WTF Are AHAs, BHAs And Retinol?

Get up to speed on the latest game-changing beauty ingredients.

retinol
Image: coveteur.com

Recently, I went to a beauty event—which I love going to, but often feel out of place at given that my idea of looking presentable is air-drying my hair. The beauty editors at my table were talking about AHAs and BHAs like molecular biologists with perfect hair. “Uh huh, yeah totally,” I nodded, pretending I knew exactly what they were talking about. But deep down, I felt like I’d somehow stumbled into a science convention, not a skincare launch.

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I’d heard of AHAS, BHAs and Retinol and knew they were meant to be some kind of holy grail for your skin. But truth be told, I didn’t know exactly what they did and how they were different from each other. So, to ensure that I wouldn’t look like a total beauty noob at the next event, I did what any investigative journalist would do—I hopped on Google.

Chances are, if I was clueless about what exactly these products do, you might not know either. But trust me, you’re going want to—because they could be the end of your skincare woes (whether that’s aging, acne or lacklustre skin).  So, to save you trawling through the internet, consider this your ultimate guide to AHAs, BHAs and Retinol.

What are AHAs?

Let’s start in alphabetical order, shall we? AHA stands for alpha hydroxyl acid and refers to chemical exfoliant ingredients like lactic acid and glycolic acid. These can be incorporated into pretty much any type of skincare product, from masks, peels and exfoliants to cleansers, toners and moisturisers. Basically, these types of ingredients penetrate your skin deeply to remove dead skin cells, while still adding moisture. AHAs boast strong anti-aging benefits and are preferred for sun-damaged and dry skin.

Shop the Alpha-H Liquid Rose Gold resurfacing treatment.

What are BHAs?

BHA (beta hydroxyl acid), also known as salicylic acid, does the same thing as AHA, but more efficiently. It’s also anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial. This makes it ideal for oily, congested and acne-prone skin types, as it can actually deep clean the pores that cause whiteheads, blackheads and closed comedones. Essentially, BHAs are better for purifying, while AHAs are better for resurfacing.

Shop the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.

What is Retinol?

Retinol is essentially a more scientific name for vitamin A. Many people (cough, me) believe AHAs and Retinol are interchangeable. But while they both have powerful anti-aging properties, that’s where the similarities stop. While AHAs work as a type of exfoliant, Retinol is more like a facial oil in that you simply apply it to the skin and leave it on. When Retinol comes into contact with the skin, it transforms into retinoic acid—the active form of vitamin A that repairs skin cells. It’s widely known as the most efficient anti-aging skincare ingredient but if you have sensitive skin, you may find it’s too harsh for your skin.

Shop the Ordinary Choice Advanced Retinoid.