Polyhydroxy Acids: A Cheat Sheet
If you’re into learning — and experimenting with — all things skincare, it’s likely you’ve heard about exfoliants alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. But you might not be as familiar with polyhydroxy acids, also referred to as PHAs.
Despite the fact that these compounds were discovered back in the '70s, it’s only recently that they’ve really been put on the map. So we spoke with some experts to find out more about PHAs and whether you should start incorporating them into your skincare routine. Read on to get the lowdown.
So, what exactly are PHAs?
“Polyhydroxy acids are the newest exfoliants in the skincare armamentarium,” says Dr. Colleen Crandell of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Endwell, NY. “Unlike the better-known alpha (AHA) and beta (BHA) hydroxy acids, PHAs are gentler acids, allowing patients with more sensitive skin to benefit from regular chemical exfoliation.”
Regularly sloughing off dead skin cells is key to a glowing complexion and as Dr. Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, notes, even the best skin in the world will look dull if it’s not well exfoliated.
In addition to serving as an effective exfoliator, Dr. Crandell also explains that PHAs “stimulate epidermal growth, minimize pigmentation caused by sun damage and can improve clogged pores and fine lines.” The most common forms of polyhydroxy acids to look out for on your product bottles include gluconolactone and lactobionic acid.
good news for sensitive skin
If you’ve tried other chemical exfoliants in the past and felt they were too harsh or irritating, PHAs may be an attractive option. “Polyhydroxy acids are chemical exfoliants, however, the PHA molecule is larger than alpha and beta hydroxy acids, therefore there’s less penetration into the skin and less potential for irritation,” says Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, Medical Director of Mudgil Dermatology. In other words, they target and exfoliate only the outer layers of the skin. “Patients with sensitive skin who might be easily irritated by the stronger AHAs and BHAs can uniquely benefit from the PHAs' exfoliating properties. This includes patients with rosacea, eczema and anyone with dry skin,” adds Dr. Crandell.
how should I start using PHAs?
When it comes to PHAs and best practices, Dr. Mudgil says that too much can be irritating, so make sure to “listen” to your skin. You might want to initially try incorporating PHA-based products into your routine once or twice a week and gradually work your way up to more regular applications. As always, we also recommend consulting with your dermatologist to discuss any questions or concerns before starting any kind of new treatment.
products to try
If you’re interested in dabbling in PHAs, both Dr. Mudgil and Dr. Jaliman recommend this NeoStrata cleanser. “It gently exfoliates without over-drying your skin and the panthenol in this cleanser helps to hydrate the skin as well as calm irritation,” notes Dr. Jaliman. Dr. Crandell points us to a few products like the Glossier Solution, NeoStrata Bionic Face Cream and PCA Skin’s Hydrating Serum. You can also find the compounds in the Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask by buzzy brand Glow Recipe and Dr. Jart’s Dermaclear Micro Milk Peel.
Now you know!