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How to Incorporate PHAs Into Your Skin Care Routine

If you’ve shied away from chemical exfoliants because your skin is sensitive, we’re about to rock your world. PHAs (polyhydroxy acids) are a form of exfoliant that are safe enough for even those with skin conditions like eczema and rosacea to use. Read on for our guide to introducing PHAs into your routine.

The world of acid exfoliation can be overwhelming and daunting, not to mention using a product that’s too harsh on your skin can lead to serious redness and irritation. For some, exfoliators like AHAs and BHAs are nothing but effective, but for more sensitive skin types, the cons (like the redness and irritation) outweigh the pros. If you identify with the latter, PHAs, or polyhydroxy acids, may be a better choice for you. Read on to find out more about these mild acids.

What are PHAs?

Unlike BHAs and AHAs, PHAs have a much larger molecular weight which makes it harder for them to penetrate the skin as deeply as their smaller, lighter counterparts, so they’re less likely to cause irritation. For skin desperate for exfoliation, this isn’t always a good thing, but for sensitive skin types it can make PHAs the perfect fit. PHAs are also known to attract moisture, so they can be a great choice for dry skin.

Where should you use them in your routine?

PHAs can be found in cleansers, toners, essences, and even moisturizers. The Hanskin Cleansing Oil and Blackhead with PHAs, for example, gives your skin a gentle dose of exfoliation in the very first step of your routine. The Cosrx PHA Moisture Renewal Power Cream on the other hand, lets you top off your routine with PHAs.

Unlike AHAs and BHAs, PHAs do not make your skin more sensitive to sun damage so you can use them any time of the day – though we recommend applying SPF as the final step in your morning routine no matter what.

Can you use PHAs with AHAs and/or BHAs?

There are some popular products – like Glossier Solution and Some By Mi Aha Bha Pha 30 Days Miracle Toner – that contain all three forms of acids. While they can offer impressive results, they’re not for everyone.

“It is okay to combine polyhydroxy acids with alpha or beta hydroxy acids but you will lose the benefit of their being more gentle. Whether or not you can tolerate this will depend on your skin type,” says Dr. Hadley King, a New York City-based dermatologist. “If you generally cannot tolerate alpha or beta hydroxy acids without experiencing too much irritation, then don’t add them to your polyhydroxy acids. And even if you can generally tolerate alpha and beta hydroxy acids, it is possible that the combination may be too much for your skin, as the exfoliating properties may now penetrate deeper.”

Can you use PHAs with retinol or vitamin C?

According to Dr. King, any kind of acid can deactivate retinol and make it less effective. Plus, the combination can be too irritating for most. If your skin can tolerate it, she recommends instead using the PHA product in the morning and the retinol in the evenings.

Combining the ingredient with a vitamin C product may also be a recipe for irritation, however if your skin can handle it, the cocktail can enhance the effectiveness of vitamin C since it will be able to penetrate deeper. “If you do want to combine these products I would recommend looking for products that were designed to be used together so that you know the pH is compatible,” she says.

What products can you definitely use with PHAs? 

Since PHAs clear away dead skin cells and help to attract moisture, they can actually make your hydrating products even more effective. You can follow your exfoliation with a hydrating serum like The Plant Base Waterfall Hyaluronic 100 which will help to hydrate and strengthen your skin after an exfoliation session.

Bottom Line

PHAs can be an amazing choice for keeping your skin healthy, clear, and well-exfoliated, especially if you have sensitive skin. Since K-beauty brands are all about gentle solutions, it’s no surprise that the ingredient is gaining popularity. We can’t wait to see what other PHA-containing innovations are on the horizon.

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