Move Over AHA And BHA: PHA Is The New Acid Everyone’s Talking About

Is your skin too sensitive for acids? Say hello to this powerful ingredient that can help you get a dewy glow.

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If you’re a self-proclaimed skincare enthusiast, chances are you’re familiar with chemical exfoliation. Depending on your routine, this may look like a nightly cocktail of serums, twice-weekly masks, or even regular chemical peels from your fave esthetician. Most of these chemical exfoliants use alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) as their main ingredients, depending on what they’re targeting. If you’re at all familiar with chemical exfoliants, those should be pretty familiar to you, but now there’s a new one trending: polyhydroxy acid.

Polyhydroxy what?

Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are the youngest generation of acids, and oh are they powerful. AHAs and BHAs are key ingredients in many chemical exfoliants and they’re known for their ability to strength the skin’s barrier, fight signs of aging, and provide supple hydration. AHAs, like glycolic acid, stimulate collagen production, meaning they’re great at reducing fine lines; BHAs, like salicylic acid, can penetrate pores deeply. Studies have found that PHAs offer similar effects as both these well-known acids, but with notably fewer severe irritation responses for individuals with sensitive or dry skin. The effects of PHAs are as comprehensive as they are plentiful. These acids:

  • Exfoliate the skin, which is crucial for removing layers of dead skin and revealing healthy new cells
  • Increase moisture retention, which can decrease signs of aging and improve the appearance of potentially worn-looking or dull skin
  • Contain antioxidants, which fight free radicals and can increase the effectiveness of sunscreen, further protecting the skin from UV exposure
  • Improve the skin’s natural barrier systems, which protects against harmful substances
  • Reduce inflammatory flares caused by dermatological conditions such as those listed above as well as acne, psoriasis, and melasma.
  • Enhance overall clarity, brightness, smoothness, and elasticity

Who should use PHAs?

While PHAs can be advantageous for every skin type, if your skin tends be hypersensitive when using products or performing peels with AHA or BHA, you’d likely benefit greatly from incorporating PHAs into your skincare routine. The multiple hydroxyl groups in PHAs contain larger molecules than those in their sister acids, which slows down their absorption rate, meaning they cause less topical irritation. So if you have sensitive skin that can get irritated from too much AHA or BHA use, PHAs might be the acid you’ve been looking for. This means that even individuals with conditions like atopic dermatitis or rosacea don’t need to miss out on acids’ age-defying benefits any longer. Notice any stinging or redness with AHAs or BHAs? It just might be time to make a switch! We also want to note that the studies on PHAs’ effects have been replicated for black, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian skin, which supports their widespread application and effectiveness.

How should I use PHAs?

As a good rule of thumb, begin your new protocol by applying PHA-containing products once per day or even once every other day. After taking note of how your skin responds, you can increase the frequency to twice a day. This type of progressive onboarding will need to be done for every product you plan on introducing! If you notice any itching, burning, or swelling, stop! No matter where you are in your skincare journey, make sure you’re using an adequate moisturizer morning and night in addition to sunscreen with at least SPF 25 every single morning. Though PHAs have been shown to not increase sun sensitivity and potential burning like AHAs and BHAs, it’s still a good habit to practice.

Our Current PHA Faves

So, we’re all clear that PHAs should be in our daily arsenals, but which products should you pick up? Easy! Because PHAs have so many benefits, you can can find them in cleansers, creams, lotions, and serums. Whatever your skin may be needing most, there’s sure to be a product that’s perfect for you. Looking for a cleanser? The Age Reverse Bioactiv Wash from Exuviance combines PHAs, maltobionic acid (derived naturally from maltose sugar), and botanical extracts to remove makeup, resurface your skin, and prep your canvas for the next step in your routine. Skincare giant Glossier has jumped in the PHA game with the star of their 2018 show, Solution. Use it after cleansing to exfoliate dead skin cells for get brighter, clearer skin. (Just a note, Solution does also contain AHAs and BHAs, so if you’re sensitive, proceed with caution.) Not using a toner? You should be. Also from Exuviance, this Moisture Balance Toner will even out your skin’s pH while using PHAs to hydrate. Finally, get in on the PHA serum fun with the Hydrating Serum from PCA Skin. This is a perfect step right before moisturizer as it will condition, boost collagen production, and calm any redness or irritation leftover from exfoliation.

Lauren Bondi
Lauren is your average (not-so-average) multipotentialite with a drive for anything authentic. Her passion for elevating the lives of others has steered her toward serving up lessons on self-love and wholesome living. Mixing this fire with a desire to understand the science behind her passions, we have a woman who’s comfortable nerding out to explain why love is so crucial to our existence as human beings and why superfoods are truly pretty super. As she gears up to start pursuing her doctoral degree in clinical psychology, she—of course—is happily juggling a few more things. She’s one of our contributing writers whose free spirit calls her to some time spent blogging, personal training, nutrition counseling, and relentlessly light-working. Boxes? Those don’t exist with this one.