Enzymes, AHAs, AFAs, BHAs: how to choose which exfoliant to use
In our last post, we went over the basics of exfoliation including what it means, why you should do it, and how to choose which method is right for you. In this post, we’re digging deeper into the four types of chemical exfoliation: enzymes, AHAs, AFA and salicylic acid.
Before we do, you’ll need to understand how chemical exfoliants work. Remember the brick wall analogy? Skin cells are the bricks and your natural lipids are the mortar between them. Desmosomes are the connectors that keep these bricks (skin cells) together. Chemical exfoliants eat away at the desmosomes, freeing up skin cells to be able to be shed. They come in different levels of potency. A gentler formula will eat the desmosomes of a few brick layers. A more potent formula will remove more layers, dramatically thinning the height of the brick wall (i.e. your skin).
This type of exfoliant uses enzymes from various fruits and foods. The three most common enzymes come from papaya (papain), pineapple (bromelain) and rice. It works by breaking down the desmosomes, the connective links between skin cells, on the upper layer of your skin. It’s a popular method since it’s considered safe for all skin types and provides a gentle, yet effective, exfoliation experience.
2. AHAs – Alpha Hydroxy Acids
AHAs are a group of natural and synthetic ingredients. There are six different kinds with glycolic acid and lactic acid being the most popular. What makes AHAs unique is that they not only exfoliate your skin, but they can also stimulate collagen production by destroying old collagen fibers and promoting the production of new ones. If you compare your skin to a bed, collagen is like the box spring underneath that gives your skin firmness.
Starting in our mid-20s, our bodies make up to 2% less collagen every single year. As we grow older, our skin continues to contain less collagen, which yields signs of aging like sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles. AHAs are smaller in size than enzymes, and so they can penetrate deeper through the outer layer of skin to also stimulate collagen production, which occurs in the middle layer of your skin (dermis).
3. AFAs – Amino Acid Filaggrin-based Antioxidants
Dr. Martin Klein created the revolutionary exfoliant known as AFAs. He wanted to create a formula that provided the same benefits of AHAs but without the dryness and irritation that can accompany. In response, he created AFAs.
AFAs provide all of the same benefits as AHAs with the additional benefit of improving moisture levels in the skin. They provide visible results within just a few days and cause little-to-no irritation despite its effectiveness.
4. BHAs – Beta Hydroxy Acids (aka Salicylic Acid)
Salicylic acid is the only known BHA at this time. Blackheads and pimples are the results of a pore being clogged by of dead skin cells, oil and bacteria. Exfoliating can help to remove the clogs and prevent future clogs from forming. However, scrubs, AHAs and AFAs are not the best tools to get inside your pores to get the job done. BHAs are unique because they are the only acid capable of breaking through the oily environment of your pores to help unplug them. Salicylic acid is used in acne skin care products and products recommended for oily or blemish-prone skin for this reason.
So which chemical exfoliant is right for you?
- Work with Enzymes if your goals are to mildly exfoliate and brighten your skin without using an acid.
- Use AHAs if your goals are to fight signs of aging, fight signs of UV damage (“leather skin”), brighten your skin, and minimize dark spots and pigmentation.
- Apply AFAs if your goals are to fight signs of aging, fight signs of UV damage (“leather skin”), brighten your skin, minimize dark spots and pigmentation, and boost hydration levels.
- Use BHAs if your goals are to treat and prevent blackheads and pimples, and ingrown hairs (a particular concern for men who shave regularly).
If you want to learn more about the different types of exfoliation, book an appointment to chat with one of our Bodé skin experts.