If done properly, exfoliating can be a powerful tool in your skincare routine to help prevent acne and keep skin and pores clean and smooth. But it’s easy to go wrong when using acids, especially when layering them in your skincare.
Skincare exfoliators fall into two main categories – manual and chemical.
While manual exfoliants used to be all the range (think St Ives Apricot Scrub), they’ve taken a back seat in recent years thanks to the popularity of chemical exfoliants – AHAs, BHAs and PHAs.
While manual exfoliants still have a valid place in your skincare routine, since they are fairly self-explanatory to use, today, we’re focusing on exfoliants of the chemical variety, which can be trickier to work into your routine because they are pH dependent.
If you aren’t familiar with acids, these are the big guns of skincare – designed to treat a variety of common skin complaints like blackheads, whiteheads, breakouts, hyper-pigmentation and blocked pores.
Skincare-friendly acids are classed into two main categories: AHAs and BHAs.
AHAs exfoliate the outer layer of skin, removing dead skin to uncover the fresh stuff. As they are water soluble, AHAs work well on dry, flaking and aging skin to stop pores from clogging and on hyper-pigmentation. They help brighten the skin for a clearer, more refined complexion.
This group of acids includes glycolic acid (one of the most common acids), lactic acid, mandelic acid and more.
BHAs are oil soluble and exfoliate at a deeper level, making them excellent for keeping pores clear. They can also help to prevent breakouts and reduce inflammation.
Common BHAs include salicylic acid and in Korean Beauty products, betaine salicylate. Key takeaway: AHA and BHA exfoliants work in a similar way –they unglue the bonds that leave dead skin stuck on the skin’s surface, allowing old skin to shed normally and reveal the smoother, fresher skin hiding beneath. For more on acids, tune into the Korean Beauty Show podcast at:
Short answer – yes, but not for everyone.
Combining them can cause irritation, so if you are prone to dry skin, sensitivity or redness, stick to just one.
On the other hand, if you have oily skin, combining BHAs and AHAs may be safe and even beneficial.
The key to layering acids comes down to pH levels. You need to start with the product with a lower pH and finish with the one with a higher pH. If you use a product that raises your skin’s pH first, the product with the lower pH will have to work to bring that number down instead of work on improving your skin, so it won’t be as effective.
Think of layering acids like double cleansing – start with your oil-soluble BHA first, and then move onto your AHA.
BHAs are typically formulated to be a pH of 3.5 and AHAs have to be formulated at a pH of under 4. You’ll want to use your BHA product first, not only because BHAs are lower in pH but also because they are oil soluble and AHAs are not.
A word of caution though – if you notice any redness, sensitivity, or excessive dryness, that’s a sign to slow down with your acids. Cut back to using them 2-3 times a week and alternate between your acids.
As Vitamin C often has an exfoliating effect on the skin, we don’t generally recommend mixing the two. Aside from the potential irritation, these ingredients can inactivate your Vitamin C, rendering it useless.
If you want to combine the two and your skin is not affected by mixing acids, the correct order is Vitamin C, BHA and then AHA.
Doing so can cause some serious irritation if they products are used together.
In fact, this is an ideal combination. Hyaluronic acid doesn’t function like an AHA or BHA in that it does not strip your skin — it’s actually highly nourishing and hydrating, so having “acid” in the name is a bit misleading.
Hyaluronic acid is great for applying after any exfoliating acids.
For more on layering acids in your skin care routine tune into the Korean Beauty Show podcast here:
Yes, but it’s not necessary.
If you have a toner with a BHA/AHA combination as well as a serum there’s not much use using them both in the same routine – at worst, you risk irritating your skin. Better to use them separately and alternate days instead.
Do You Have Acne Prone Skin? Check out our guide for the best Korean skincare products for acne-prone skin here.
Got more questions on how to layer acids in your skincare routine? Drop them in the comments section below!
"The key to layering acids comes down to pH levels. You need to start with the product with a lower pH and finish with the one with a higher pH."- STYLE STORY
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