Mandelic Acid vs. BHA: Which One Is Better For Acne?

Exfoliating acids can be a great addition to the skincare routine of anyone dealing with inflammatory conditions like acne.

However, with so many of them performing different functions and working in different ways, choosing which is best for your skin can be difficult.

This is often the confusion many experience when trying to choose between the two popular options for acne: mandelic acid and BHA.

While both mandelic acid and BHA can be helpful in soothing inflammation and reducing acne, they are slightly different than one another, making them useful in various ways; thus, which one is better for acne may depend on the individual.

Therefore, in this article, we will discuss the differences between mandelic acid and BHA, how they work, and which one may be better for acne.

Mandelic Acid vs. BHA for acne

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How Does Mandelic Acid Work?

Mandelic acid is an AHA or alpha-hydroxy acid naturally found in bitter almonds.

When formulated in skincare products, mandelic acid is useful in improving signs of skin aging, hyperpigmentation, sun damage, acne, and scarring.

Found in many over-the-counter products and professional treatments, mandelic acid works by gently exfoliating the skin and encouraging the dead skin cells that have accumulated on the skin surface to shed naturally.

Additionally, while alpha-hydroxy acids are generally water-soluble components, meaning they are better at targeting superficial skin issues, mandelic acid is more oil soluble compared to most AHAs, meaning it can penetrate deeper into the skin for a more targeted effect, making it ideal for those with oily, acne-prone skin.

With this action, mandelic acid can dissolve the cellular debris composed of skin oil, dead skin cells, and white blood cells stuck inside the pores and help unclog them.

This will lead to the natural skin oil flowing freely through the pores without getting stuck and attracting some strains of bacteria, including the acne-causing bacteria, to feed on it and proliferate, causing inflammation and pimples.

Additionally, mandelic acid has skin-soothing properties thanks to its anti-inflammatory action.

Being one of the largest AHAs (after citric acid) in terms of molecular size, it penetrates the skin slowly and gently without irritating it.

Finally, because mandelic acid is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it has antioxidant properties that help to fight the free radicals that cause skin damage while infusing the pores with oxygen to destroy the airless environment bacteria need to thrive.

Benefits of mandelic acid:

  • Clears cellular debris inside pores.
  • Improves cellular turnover.
  • Reduces inflammation.
  • Helps soothe acne.
  • Improves the appearance of acne scarring.
  • Fades hyperpigmentation.
  • Evens out uneven skin tone.

How Does BHA Work?

BHA, or salicylic acid, is the only beta-hydroxy acid that’s an active ingredient found in cosmetic products to treat inflammatory conditions such as acne, dandruff, and seborrheic dermatitis, which is a condition that causes flaky patches on the scalp due to excessive production of oil.

Typically available in concentrations ranging from 0.5 to 2%, BHA works by penetrating the pores and dissolving the cellular debris that’s causing a clog.

Similarly to mandelic acid, BHA is an oil-soluble component and is, therefore, able to reach deeper oil-filled layers of the skin than AHAs, making it ideal for those with oily or acne-prone skin.

Additionally, BHA has some anti-inflammatory properties thanks to its similarity to aspirin, which is classified as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.

This makes BHA useful in soothing superficial redness and the inflammation surrounding a pimple.

With a molecular weight of 138.121 g/mol, salicylic acid is a larger molecule than AHAs, making it less likely to irritate the skin, especially in smaller concentrations usually used in cleansers and toners.

The Benefits of BHA:

  • Unclogs pores by dissolving cellular debris.
  • Soothes active inflammation and redness.
  • Reduces the appearance of acne.
  • Removes blackheads and whiteheads.
  • Exfoliates dead skin cells.
  • Soothes inflammatory scalp conditions.
  • Helps improve the appearance of dandruff.

Which One is Better for Acne?

While both salicylic acid and mandelic acid are excellent for acne, mandelic acid comes with significantly fewer side effects, such as inflammatory reactions, redness, and irritation.

One particular study that compares the action of salicylic vs. mandelic acid in treating acne suggests that mandelic acid has a notable lack of post-inflammatory erythema (or skin redness) that often accompanies skin treatments with salicylic acid.

Additionally, it has also been found that while mandelic acid is effective in reducing the appearance of acne when used in higher concentrations in over-the-counter products, salicylic acid is more effective in treating acne when used in higher concentrations in professional treatments such as chemical peels performed by a dermatologist or an esthetician.

This makes mandelic acid a more approachable acne treatment because it’s easier to be found in over-the-counter products, which is more convenient for those who don’t have the opportunity to invest in professional treatments.

This is also one of the many positive differences between the two forms of chemical exfoliators, making mandelic acid a safer medium to work with professionals and products recommended for home use.

Salicylic acid, on the other hand, may not always be effective, even if used in higher concentrations of up to 2%, and can be rather irritating for those with super sensitive and reactive skin.

This can be bad news for those with acne and super sensitive and reactive skin because these symptoms usually manifest when the skin barrier is compromised, which can only slow down the acne healing process.

A compromised skin barrier means that the skin’s protective layer is weakened and, therefore, unable to protect the skin from pathogenic bacteria such as Cutibacterium acnes or acne-causing bacteria, worsening acne significantly.

Therefore, mandelic acid might be a better option for those looking for an effective yet gentle treatment to reduce acne.

Which One is Better for Acne Scars?

While both salicylic acid and mandelic acid are excellent for oily and acne-prone skin, mandelic acid is by far better for targeting acne scars, including post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and redness.

Mandelic acid has micro-exfoliating properties that help lift the excess pigment from the skin’s surface.

Additionally, unlike other exfoliating acids, mandelic acid also works in the deeper layers of the skin, where hyperpigmented spots form due to excess melanin production, which is a reaction to inflammation. Its action targets the source of the issue and stops it in its tracks, aiding in the formation of new, healthy, and even skin cells that will come to the skin’s surface in due time.

Finally, mandelic acid is also a better option for treating discolored or pigmented acne scars in dark skin tones, where the risk of hyperpigmentation is magnified because there’s more melanin in the skin.

The more melanin, the more melanocytes there are to react to skin injury or inflammation and produce excess pigmentation.

Consequently, dark skin needs to be treated less aggressively than lighter skin tones because causing inflammation will almost certainly result in more scarring.

And since mandelic acid is a much gentler option than, let’s say, glycolic acid, which is another component frequently used to treat hyperpigmentation, it is the better choice for dark skin complexions and those with ultra-sensitive and reactive skin.

The Best Mandelic Acid Products for Acne

Here are the three best mandelic products for acne:

Vivant Skin Care – Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Wash, $24

Vivant Skin Care – Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Wash

Vivant’s Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Wash is a gentle facial cleanser that contains a combination of active and soothing ingredients to refine the skin and reduce the appearance of acne, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin texture.

Starting with a low concentration of mandelic acid to gently exfoliate the skin and soothing green tea extracts rich in skin-repairing vitamin E, this cleanser is specifically designed to reduce the appearance of acne scars while promoting a healthy and hydrated complexion.

The addition of antioxidant grape seed oil, kiwi fruit extract, and naturally hydrating and antibacterial honey make this one of the best mandelic acid products for those dealing with acne, hyperpigmentation, and skin texture.

Vivant Skin Care – 8% Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Serum, $70

Vivant Skin Care – 8% Mandelic Acid 3-in-1 Serum

Vivant’s 8% Mandelic Acid Serum is a gentle exfoliating serum containing a blend of mandelic and lactic acid – two AHAs that lift dead skin cells, unclog pores, soothe inflammation, and hydrate the skin.

Besides that, this serum also contains urea, an organic compound with hydrating properties that work well in combination with AHAs, niacinamide, and inositol, which are both parts of the vitamin B family known for their anti-inflammatory and brightening properties.

Last but not least, the serum also contains Sodium PCA, which is one of the skin’s natural moisturizing factors.

Lightweight, gentle, and excellent for those with sensitive, reactive, and acne-prone skin, this serum leaves a mild glow on the skin and reduces inflammation quickly while also targeting post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and discolored acne scars.

Allies Of Skin – Mandelic Pigmentation Correcting Serum, $89

Allies Of Skin – Mandelic Pigmentation Correcting Serum

The Mandelic Pigmentation Correcting Serum by Allies of Skin is another great mandelic acid serum focused on targeting post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation and redness.

The ingredient list is packed with soothing, calming, and active ingredients, including a blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, as well as plenty of hydrating ingredients such as white tea leaf extract and hyaluronic acid, and brightening antioxidants such as niacinamide, bakuchiol, resveratrol, and so on.

Excellent for those with dry and acne-prone skin, the addition of gentle, softening oils such as rosehip oil will also leave skin feeling nourished, plump, and moisturized.

The Best BHA Products for Acne

Here are some of my favorite BHA products for acne:

Paula’s Choice – CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser, $15

Paula's Choice – CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser

The Pore Normalizing Cleanser is a gentle, foaming cleanser that contains a very mild concentration of 0.5% salicylic acid to gently remove impurities from the skin, unclog pores, and soothe active acne.

Besides the main active ingredient, the cleanser also contains arginine, a skin-softening amino acid, and panthenol, which is one of the most calming and soothing ingredients found in skincare products.

Even though it contains salicylic acid, the concentration in this cleanser is very mild compared to the usual 2% found in over-the-counter products; therefore, it can be used daily.

However, every skin is different; therefore, if you notice that it’s drying you out, minimize its use down to 2-3 times a week.

Paula’s Choice – 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $34

Paula's Choice – 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

The 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant by Paula’s Choice is an exfoliating solution containing 2% salicylic acid to clear out the pores from the inside out and soothing green tea extract to calm any redness from pimples and inflammation.

Lightweight, nourishing, and effective, this exfoliant can be used several times weekly for the best results.

Vivant Skin Care – Daily Repair Pads, $78

Vivant Skin Care – Daily Repair Pads

Vivant’s Daily Repair Pads are a mixture of exfoliating acids, including salicylic, mandelic, and lactic acid, to work across all layers of the skin and target concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation, texture, and post-inflammatory discoloration.

The addition of antioxidant niacinamide, anti-inflammatory zinc, and glycine, which is a building block for the proteins in our skin, make these pads an excellent choice for those with sensitive and easily irritated skin and can be used 2-3 times a week for best results.

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