This is the best exfoliating acid for those with dry or sensitive skin

Ever found the process of exfoliating irritating on your skin? Polyhydroxy acids, also known as PHAs, could be the answer. Here, we break down everything you need to know.

Skincare acids. They can be scary and intimidating – and that’s before you even get into the names.

You’ve likely already heard of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). As each is often buffered with a caution warning, though, you may have avoided using them in the past for fear of burning your face. But now, a third acronym is climbing the ranks in skincare as one of the market’s buzziest acids. Enter: PHAs, formally known as polyhydroxy acids.

PHAs are chemical exfoliants that work to buff away dead skin cells and leave skin smoother and brighter. Despite their effectiveness, PHAs are known as the gentler alternative to AHAs and BHAs. You see, PHAs have a large molecule size, meaning they exfoliate at surface level and don’t penetrate skin too deeply. The result is a more even skin tone and texture without the irritation.

Intrigued? Here, Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, founder and medical director of Adonia Medical Clinic, runs through everything you need to know about PHAs.

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What are PHAs?

“Polyhydroxyl acids are exfoliating acids which are more hydrating and less irritating than AHAs. They include lactobionic acid and gluconolactone acid and can be found in cleansers or as a leave on serum.”

What are the benefits of PHAs?

“These are exfoliating acids which help to exfoliate the uppermost layer of the skin, which helps to refine the appearance of pores and brightening the skin.”

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How do PHAs differ to AHAs and BHAs?

“An alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) is an exfoliating acid. Common options are glycolic acid from sugar cane, lactic acid from milk and mandelic acid from bitter almonds.

“Beta hydroxyl acids (BHAs) are salicylic acid. This is best for oily and acne-prone skin. It has antibacterial and anti inflammatory properties.

“PHAs work in a similar way to AHAs but the molecular size is slightly larger which means it stays closer to the surface of the skin [making it more gentle].”

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Which skin types are best suited to PHAs and which skin types should avoid using it?

“PHAs are great for those with sensitive skin. Anyone who has a breached the skin’s barrier function should first hydrate the skin and identify the reason for sensitivity before exfoliating their skin.”

Are there any side effects to PHAs?

“Almost any skincare ingredient used incorrectly can cause irritation so when starting an acid, I usually recommend you go slow and only start one active at a time to prevent irritation to the skin. There are formulations that combine acids which can be very good but use them as directed.”

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Best skincare products with PHAs, picked by Stylist

  • Best PHA cleanser: Ameliorate Resurfacing Facial Cleanser

    Best skincare products with PHAs: Ameliorate Resurfacing Facial Cleanser

    Created specifically for those with dry and sensitive skin types, this cleanser melts away make-up and sweeps away impurities without leaving your skin feeling irritated or stripped.

    Shop Ameliorate Resurfacing Facial Cleanser at lookfantastic, £15

    buy now

  • Best PHA toner: Medik8 Press & Glow

    Best skincare products with PHAs: Medik8 Press & Glow

    The words “exfoliating toner” may conjure up memories of stinging skin but Medik8’s clever Press & Glow uses PHAs for exfoliation that doesn’t penetrate the skin too deeply. Plus, it contains aloe vera to further reduce the risk of irritation.

    Shop Medik8 Press & Glow at Cult Beauty, £23

    buy now

  • Best PHA face mask: Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask

    Best skincare products with PHAs: Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask

    Yes, this face mask contains retinol, an ingredient often associated with irritation but added avocado and PHAs ensure dead skin cells are buffed away while keeping skin nourished.

    Shop Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask at Cult Beauty, £23

    buy now

  • Best PHA face mist: Balance Me PHA Clarifying Mist

    Best skincare products with PHAs: Balance Me PHA Clarifying Mist

    Often find your skin is oily before lunchtime? This face mist contains PHA and zinc to gently exfoliate skin and balance excess sebum. Give your face a quick spritz and you’re good to go.

    Shop Balance Me PHA Clarifying Mist at lookfantastic, £15.30

    buy now

  • Best PHA moisturiser: NeoStrata Ultra Moisturising Face Cream

    Best skincare products with PHAs: NeoStrata Ultra Moisturising Face Cream

    Alongside intense hydration, this NeoStrata moisturiser contains 10% PHA, vitamin E and a vitamin B complex to keep skin smooth and protected against damaging environmental factors, such as pollution and free radicals.

    Shop NeoStrata Ultra Moisturising Face Cream at lookfantastic, £30

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  • Best PHA serum: Lixirskin Night Switch PHA/AHA

    Best skincare products with PHAs: Lixirskin Night Switch PHA/AHA

    Let your skincare work for you while you sleep, with this overnight exfoliator. It contains both PHAs and AHAs to encourage cellular turnover for a brighter, more even complexion. A handy tool in restoring skin that feels rough and dull from cold winds and harsh central heating.

    Shop Lixirskin Night Switch PHA/AHA at lookfantastic, £17

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  • Best PHA body treatment: Skincity AHA/BHA Body Resurfacer

    Best skincare products with PHAs: Skincity AHA BHA Body Resurfacer

    It’s just as important to ensure you’re exfoliating the build up of dead skin on your body. This clever mist contains 10% AHA and 10% PHA acids for serious exfoliation power and is ideal for those with keratosis pilaris, body acne uneven pigmentation.

    Shop Skincity AHA/BHA Body Resurfacer at Skincity, £19

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