or, if you’re a skincare buff, you might have heard of the most common BHA: salicylic acid. This popular liquid exfoliator can work wonders for blemish-prone skin. But, what is it? Good question. Let’s take a look.

BHAs: what are they?

‘BHAs’ is the friendly, shortened version of the not-so-friendly-sounding ‘beta hydroxy acids’ and it refers to a category of chemical exfoliants. But, here’s something interesting (okay, it’s not that interesting, but it is helpful to know). When you hear people talking about BHAs in skincare, they’re (most likely) talking about just salicylic acid. That’s because, in the beauty sphere, BHA and salicylic acid are the same thing (and I’ll use the two names interchangeably here). But, just to be super clear, salicylic acid is one type of BHA. Up to speed?

Salicylic acid is an exfoliating acid - but, don’t let the word acid scare you off! This exfoliating liquid mainly helps keep the skin clear and blemish-free. But, it can also help reduce the appearance of things like hyperpigmentation, fine lines and uneven texture.

How does BHA work?

BHA is a liquid exfoliant which is derived from willow bark extract. But, hold up. What exactly is a liquid exfoliant? Well, it’s quite simple. Liquid exfoliators remove dead skin cells and debris from the surface of the skin, just like physical methods of exfoliation like sugar scrubs and mitts. But, these physical types of skin exfoliation can be harsh on the skin. BHA gently breaks the intercellular bonds between dead skin cells on the skin’s surface (the stratum corneum, specifically), similarly to AHAs - BHA’s chemical exfoliant cousins. But, unlike AHAs, salicylic acid gets deep inside pores to dissolve skin cell build-up. Pretty cool!

What are the benefits of BHA for the skin?

BHA is an oil-soluble chemical exfoliant (it dissolves in oil), making it a great match for oily, combination and acne-prone skin types. It can cut through the skin’s sebum, travelling deep inside pores to clean them from the inside out.

Once inside the pores, salicylic acid dissolves the mixture of sebum and dead skin cells that causes plugs and exfoliates the lining of the pore, expertly tackling blackheads and whiteheads (comedones) as well as milia. So, a BHA liquid exfoliator really does pack a congestion-fighting punch. No joke.

But that’s not all (BHA is the gift that keeps on giving!). Salicylic acid also has sebum-regulating properties, helping to reduce excess oil which, ultimately, can lead to acne. Its anti-inflammatory nature also means that it can be soothing for active breakouts, helping to diminish redness and calm swelling.

So, if you’re struggling with breakouts and congestion, you might want to give this leave-on exfoliant a try. If you want to learn more about liquid exfoliation in general, make sure to check out this article for the low-down!

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