Skincare 101 – Anti-aging Skincare – Retinols, AHAs & BHAs

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In my recent post on The Importance of Skincare, I mentioned using a Retinol product and a chemical exfoliating product as part of your anti-aging skincare routine. With so many products on the market, it can be hard to sort through whats what, am I right? In today’s post I want to clarify the difference between Retinols, AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids).

What Are Chemical Exfoliators?

Retinol, AHAs and BHAs are chemical acids, usually with some added benefits that help to refine the skin’s texture, minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, enhance collagen production and reduce discoloration such as sun and age spots to leave more radiant and youthful looking skin.

These are chemical exfoliants as opposed to a manual exfoliant. A manual exfoliant would be a facial scrub. You know the kind, usually with ground almonds or something similar. I prefer, and recommend, chemical exfoliants over manual ones.

Are manual exfoliators bad then? Not necessarily. The problem is that sometimes the exfoliating granules can be too harsh on the skin, especially if someone is heavy handed in using the product. Being too hard with manual exfoliators can cause micro tears in the skin’s surface leaving it more susceptible to irritation, infection and sun damage.

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Retinol, Retinoid and Retin A – What’s The Difference?

Well actually there is no real difference, yet there is. These products are a Vitamin A derivative. The difference is usually in the strength of the product you are using. Retin A is the strongest, which is why you need a prescription from a Dermatologist to obtain it. The Retinols you can get over the counter are a more gentle form of the product. Often these have other added ingredients to help hydrate the skin. Some Retinol products are even  placed in creams to make them gentler for sensitive skin types.

It’s a myth that Retinol products exfoliate. What they actually do is work deep at the cellular level of your skin to speed up the process, enhancing collagen production, smoothing skin’s texture and help to even out pigmentation and discoloration. I recommend that if you have super sensitive skin or conditions like eczema or rosacea that you avoid using a Retinol product.

Product Recommendations:

emerginC Complexion Perfection

CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Face Cream Serum

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane

So Then What Are AHAs and BHAs?

These are typically acids that are found naturally in certain foods:

  • Citric Acid – found in citrus fruits
  • Glycolic Acid – found in sugar cane
  • Lactic Acid – found in milk and tomatoes
  • Salicylic Acid – found in Willowbark which is also where aspirin comes from

These chemical exfoliants help to refine the skin’s texture by exfoliating off the dead skin cells on the surface, allowing for new cells to come forward, revealing younger looking skin that glows. AHAs and BHAs can also improve the appearance of acne scars, reduce dark spots and discoloration and help to smooth, tighten, firm and brighten your skin.

These are similar to the “peels” you may have heard of that are done in Dermatologists  and Esthetician offices. However, the over counter versions are gentler and safer to use on a regular basis.

AHAs – Alpha Hydroxy Acids

AHAs are water soluble and great for normal to dry skin types. The two most popular ones are Lactic Acid and Glycolic Acid peels.

Glycolic Acid is the strongest and most effective AHA. It works to help with cell turnover, stimulate collagen production and minimize fine lines and wrinkles.

Lactic Acid is gentler and better suited for sensitive and drier skin types. This AHA actually helps to hydrate the skin as it exfoliates; sometimes Hyaluronic Acid is added to help with maintaining the skin’s moisture levels. Lactic Acid helps to increase the skin’s firmness, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and reduce discoloration such as age and sun spots.

Product Recommendations:

Reviva Labs 10% Glycolic Acid Cream
Reviva Labs Pomegranate Lactic Acid Exfoliant

No7 Advanced Renewal Glycolic Peel Kit

Pixi Skintreats Peel & Polish

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% with Hyluaronic Acid 2%

BHAs – Beta Hydroxy Acids

BHAs are more oil soluble, so they are better suited for normal to oily skin types. BHAs, because they are oil soluble, are able to penetrate deeper into the pores to breakup dirt and oil. This makes them great for acne prone skin and preventing breakouts. They can also be great for some sensitive skin conditions like rosacea. Salicylic Acid is the most common BHA sold and used on the market today.

Product Recommendations:

Obagi CLENZIderm M.D. Pore Therapy – Salicylic Acid 2% Acne Treatment

Miss Spa Clear Blemish Patches

Acure Incredibly Clear Acne Spot

Yes to Tomatoes Daily Repair Treatment


How and when to use chemical exfoliants such as aha and bha.

First, make sure you pick the right one for your skin type and your skin’s needs. I recommend starting with a lower strength and working up to something more powerful over time. Retinol in a cream would be more gentle than a more active Retinol serum for instance. Pay attention to how you skin reacts to the products and cease usage if your skin becomes inflamed or is peeling too heavily.  Also, keep in mind that with Retinols it can take up to 12 weeks for you to see a noticeable difference. So stick with it! Consistency is key in skincare.

I personally use both a Retinol product and Lactic Acid in my skincare routine. I prefer to use these at night while your body is at rest and your skin is repairing itself. However, you can not use these two together on THE SAME NIGHT! You must alternate the products nightly and I like to give my skin one day off a week. So my skincare routine would like something like this:

  • Monday – Retinol
  • Tuesday – Lactic Acid
  • Wednesday – Retinol
  • Thursday – Lactic Acid
  • Friday – Retinol
  • Saturday – Lactic Acid
  • Sunday – Skin’s Day Off – Hooray!

My nightly routine is Cleanse, Tone, Serum (Retinol or Lactic Acid) and follow up with a lovely moisturizer. I wake every morning to glowing, smoother and more younger looking skin. Remember, that these products can make your skin more prone to sun sensitivity so always wear your SPF during the day!

I hope this post cleared up some of the questions you may have had on Chemical Exfoliants like Retinol, Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids. If you have any further questions or would like recommendations for your skin, please comment below or reach out to me on social media.


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