Acne Treatments - BHAs

Using beta hydroxy acids (like salicylic acid) for acne |

BHAs for acne

BHAs as a treatment for clogged pores

BHAs (beta hydroxy acids), also known as salicylic acid, help clear your skin by increasing skin turnover and exfoliating your pores from the inside out. They are great for getting rid of clogged pores and blackheads, but only if formulated at the right pH, a pH of around 3. BHAs seem to be less irritating than benzoyl peroxide, another popular acne fighting active ingredient, but take a bit longer to work.

What do BHAs do?

BHAs exfoliate your skin from the inside, keeping your pores clear so they look smaller. The exfoliating action also helps even out and soften skin, so BHAs are often active ingredients in both facial and body treatment products. Because BHAs help your skin shed at a faster rate, they can prevent your skin from getting congested. BHAs are also oil-soluble, which helps dissolve sebum, making them optimal treatments for acne, body acne, blackheads, and clogged pores. BHAs are also effective treatments for ingrown hairs, keratosis pilaris, and after-shave irritation.

BHAs are found in many department store and drugstore acne treatments, usually as the 2% salicylic acid active ingredient. However, higher percentage BHA products can be found at stores like Sephora or online. Lower percentage BHA products (ex. 1%) are also available, as well as very high percentage BHA chemical peels. Since BHA is a very common acne fighting ingredient, almost any brand of acne treatments will have a product with BHA in it. Salicylic acid is one of the easiest and most accessible (not to mention affordable) acne treatments available.

BHA treatments come in many different forms of products. You can find BHA spot treatments, toners, moisturizers, gels, serums, lotions, body washes, and facial cleansers. Generally speaking, BHAs are more effective if they are left on your skin longer. However, those with sensitive skin may want to avoid using leave-on treatments (like toners and gels) to reduce irritation. For people with this skin type, a BHA cleanser or body wash may suffice.

Note: Many people think that aspirin (as in the aspirin mask) is a BHA, but aspirin and BHAs are not the same thing. Please read this if you are interested in more information.

How to use BHAs for acne

To use BHAs to treat acne, select a BHA product and patch test the treatment on a small part of your skin for a few days. If you experience no negative reactions (side effects are discussed below), proceed to use the treatment over your entire face or over your troubled areas. BHAs can be used as an all-over-the-skin type of treatment or they can be used as a spot treatment. For maximum effectiveness, BHAs should be applied onto clean skin, once your skin dries off after cleansing.

The important thing with BHAs is to start slow. Use the BHA treatment once every 2-3 days for a week. If everything goes well, up the application to every other day. Gradually build up to using the treatment every day or even twice a day if your skin can handle it. The goal is to condition your skin to the BHA and to not use too much too soon. If you go from never using BHA before to using BHA twice a day, your skin will likely get very irritated.

Many people wonder how long it takes for a BHA treatment to work. Well, whether salicylic acid will clear your acne will depend on your skin's reaction to the active and what is actually causing your skin to break out. It also depends on the severity of your acne - milder acne cases will probably see faster results than severe acne cases because there is less congestion to clear.

When used consistently, a BHA treatment takes an average of 2-3 weeks to start showing any kind of result. Therefore, any BHA treatment should be used for at least that long (a month or longer is better) before you decide whether it works or not. With that being said, it's usually a good idea to try a few different BHA products before ruling out all salicylic acid products as an effective treatment for your acne. This is because different formulations of BHA products will have variations in effectiveness. However, if you used 2 or 3 different BHA products and all of them did nothing for your acne, you can then move on to a completely different acne fighting ingredient.

Side effects from using BHAs

Because BHAs exfoliate your skin, common BHA side effects include redness, dryness, irritation, and increased sensitivity. People who experience pronounced dryness can also get dry skin flakes and itchy skin (although a handful of people actually find BHAs to be moisturizing). These side effects usually go away when you take a break and stop using the salicylic acid product. The irritation can also be minimized or prevented by reducing how frequently you apply the treatment to your skin. For faster recovery from any side effects, moisturizing more or applying a hydrocortisone cream can help.

Since BHAs clear your pores from the inside, one of the main side effects of BHA use is for your acne to get worse before it gets better. This doesn't happen to everyone, but some people do break out or "purge" for about two weeks when they start using salicylic acid. This purging is usually a worsening of current acne symptoms. For example, if you are using a BHA treatment to get rid of clogged pores, the clogged pores can "purge" and turn into inflamed whiteheads before they finally go away.

Unlike AHAs, which make your skin more sensitive to the sun, BHAs can be used during the day. However, it's always a good idea to wear sunscreen anyway!

My personal experience with BHAs for acne:

I tried using BHAs to clear my skin, but they didn't seem to be that effective. They seemed to get rid of smaller pimples (like clogged pores and blackheads), but did nothing for bigger, more inflamed pimples. I felt like BHAs helped to treat my acne, but did not prevent my acne from occurring in the first place. However, to be fair, my acne was hormonal so a topical treatment would not have helped that much anyway.

On the plus side, BHAs made my skin feel really soft and smooth. I experienced some redness, dryness, and flaky skin, but these side effects subsided after I used it less. I also experienced some purging. The clogged pores around my chin turned into inflamed pimples. I also seemed to get little, non-inflamed surface whiteheads around my face. These breakouts went away on their own after about 2 weeks.

While BHA did not clear my acne, it is a good treatment to use to refine my skin and make it feel smoother. It mostly seemed to help with skin texture issues, like rough skin or bumpy skin, instead of bad acne.

Bottom line: With the right formulation, BHAs can be effective for preventing and treating acne, blackheads, and clogged pores. However, how effective a BHA treatment will be will depend on your skin's current condition and how it reacts to salicylic acid. BHAs are also a good exfoliator if manual exfoliation is too abrasive for your skin. If you want to improve how your skin feels (both body and facial skin), definitely give a BHA product a try. Overall, BHAs are worth trying as an acne treatment since they are easy to find, affordable, and work for many people.

Last updated: May 6, 2013

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