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Beta hydroxy acid

* An organic acid that's either biosynthesized or extracted from the bark of a willow tree. A derivative of Aspirin. Also known as BHA or Salicylic acid.


Mainly works as an exfoliant, but also act as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, denaturant, anti-dandruff agent, hair conditioning agent, skin conditioning agent and preservative. The skin care community regards it as an invaluable ingredient because of its multi-functional and versatile nature.

As a keratolytic agent, it exfoliates the skin by causing the cells of the epidermis (upper layer of skin) to shed more easily, making room for new cell growth. Higher concentrations (8-12%) of topically applied salicylic acid can effectively remove warts. Studies have documented BHA concentrations as low as 2% to improve skin thickness, collagen production, wrinkling, roughness and hyperpigmentation over a time period of just 6 months. For this reason, this ingredient is used for both practical purposes, such as with dandruff/dry scalp shampoos, and as a key component in anti-aging skin care. Furthermore, by removing the dead skin cells of the epidermis, this ingredient enables the skin to absorb other anti-aging products (antioxidants, moisturizers) to its maximum potential.

Unlike alpha hydroxy acids, which are water soluble, beta hydroxy acids are lipid (oil) soluble. This means that they not only exfoliate the upper layer of skin, but also penetrate deep through the epidermis to exfoliate the dead skin cells and excess oil built up in the pores. For this reason, BHA'a are frequently used to treat blackheads, whiteheads and acne. Yet its keratolytic ability is not the only reason for why it is so often administered to treat blemishes and breakouts. Beta hydroxy acid also functions as both an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent, making it an ideal anti-acne ingredient. While many other exfoliants (i.e. AHA's) often irritate the skin, salicylic acid does just the opposite by reducing inflammation. This is due to the fact that it shares a similar chemical composition as Aspirin, a well known analgesic and anti-inflammatory, and thus shares many of Aspirin's functions as well.

Because this ingredient requires very low concentrations to exfoliate dead skin cells, remove build-up inside the pores and calm inflamed skin, it is used in a variety of cosmetic products. You can find it in moisturizer, cleanser, astringent/toner, shampoo/conditioner, acne cream, facial scrub and mouthwash. It should be mentioned that with regards to skin care, BHA works most effectively in a moisturizer base and not a cleanser. An adequate amount of time is needed for the skin to absorb this ingredient, and most rinse off products wash the BHA off the face before it is absorbed.

Safety Measures/Side Effects:

Despite the fact that BHA's  appear to be less irritating than AHA's, they can still have adverse side effects such as burning, stinging, itching, redness and possible scarring (especially those w/ darker skin). However, most of these risks can be avoided by choosing the appropriate concentrations and PH levels for your skin type. It usually works best at a concentration of 1-2%, at a pH level of 3 to 4.

Perhaps the biggest concern about using beta hydroxy acid is that it increases the skin's sun sensitivity by 50%. It's quite the paradox because while BHA's can effectively reverse some of the damage and pigmentation caused by UV rays, it also makes the skin more susceptible to sunburn and photo-aging. It's imperative that anyone using this ingredient apply a broad spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen every morning, wait 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply every couple of hours. It is also recommended that individuals use products with this ingredient only during the night, to further reduce the risk of sun sensitivity.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed the safety of this ingredient, and determined it as safe to use in OTC drug products, wart removers and anti-dandruff products. The CIR Expert Panel has assessed that BHA's potential for skin irritation and sun sensitivity appear to be less mild than that of AHA's, and have also recognized it as safe to use in OTC cosmetics. However, they've also voiced concern over the potential increase in UV damage associated with all exfoliants, and stress the importance of wearing a daily sunscreen in conjunction with exfoliating ingredients such as BHA.

The EU Cosmetics Directive has listed this ingredient as safe to use in rinse-off hair products at concentrations up to 3%, and in all other products at up to 2%. They've also determined salicylic acid as unsafe to use in products for children under the age of 3, except for shampoo formulations.

Recommended Products with Beta Hydroxy Acid:

Skinfinite Purify Facial Cleanse ($30 in the shop), Sciote Illume Brightening Serum ($95 in the shop); Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel: Full Strength ($45); Sevani Complexion Corrector ($39 in the shop); Medik8 PoreCleanse Gel ($35); PureCeuticals AHA Apple Exfoliating Serum ($54)

As much as possible, products in the Truth In Aging shop are chosen for their safety profile as well as effectiveness.

See all our FIVE BEST recommendations including Five Best for sagging skin, Five Best with vitamin C and Five Best eye creams

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