Alpha hydroxy acids versus beta hydroxy acids

You may have heard of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, but how are they different and which type should you use? 

In a nutshell: 

How do they work?

Both alpha and beta hydroxy acids chemically exfoliate the skin, helping to lift off dead, dull cells from the surface of the skin. They help smooth and brighten skin, even out pigmentation, improve acne, hydrate skin, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. The most commonly used alpha hydroxy acids are glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid, whilst salicylic acid is the most commonly used beta hydroxy acid.

What’s the difference between alpha and beta hydroxy acids? 

Alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble, so they don’t penetrate as deeply into the skin as the oil soluble beta hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids are better for dry, ageing skin, while beta hydroxy acids are more suited to oily, acne-prone skin. Alpha hydroxy acids can cause increased sun sensitivity, while beta hydroxy acids can protect from the sun. Beta hydroxy acids tend to be less irritating than alpha hydroxy acids.

Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.

Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. Published 2016 Dec 14.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…