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Beauty Buzzwords: Beta Hydroxy Acids

When you were younger, your skin functioned more nimbly. It produced loads of collagen. It gave you ample elastin. It shed on cue when skin cells died. But as time passes, skin loses that ability. And that skin shedding? It slows to a standstill in later life, allowing dead skin cells to accumulate on your skin’s surface.

To knock these skin-dulling cells from your complexion, you can turn to beta hydroxy acid (BHA), an organic acid derived from plants (salicylic acid is a common one). Like its skin care sister, alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), BHA weakens the bond that causes dead skin cells to stick, allowing skin to naturally shed them. Unlike AHAs (which are water soluble), BHA is oil soluble, allowing it to not only tackle the skin’s surface, but also penetrate deeper into pores and help unclog them.

The Benefits

The fact that BHA exfoliants can cut through the oil in your pores and get down to the nitty-gritty makes them a top choice for people suffering from acne, enlarged pores, and excessive oil. A big bonus of BHAs: They’re naturally antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, which gives them the double whammy of being able to treat acne and calm the skin at the same time. In fact, BHAs are so gentle that people who have rosacea or skin sensitivity can use them. But BHAs aren’t perfect: They contain no humectant properties, which makes them drying to skin (a reason those with oily skin types flock to them). And, like AHAs, BHAs increase skin’s photosensitivity, which means slathering on an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen is a must.

The Best Bets

Search the skin care aisle of your favorite brick-and-mortar or online stores: Products containing salicylic abound. Over-the-counter cleansers, scrubs, serums, pads, and lotions containing 2 or 3 percent salicylic acid work tremendously well on skin that suffers from acne or an abundance of oil, but be forewarned: Even at this low concentration, these products can parch skin and cause flaking. Higher concentrations warrant a trip to a skin care professional, who can prescribe the dosage needed. If you are treating skin with certain topical medications for acne or aging that contain benzoyl peroxide, tretinoin, sulfur, and/or resorcinol, you may want skip salicylic acid, as the combination can cause serious skin irritation.

Photo: Leandro Crespi

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