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I think it’s time people stopped treating polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) like the kid who got the participation trophy. Polyhydroxy acids stand right next to alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). And they’re just as special! Just like the rest, PHAs are effective in exfoliating the skin and increasing epidermal skin turnover. That’s why the best polyhydroxy acid products are just as valuable in addressing several skin issues like dryness, dullness, acne, pigmentation, and wrinkles.
But PHAs are unique and full of surprises! And understanding how they work and how they differ from AHAs and BHAs will help you better utilize them. Keep reading to learn how polyhydroxy acids work in skincare and the best PHA products to get started on.
What are PHAs?
Just like AHAs and BHAs, PHAs are also chemical exfoliants (1). They work by dissolving the bond between the dead skin cells. In doing so, they promote skin turnover and improve skin texture and tone.
Polyhydroxy acids are kind of inbred hydroxy acids. And they’re related to alpha-hydroxy acids. That’s why PHAs are sometimes called next-generation AHAs. But treating them as a separate group makes things a lot easier to follow.
The two main acids that belong to the PHA family are lactobionic acid and gluconolactone. To get into the specifics, these two are very similar in the way they work on the skin.
The main difference between lactobionic acid and gluconolactone is that the former is derived from milk whereas the latter is derived from corn. And recently, maltobionic acid has started to gain traction as the newest member of the PHAs family.
The most important thing to know about PHAs is that they have a larger molecular size compared to mainstream acids. And that, my friend, changes everything!
The Benefits of PHAs For Your Skin
Having a large molecular size is what sets PHAs apart. But what does it mean for your skin? Keep scrolling to find out.
They work on the surface.
PHAs don’t penetrate the skin as deep as the other acids. This makes them work on the surface level. That’s why PHAs are the holy grail exfoliant for people with sensitive skin and rosacea (2).
They don’t irritate.
As a general rule, the more penetrative the acid, the more irritating it is for your skin. When you have sensitive skin, you can’t let a glycolic acid serum deep-dive into your skin and sizzle away dead skin. But with PHAs, your skin is very unlikely to sting, burn, or turn red. PHAs don’t irritate your skin.
Aside from being very gentle on the skin, PHAs are known for their skin-plumping abilities. Because they work as humectants and bind water to the skin (3).
That way, PHAs improve the skin barrier function. And as a result, they reduce the visibility of fine lines, plump up your skin, and even out your skin tone.
They have antioxidant properties.
Lactobionic acid and gluconolactone have antioxidant properties (4). They provide protection from UV-induced free radical damage, just like your regular antioxidants do.
With this protection, PHAs help keep your healthy collagen safe and prevent premature aging and hyperpigmentation.
They don’t cause photo-sensitivity.
Here’s another fun fact about polyhydroxy acids. You know how BHAs and AHAs make the skin more prone to sunburn, right? That’s why you’re always advised to pay extra attention to wearing sunblock if you’re using exfoliants.
Well, it turns out PHAs do not make the skin any more sensitive to sunburn. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear sunscreen, though. It just means there’s no extra skin sensitivity to sun exposure.
How to Use PHAs
Polyhydroxy acids can be either the main ingredient in your products or the sidekick that enhances the main ingredient. You can find PHAs in moisturizers, serums, toners, and even cleansers. But here’s how to use PHAs to get the most out of them.
Pair PHAs with retinol.
Using retinol together with AHAs and BHAs is still up for debate. Because of the lack of proper research, everyone has an opinion. But the general opinion is that you should avoid layering retinol with AHAs and BHAs as they can increase sensitivity and irritation.
But that’s not the case with PHAs. You can comfortably layer your retinol with PHAs. They’re very unlikely to irritate your skin as they stay mostly on the surface of the skin and work in a slow and steady manner. Apply your retinol first!
Use them as peels.
All skin types need exfoliation. That’s what gives you smooth and soft skin. But exfoliation is tricky when you have sensitive skin. That’s why PHAs make the perfect chemical exfoliants for people with rosacea or dry, sensitive skin.
Use polyhydroxy acids as weekly treatments to get rid of dead skin cells and flaky skin. A quick tip for people with rosacea; pair a microencapsulated retinol serum with a polyhydroxy acid serum for the ultimate irritation-free skin transformation.
Use them post-procedure.
Due to their gentle activity and the fact that they don’t cause photosensitivity, you can use PHAs after at-home treatments like micro-needling. PHAs will get rid of post-treatment flakiness and hydrate the skin for better healing.
Use them to hydrate.
You’ll see that PHAs are also used alone in products for hydrating the skin. When the pH level is adjusted accordingly, PHAs don’t exfoliate but simply hydrate. You can look for hydrating products that also contain PHAs for extra hydration benefits.
If you don’t have sensitivity, you can also use a hardcore glycolic acid product or a salicylic acid serum made with PHAs to prevent potential dryness.
The Best Polyhydroxy Acid Products
Below are some of the best polyhydroxy acid products to try. Find PHA serums, creams, toners, and masks!
1. Neostrata Ultra Moisturizing Face Cream
This is a daily anti-aging cream that targets signs of aging by gently exfoliating the skin. The PHA moisturizer contains 10% gluconolactone topped with vitamin E for its free radical scavenging benefits.
The combination helps with wrinkles, photodamage, dark spots, and dullness. The cream smooths and softens the skin. And it has botanical oils rich in fatty acids to moisturize and improve the skin barrier.
Key Ingredients: 10% gluconolactone, 0.5% vitamin E
Skin Type: All
Size: 1.4 oz
Good To Know: Fragrance-free, non-comedogenic
2. Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner
We’ve mentioned that PHAs can complement other chemical exfoliants. But this toner is probably one of the gentlest multi-acid formulations to combine a PHA with another HA. It’s made with gluconolactone and naturally-derived salicylic acid.
So, oily skin types can benefit from pore cleansing benefits while keeping sensitivity at bay. In addition, the PHA toner has antioxidant-rich watermelon extract as well as hyaluronic acid and cucumber extract to replenish the skin.
Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, willow bark extract
Skin Type: All
Size: 5.07 oz/150 ml
Good To Know: Cruelty-free, vegan
3. Exuviance Overnight Transformation Complex
The overnight treatment is packed with gentle exfoliants, humectants, and antioxidants to repair and renew the skin. It contains both lactobionic acid and gluconolactone for gently sloughing off dead skin cells. Additionally, it has vitamin C for its collagen-boosting and skin-brightening effects and vitamin E to treat free radical damage.
Moreover, the night cream has retinyl propionate, a gentler form of retinol, to regulate cell renewal without irritation. Additional botanicals provide antioxidant benefits for the ultimate sensitive-skin-friendly anti-aging routine.
Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, lactobionic acid, vitamin C
Skin Type: All, especially dry
Size: 1.75 oz
Good To Know: Non-comedogenic
4. The Inkey List Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) Gentle Exfoliating Toner
This is another exfoliating toner perfect for gently resurfacing the skin. It’s also super budget-friendly. The toner has 3% gluconolactone for light exfoliation. And it has 3% niacinamide for its anti-acne and pore-minimizing benefits.
The light toner contains aloe for hydrating and soothing the skin as well. Whether it’s for acne, pigmentation, or fine lines, apply the toner on your clean face to wipe off dullness and achieve smoother and brighter skin.
Key Ingredients: 3% gluconolactone, 3% niacinamide
Skin Type: All, especially sensitive
Size: 3.4 oz/100 ml
Good To Know: Cruelty-free, fragrance-free
RELATED: The Best Niacinamide Creams
5. Bliss Clear Genius Clarifying Liquid Peel
Utilizing all kinds of acids, the liquid peel tackles multiple skin issues like enlarged pores, acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation. It’s made with gluconolactone and glycolic acid as well as salicylic acid. Also, the serum has lactic acid to clean out pores, reduce breakouts, and polish the skin on all possible levels.
It also has hyaluronic acid to prevent dryness, witch hazel for its antibacterial properties, and aloe for calming the skin. It’s vegan, affordable, and one of the best PHA exfoliants that deliver.
Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, glycolic acid, lactic acid
Skin Type: All, especially oily
Size: 1 oz/30 ml
Good To Know: Fragrance-free, vegan, cruelty-free
6. PCA Skin Hydrating Serum
This is like a next-level hyaluronic acid moisturizer or serum with significantly more benefits. The serum is designed to hydrate the skin, plump it up and reduce the visibility of fine lines. It’s made with gluconolactone, hyaluronic acid, and other humectants like sodium PCA and provitamin B5 to replenish thirsty skin.
If you’re using a hyaluronic acid serum, this one is definitely an upgrade with added antioxidant benefits. It’ll increase the water content in the skin and is perfect for any type of skin that’s dehydrated.
Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, sodium lactate, hyaluronic acid
Skin Type: All
Size: 1 oz/29.5 ml
Good To Know: Fragrance-free, cruelty-free
7. Medik8 Press & Glow Daily Exfoliating PHA Tonic
This face toner utilizes gluconolactone for its exfoliating and hydrating benefits. It’s made with 5.5% gluconolactone to offer polyhydroxy acid in its gentlest form simply to refresh, plump, and lightly resurface the skin.
Plus, it has prickly pear extract, which is rich in amino acids that amplify the hydration effects. And lastly, it packs anti-inflammatory acai extract, and soothing aloe, making it an amazing PHA product to hydrate, soothe, and renew sensitive skin.
Key Ingredients: 5.5% gluconolactone, prickly pear extract
Skin Type: All
Size: 6.7 oz/200 ml
Good To Know: Cruelty-free
8. Ole Henriksen PHAT Glow Facial Mask
If you’re trying to test the PHA waters and prefer a more conservative approach, start with a face mask. This rinse-off mask is made with gluconolactone to exfoliate.
And it contains skin-detoxifying bentonite clay that draws impurities out of the skin like a magnet. The 10-minute mask will clarify the skin and get rid of any dullness and flakiness to give you a flawless complexion.
Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, vitamin B3, vitamin B5
Skin Type: All
Size: 1.7 oz/50 ml
Good To Know: Vegan, cruelty-free
9. Peter Thomas Roth PRO Strength 10% PHA Exfoliating Clarifying Liquid
This one is an exfoliating treatment that contains all hydroxy acids. It’s made with 10% gluconolactone (PHA), 5% glycolic acid (AHA), and 0.5% salicylic acid (BHA). So it comes at textured skin from all possible angles.
No matter your skin type, you can resurface your skin without drying it out. The treatment helps with enlarged pores, hyperpigmentation as well as fine lines, and wrinkles. Its potent yet gentle formula is a must-have for an at-home facial to get glowing skin.
Key Ingredients: 10% gluconolactone, 5% glycolic acid
Skin Type: Normal, combination, oily
Size: 5 oz/150 ml
Good To Know: Vegan
10. Eve Lom Rescue Peel Pads
Just like glycolic acid pads, you can benefit from PHA peel pads to exfoliate daily. These exfoliating peel pads contain all three types of hydroxy acids; glycolic, salicylic, and lactobionic.
They’re safe for daily use but still work incredibly well to get rid of dead skin cells, unclog pores, and increase radiance while keeping the skin hydrated. The pads are also soaked in niacinamide to support the skin barrier and prevent dehydration as well.
Key Ingredients: Lactobionic acid, glycolic acid
Skin Type: All, especially acne-prone
Size: 60 pads
This completes our list of the best polyhydroxy acid products to exfoliate the skin without irritation. If you want to exfoliate sensitive skin, you can finally relax and exfoliate comfortably and safely with these PHA products.
- Grimes, P. E., Green, B. A., Wildnauer, R. H., & Edison, B. L. (2004). The use of polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) in photoaged skin. Cutis, 73(2 Suppl), 3–13.
- Green, B. A., Yu, R. J., & Van Scott, E. J. (2009). Clinical and cosmeceutical uses of hydroxyacids. Clinics in dermatology, 27(5), 495–501. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clindermatol.2009.06.023
- Algiert-Zielińska, B., Mucha, P., & Rotsztejn, H. (2019). Lactic and lactobionic acids as typically moisturizing compounds. International journal of dermatology, 58(3), 374–379. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijd.14202
- Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 3, 135–142. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S9042
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