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Sometimes figuring out your skincare routine feels can feel like taking the SATs all-over again. I mean, between all the acronyms like AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid), BHA (beta-hydroxy acid) and most recently, PHA (polyhydroxy acid), even sometimes veteran beauty editors can get a bit confused. But believe me, you don’t need a glossary to discover the coveted benefits within the world of acids: popular options include glycolic, citric, lactic, mandelic, and acne-prone favorite, salicylic, versions. They all serve very special and unique purposes depending on your personal skincare concerns.
PHAs (classically referred to as polyhydroxy acid) are a class of chemical exfoliants that offer everything from hydration to anti-aging, and antioxidant benefits. In the skincare world—primarily by derms—they are often dubbed as second-generation AHAs. The recent boom can be contributed to advances in skincare, particularly thanks to an increased awareness in the sensitive skin arena. Another reason? Access.
“A couple of big scientists discovered PHAs in the 1990’s and quickly stamped a patent on these lucrative exfoliants,” explains Dr. Michelle Henry, a board-certified dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “The patent is just now lifting, so beauty brands are able to include PHAs in their recipes without paying for the privilege.”
If you’re looking at the list of ingredients on your current exfoliant, then you might find PHAs under the names lactobionic acid, gluconolactone, gluconic acid, zinc gluconate, or copper gluconate. The most common PHAs typically appear in two forms: Gluconolactone (often derived from gluconic acid, lauded for antioxidant properties) and Lactobionic acid (often derived from milk sugar, noted for hydrating/water-binding abilities).
The sensitive skin-friendly ingredient is also cited to help strengthen or reinforce the skin barrier — a true bonus for those with eczema or rosacea. “PHAs break down the bond between the dead skin cells,” shares Henry. “The great thing about using PHAs is that they are exfoliants and humectants. They help remove dead skin cells from your face and hydrate the healthy skin left behind.”
According to Dr. Jared Jagdeo, board-certified New York City dermatologist and medical director at Ever/Body in Soho “PHAs are best for those who want to achieve a fresh look and are without acne or other textural skin irregularities.”Unlike their more concentrated relatives, due PHAs’ larger molecular structure PHAs don’t penetrate as deeply as other chemical exfoliants, but the plus side is that PHAs jive better with more sensitive skin types. “They are best at exfoliating the most superficial aspect of the skin, the stratum corneum, to help provide a glowing or dewy look,” he adds.
And while PHAs are tolerable with other ingredients, start off easy by pairing them with gentle, base products before use. “The two big ingredients to avoid while integrating PHAs into your skin routine are vitamin C and retinol,” emphasizes Dr. Henry. “If you mix Vitamin C with PHAs and they are not formulated properly, they may negate the efficacy of both. Retinol if mixed with PHAs can result in unpredictable irritation,” she explains.
Remember, slow and steady wins the race people! Like you would with any product, incorporate one product at a time to gauge your skin’s reaction and avoid an unwanted reaction. And as always, make sure to keep a daily sunscreen in the mix. “It is important to use sunscreen when exfoliating,” advises Michele Farber, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. “PHAs generally pair with other ingredients and help the penetration of other active ingredients in serums as well as moisturizers. Just be careful combining with other drying ingredients like retinol, to avoid excess irritation.”
Wanna check it out? Here are 11 PHA-infused products to try:
Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask by Glow Recipe
Consider this the best of both worlds, nourishing avocado is paired with exfoliating PHA for gentle-yet-effective results.
$49 at Glow Recipe
Herbivore Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum
This 100% natural, plant-based retinol boasts a bouncy, jelly-like texture that instantly hydrates while tackling fine lines and wrinkles.
$54 at Herbivore
Exuviance SkinRise Bionic Tonic
“All you have to do is grab the jar and wipe your face down to get the exfoliating and hydrating rewards,” explains Henry. “The result is brighter skin.”
$45 at Dermstore
Glossier Exfoliating Skin Perfector
According to Farber, “Glossier Solution is a great option that uses gluconolactone along with AHA and BHA exfoliants to help make the combination more tolerable”.
$24 at Glossier
Lixirskin Night Switch PHA/AHA 10%
This active concentrated nighttime treatment features only three acids (lactic, lactobionic, and phytic) to exfoliate and encourage cell turnover. The catch? Use this for two weeks consecutively to reset your skin–then give it a break.
$28 at Net-A-Porter
NeoStrata Bionic Face Serum
Developed by derms, this fragrance-free serum helps restore radiance without irritating the skin.
$80 at Dermstore
HanskinPore Cleansing Balm – PHA
Created with sensitive (and reactive skin) in mind, this makeup-melting cleansing balm gets rid of impurities, dirt, and grime without drying out your skin.
$20 at Ulta
Some by Mi -BHA-PHA 30Days Miracle Serum
Treat (and soothe) sensitive skin while minimizing future breakouts with thanks to a combo of ingredients including 10,000ppm tea tree leaf water, 14.5% centella asiatica, and of course, PHAs.
$27 at Soko Glam
COSRX PHA Moisture Renewal Power Cream
Keep skin feeling soft and hydrated with this PHA-coconut fruit extract-and-niacinamide hybrid moisturizer that doesn’t leave your face feeling greasy.
$20 at Soko Glam
Bliss Renew & Smooth Glycolic + Polyhydroxy Acid Night Serum
This overnight post-cleanser, pre-moisturizer formula is packed with niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin E to diminish acne, smooth-out texture, and lock in hydration while you sleep.
$22.99 at Target
Ole Henriksen Baby PHAT Glow Facial Mask
Suitable for all skin types, this magenta mask is an express at-home facial that provides gentle, yet effective exfoliation (PHAs), hydration (Nordic birch sap), and brightening (pink bentonite clay).
$49 at Sephora
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