BHA vs. Salicylic Acid for Skincare: What You Need To Know

BHA vs. Salicylic Acid for Skincare: What You Need To Know - Three Ships

You want to do what’s best for your skin, but skincare is so confusing. We get it, and at Three Ships, we make it our mission to uncomplicate skincare so you can focus on other (probably complicated) parts of your life.

AHAs and BHAs are buzz terms you’ve heard of, but whether or not you really understand them is probably a different story. We’ll talk about what they are, how salicylic acid fits into the mix, and what you need to know to add them to your skincare routine.

What Are AHAs and BHAs?

Life is filled with TLA’s (three-letter acronyms), and these two dermatology favorites can be really confusing. Let’s break down what they mean in simple terms. Both AHAs and BHAs are forms of natural, exfoliating acids.


Alpha hydroxy acids, or “AHAs,” are water-soluble, natural acids used in skincare products to help gently exfoliate the skin and increase hydration. AHAs are humectants, which means they work to attract moisture from the air and pull it into the top layer of your skin, keeping it plump and hydrated.

AHAs work best for dry skin types because of their ability to increase hydration. Although they offer light exfoliation without irritation, they aren’t able to dig down as deeply into your pores as BHAs (which will cover in a moment). If you have dry skin that sometimes gets blemishes, use AHAs to help gently give your skin imperfections the boot.

The most common forms of AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid.


Beta hydroxy acids, or “BHAs,” are also naturally occurring acids, but instead of being water-soluble, they are oil-soluble. They attract and dissolve in oil, like your skin’s sebum.

If you have an excess of sebum on your skin, it can mix with dead skin cells, bacteria, and dirt to form blemishes. In this case, a BHA product can help.

BHAs are incredibly effective for helping alleviate symptoms of acne-prone skin. While powerful enough to get rid of blemishes, they’re also still gentle enough for sensitive skin types, allowing them to help you banish blemishes without stripping your skin of its natural moisture or creating patches of dry, flaky skin.

The most common type of BHA is salicylic acid. There are other forms, but salicylic is the go-to choice of many dermatologists in skincare products. Let’s dive a little deeper into how salicylic acid works.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

We already know that salicylic acid is a BHA, making it oil-soluble. This attraction to oil makes it a go-to solution for dealing with oily skin.

Sourcing Salicylic Acid

Two plants are used to source salicylic acid: the willow tree and the aspen tree. Both sources contain salicin, a salicylic acid that can be extracted from the bark.

  • Willow Tree: Salicylic acid sourced from willow bark comes from white or black willow trees. Often used for its calming properties, it helps soothe irritated skin.

In addition, it helps remove dead skin cells and is often used to help people who have skin conditions like dermatitis, rosacea, or eczema.

  • Aspen Tree:  Salicylic acid sourced from the aspen tree generally contains more active ingredients like plant antioxidant polyphenols. The aspen tree extract also acts as a preservative, and prevents the need for chemical preservatives in your products.

Overall, the aspen tree is more sustainable than the willow tree as a source for salicylic acid. Aspen bark is sourced responsibly in North America and has been used for centuries by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. Because it contains an aspirin-like ingredient, it has analgesic and antibacterial properties.

Aspen tree bark is a good source of salicylic acid to help mattify oily skin and eliminate breakouts.

The benefits of using a salicylic acid product do more than just help you get rid of blemishes. Here’s what happens when you add salicylic acid to your skincare routine.

What Are the Skin Benefits of Salicylic Acid?

It’s not just about blemishes. Salicylic acid helps renew your skin, improve its texture, and even fade dark spots.

Gentle Exfoliation

Most of us have tried some type of exfoliation to lift away dead skin cells and improve overall skin texture.

Your skin is continually renewing, creating new cells in the deep layers of skin and pushing them toward the surface. When they reach the surface, they die and ideally get sloughed away.

If they don’t get sloughed off, they can mix with sebum, dirt, and bacteria and form blemishes. They can also create a rough skin texture on your stratum corneum (the uppermost layer of your skin) that makes your skin feel dry and appear dull.

Exfoliating salicylic acid removes dead skin cells gently, without the harsh, gritty ingredients some exfoliating products contain. As salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, it exfoliates the skin without damaging it in the way many physical exfoliants do. 

Promotes Youthful-Looking Skin

Skin cell turnover slows as we age, taking up to 50 days to make new skin cells in aging skin. Exfoliating your skin helps support proper skin cell regeneration. Unlike some forms of exfoliation, using salicylic acid in your skincare products is a gentle way to encourage new skin cells to form.

Collagen is a protein that helps keep your skin plump and youthful. As we get older, our collagen production decreases. At age 20, we lose up to 1% of our collagen production per year, which results in the traditional signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles. Salicylic acid helps support and maintain healthy, new skin cells even as you age.

Reduces Breakouts

Blemishes can be frustrating, especially if you have sensitive skin that tends to become irritated with harsh, drying acne-fighting products. 

Salicylic acid is a solution for helping clear away blackheads, whiteheads, and even combats large bumps. By digging deep into the pores and dissolving excess oil, salicylic acid helps break up oil/impurities and gently lift them away. 

Using salicylic acid to treat blemishes is the smart way to gently deal with bumps that can put you in a big mood and try to ruin your day. 

Protects Against Sun Damage

Most of us can agree we’ve spent too much time in the sun without wearing proper sunscreen. Sun damage can appear on your skin in the form of dark spots or areas of hyperpigmentation that can be hard to get rid of. 

Using a gentle exfoliating agent like salicylic acid can help reduce the appearance of dark spots on the skin’s surface. By breaking down melanin that creates areas of uneven pigmentation, salicylic acid helps create a more even skin tone over time.

Salicylic Acid and Your Skincare Routine

It’s surprisingly easy to add salicylic acid to your skincare routine to help unclog your pores, battle the buildup of dead skin cells, allowing your skin to glow as you age. 

An important note, the FDA allows skincare products to contain up to 5% salicylic acid. Because this chemical exfoliant is so strong, most skin types can tolerate a lower concentration and still get amazing results. 

Here’s how to easily add it to your skincare routine using some of our favorite products.

For Cleansing

One of the best ways to use salicylic acid is in a daily cleanser.

We recommend our Refresh Papaya + Salicylic Acid Cleanser. This formula contains salicylic acid. It also contains brightening papaya extract that provides antioxidant protection and helps support an even skin tone.

Our cleanser is gentle enough to use every day for maximum blemish benefit.

For Toning

People sometimes get confused about toners, but they’re amazing products. Toners are skin tonics that help clarify the skin and tighten the pores. If you have combination or oily skin, we recommend a toner that contains witch hazel and aloe vera. 

We recommend our Calm Lavender Hydrosol Toner. Infused with lavender, this alcohol-free toner dives deep into your already cleansed pores helping tighten and clarify your skin. Witch hazel and aloe vera help soothe skin and minimize the appearance of pores.

Using a toner can also help calm irritated skin, which is perfect if you’re currently in the middle of a breakout. 

Get Better Skin, the BHA Way

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps keep your skin blemish-free and encourages skin cell turnover. Using salicylic acid in your skincare routine is a great way to exfoliate your skin and deal with excess oil without causing irritation or stripping your skin of its natural moisture levels. 

At Three Ships, you can trust that our salicylic acid products are sourced responsibly, sustainably, and in a manner that preserves the essential active ingredients so what’s in the plant gets delivered to your skin. 


Alpha Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Beta Hydroxy Acids | FDA

Antioxidant properties and polyphenol contents of trembling aspen bark extracts | SpringerLink

How Sustainable Is Aspen Wood? Here Are the Facts | Impactful Ninja

SEER Training: Layers of the Skin|

9 things to try when acne won't clear | American Academy of 

Refresh Papaya + Salicylic Acid Cleanser

Targets Blemishes


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Superfruit Lactic + Multifruit 8% AHA Exfoliating Mask

Gently Exfoliates Dead Skin


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