Retail AHA & BHA Acid Percentages: What You’re Really Getting

Retail AHA & BHA Percentages: What You're Really Getting YouGlowGal You Glow Gal Esthetician Sarah Payne Hiatus Spa Dallas Skincare Beauty Blogger

AHA and BHA products, aka acids, are everywhere: serums, toners, masks, retail peels, etc, etc. You might see the word buffered on a label, or maybe acid percentages are mentioned. Other times there’s no information other than the ingredient list, your only clue.

Have you ever wondered what it all means? The meaning of life? The meaning of that text from the new Bumble guy? Or the meaning of that supposed 20% glycolic acid? Deep stuff, you know.

 

The FDA requires retail products containing AHAs to follow these guidelines:

  • The AHA concentration must be 10% or less
  • The finished product has a pH of 3.5 or greater
  • The finished product is formulated to protect skin from increased sun sensitivity OR the label needs to instruct consumers to use daily sun protection

And, the FDA requires retail products containing BHAs to follow similar guidelines:

  • The BHA concentration must be 2% or less
  • The finished product is formulated to protect skin from increased sun sensitivity OR the label needs to instruct consumers to use daily sun protection

 

On the flip-side, professional AHA peels may have a concentration of 30% or less with a pH of 3.0 or greater. Product manufacturers are not required to place AHA/BHA percentages and pH values on their labels, this is up to each brands discretion. It’s commonplace for retail products to contain up to 10% AHA with a pH between 3.8-4.4, and up to 2% BHA with a pH between 3.2-4.0.

pH Review

Skin pH Scale YouGlowGal You Glow Gal Esthetician Sarah Payne Hiatus Spa Dallas Skincare Beauty Blogger

 

pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of a solution on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being the neutral point. The lower the pH the more acidic the product; the higher the pH, the more alkaline the product. Normal skin ranges from 4.4 to 5.6, this varies from person to person. If you use a product with a significantly lower pH you may strip your skin which can cause dryness, irritation, even acne.

Potential AHA or BHA irritation is related to pH and not necessarily acid concentration, so choosing your purchase based on 2% vs 10% shouldn’t be your deciding factor. Potential benefits adding acids in your skincare routine is unrelated to the level of irritation your skin might experience. Skin irritation caused by a product by no means translates to the product being ‘good’ or superior. Many estheticians believe inflamed, irritated skin actually speeds up glycation, the process in which collagen and elastin breaks down.  So, those products that are burning, leaving your skin red, peeling, and wanting to hide from the world are actually causing more harm than good–leave those extreme treatments to medical professionals. Just because your skin becomes red and angry doesn’t mean it’s working harder, or better. Your skin doesn’t need to literally peel to peel.

 

This is where buffering comes into play.

Would you be more likely to buy a product that irritated your skin, or one that makes you glow? The majority of retail AHA and BHA products are formulated with a neutralizer, also commonly referred to as a buffer. Buffering is the process of adding a base to an acid, creating a salt plus water. Buffering allows brands to design products with higher acid concentrations without increasing irritation potential. Here’s a breakdown using glycolic acid which can generally be applied to many AHA’s:

A 10% unneutralized glycolic acid has a pH of 1.7, this would be extremely irritating to your skin.

A 10% glycolic acid at a pH of 3.8 contains approximately 5% acid and 5% salt.
A 20% glycolic acid at a pH of 3.8 contains approximately 10% acid and 10% salt.

 

Keep this in mind the next time you see a product touting a high acid percentage on the label!

In the blogger community, there has been criticism about baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, in skin care. I mean, don’t put baking soda directly on your face. That’s a terrible idea. But this is why it exists on labels. Sodium bicarbonate isn’t the only salt you will find in cosmetics. There are a number of them, but a handful of common ingredients used for buffering include:

Ammonium Lactate, Calcium Carbonate, Disodium Phosphate, Magnesium Carbonate, Potassium Carbonate, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Lactate, Sodium Phosphate, Trisodium Phosphate, and Zinc Carbonate.

Another common solution is to use esters and polymers to combine AHAs and BHAs with other ingredients. Supposedly this reduces irritation potential, but there’s lack of proof of efficacy.

An additional element to consider is whether the formulation is in a water or oil base. You can have two products with the same glycolic or lactic acid compounds, percentage of concentration, and the same pH, but if their bases differ they may perform entirely differently from one another.

Unfortunately, there are no guidelines for comparing AHA and BHA products, so it’s nearly impossible to compare performance between them. As a consumer, look for formulations designed to minimize irritation while providing excellent results for your skin.

References here and here.

About Sarah Nicole

Sarah is a Denver based expert esthetician, known for returning abused sensitive skin back to a glowing state without harsh products while boosting her client's skin confidence and self-worth. Sarah has been featured in Allure, New Beauty, Greatist, NBC News, and D Magazine among others. You can follow her on Instagram @sarahnpayne.

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