Beauty Glossary: PHAs for Your Skin? Everything You Need to Know About This Skincare Hype


If you’ve been on the search for the secret to flawless advert-worthy skin, you’ve probably tried everything from replacing your beauty products with rosehip oil to smearing complexion-boosting products all over your face.

And, Polyhydroxy Acids – the latest beauty a la mode, beloved by A-list celebrities and beauty enthusiasts for its supposed hydrating and smoothing effects – might be the next game-changer in your skincare routine.

Don’t fret if you don’t know what PHAs are (God knows differentiating AHAs and BHAs has been a real head-scratcher already).

We delved into nose-deep research to curate this comprehensive guide on PHAs.

Keep reading to get the low down on this potent and trendy ingredient.

Quick Facts

Ingredients Used: Exfoliants

Primary Benefits: Sloughs off dead skin cells, rejuvenates skin, reduces the appearance of scars and sun damage

Perfect For: All skin types, but especially those with oily, acne-prone skin

Not Suitable For: Individuals with severe skin conditions

How Often Can You Use It: Three times a week. You can use it as a face wash, toner, or serum

Works Perfectly With: Other skincare acids, in low concentrations

Shouldn’t Be Used With: Skincare acids in high concentrations, especially retinoids if you have sensitive skin

What is PHA?

PHAs, or poly-hydroxy acids, are the newest skincare buzzy touted to blast dark spots and banish fine lines.

PHAs belong to the AHA (alpha-hydroxy acids) family. In fact, they are considered ‘chill distant cousins’ of alpha-hydroxy acids, as they are second-generation AHAs.

Similar to AHAs, PHAs work as chemical exfoliants.

They help slough off dead skin cells, even out skin tone and texture, and help skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid penetrate deeper into the layers of your skin, improving their efficacy.

Buut, they tend to be larger and gentler than the most common AHAs (glycolic and lactic) and BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids), making them the ideal skincare ingredients for people with ultra-sensitive skin, including those with eczema and rosacea, who can’t stand AHAs and BHAs.

The most popular PHAs are lactobionic acid, gluconolactone, and galactose. More on that below.

What Are the Different Types of PHAs?

Often, PHAs are blended in products, so you can’t really go wrong – particularly if you’re looking for the perfect exfoliator for sensitive skin.


You’ve probably heard of this one. That’s because it’s the sugar present in milk. It’s not as popular as the other PHAs, but it works to gently and seamlessly exfoliate your skin.


The popular of the three, gluconolactone not only works to rid your skin of dead cells but also hydrates and offers a slew of antioxidant benefits.

Lactobionic Acid

An oxidized form of milk, lactobionic acid works as an exfoliant and humectant, meaning it helps your skin lock in moisture.

What’s the Difference Between AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs?

Polyhydroxy acids work similarly to alpha-hydroxy acids but are more superficial–acting and less irritating.

Think of them as light and bright peeling ingredients that are more user-friendly.

Sensitive skin types with sun damage and hyperpigmentation can use PHA-infused products followed by moisturizers to help brighten, smoothen, and plump the skin.

They also strengthen the skin’s barrier function and banish signs of aging without triggering irritation.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (citric, glycolic, and lactic acids), on the other hand, primarily work by nibbling away at dead skin cells to allow for glowing and radiant skin.

Unlike PHAs, these glow-enhancing acids can be intense, so based on the concentration of your cleanser or serum, you need to limit the usage of AHA-infused products to once or twice a week.

Then there are the beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic, tropic, and beta hydroxybutanoic acids).
BHAs work by brilliantly flushing out clogged pores, which is why they’re perfect for acne-prone skin and keratosis pilaris.

Keratosis pilaris is the rough skin on your thighs, butt, hips, and arms that doesn’t seem to go away.

The Perks of Using PHAs

Anti-inflammation: These skincare acids are known for their exfoliation properties, but their rise of fame comes from their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They help neutralize free radicals’ effects and promote healing by stimulating cellular turnover.

Boost Skin Hydration: These acids are natural humectants – meaning they help hydrate the skin, boost cell regeneration that helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, and retain moisture reserves. Therefore, with a PHA-infused formula at hand, you’ll definitely have a recipe for a glowing complexion.

Perfect for Sensitive Skin: As mentioned, these acids are gentler on the skin due to their large molecules. That means they take longer to penetrate the skin. So, if you have ultra-sensitive, these acids should be your go-to.

Enhance Skin Elasticity: Poly-hydroxy acids help promote collagen production by decreasing glycation. Glycation is the process that wears down collagen and elastin, the proteins in the skin that make a youthful complexion so radiant and springy.

How to Use PHAs

Since it’s the gentlest hydroxy acid, beauty experts recommend using it once or twice daily (ideally after conducting a patch test to see how your skin will react).

You’ll find these acids in various night creams, serums, and other anti-aging products, often combined with ingredients like hyaluronic acid (which helps replenish moisture and reduce the appearance of fine lines), and hydrating oils like argan, coconut, and marula oil.

However, it would be best if you were careful about using PHAs, retinoids, AHAs, and BHAs altogether. This can lead to irritation, especially if you have sensitive skin.

You might also want to consult your dermatologist before you kick things off with PHAs, and literally every other skincare acid. Better safe than sorry, right?

Side Effects of Using Polyhydroxy Acids

The best thing about PHAs is that the side effects are minimal and are well tolerated.

Like with any other acid, though, you can expect some slight irritation when you start using PHAs. Significant irritation is a way that triggers redness, peeling, and itching, indicating that the formula is too harsh and needs to be used with caution.

Therefore, ensure to observe your skin for signs that you need to scale back on use, and only once every week if you use polyhydroxy acids in combination with AHAs and BHAs.


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