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What Is PHA? And How Do You Use It? Here’s What You Need to Know

by Katie Muirhead

Jul 6, 2022

If you've ever tried to tackle acne, pigmentation, dullness, or fine lines, the chances are that you've come across acid-based skincare products. From salicylic for acne to glycolic for sun damage, acids are able to exfoliate, decongest, plump, soothe, and brighten. And with a resume like that, you'd be a fool to pass them up in your skincare routine.

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But with so many ingredients to keep track of, the world of acids can feel overwhelming.

While most of your tried and true products are probably either an AHA or a BHA, there's a new kid on the block. PHAs, or poly-hydroxy acids, are becoming increasingly popular for their ability to brighten and smooth, and they're even suited to sensitive skin.

The same benefits as their AHA cousins, without the risk of irritation? Sign us up.

What is PHA?

Polyhydroxy acids fall under the umbrella of AHAs. These are naturally occurring substances found in different types of fruit, sugar cane, and sour milk. When formulated in skincare, AHAs have an exfoliating effect, dissolving dead skin.

The PHA molecule is much larger than those of common AHAs such as lactic, glycolic, or mandelic acid. This means that, instead of penetrating deeply, PHAs work on the surface layer of the skin.

PHAs are able to deliver the same topical benefits to the skin without the risk of irritation that comes with most AHAs. PHAs can be added to cleansers, serums, and moisturizers, making them a great choice for those with sensitive skin, rosacea, or eczema.

Due to their gentle approach to glow, PHAs are becoming more and more common to use with, or instead of, AHAs in skincare. Examples of PHAs include galactose and lactobionic acid, but the most common by far is gluconolactone. It's worth getting familiar with this glow-getting ingredient!

How do PHAs work?

As the skin ages, it naturally loses moisture and collagen and the epidermis starts to thicken. Environmental stressors, like sun damage or pollution, can cause fine lines and dark spots to appear. As a result, skin can start to look generally dull.

Enter: PHAs.

Firstly, PHAs are a mild exfoliant. They help to gently dissolve the outer layer of skin, revealing the fresh, clear skin underneath. Over time this can help fade sun spots, reduce hyperpigmentation, and improve skin texture.

Secondly, PHAs are humectants. This means that they are able to retain water and hydrate the skin. When used in a serum or moisturizer, PHAs will draw water into the surface layers of the skin, making it look plumper and firmer.

Thirdly, PHAs have antioxidant properties. In a world full of bad skinfluences, PHAs can help fight environmental stressors. They undo the free-radical damage caused by UV rays and pollution and help skin cells maintain their collagen. For you, this means firmer skin.

Finally, PHAs are able to deliver all these benefits without the stinging or irritation that often comes with other AHAs. This makes them a perfect choice for regular use, especially for those who struggle with skin sensitivity.

Can PHAs be used with other actives?

PHAs generally play nice with other ingredients. They're gentle enough to be worked into a skincare routine with your other favorite actives, and they also work extremely well with other acids. (You may start to notice that they are often included in formulas that also contain AHAs and BHAs.)

As a general rule, however, it is better to not apply an acid at the same time as your favorite vitamin C or retinol.

Vitamin C is a pH-sensitive molecule, so an acidic PHA may make it less effective or even cause irritation. And while PHAs and vitamin A derivatives (retinol/ retinoids) actually work very well together in the same routine, they should be applied at different times to avoid exacerbating any sensitivity.

Always remember that it is better to go slowly with new active ingredients. Err on the side of caution to prevent that stinging that comes with going too hard, too fast.

The best PHAs

Understanding the hows and whys of PHAs is the first step to glowing skin, but implementing them into your routine can be confusing.

As a newly popular ingredient that is often used in formulas alongside other actives, it can be hard to identify PHAs at first glance. Don't worry, we've done the hard work and found the best products with PHAs out there.

While some of these products have PHA as the leading active ingredient, you will notice that many of them are combined with other AHAs and BHAs. This makes these formulas effective chemical exfoliants, but tread lightly if you know your skin is easily irritated. As always, start small and slow with a patch test.

Of course, all of these products are cruelty-free. We want you to have glowing, bright skin, but also consciously help to protect the animals. Thanks for being a part of the solution to animal testing in the beauty industry.

Best Overall:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Active ingredientsPHA (gluconolactone), BHA (willow bark), hyaluronic acid
Type of productToner

Dubbed by some as their "holy grail," this water-like toner may be the final skincare step you've been searching for. Gluconolactone works to gently dissolve dead skin cells on the surface, while willow bark (a natural BHA) penetrates the pore. Suitable for even dry, sensitive skin, this toner will help keep your skin plump, even, and glowing.

After cleansing, apply this formula directly to your hands and pat it on your face. As the name suggests, this has a strong watermelon smell - worth noting if you are sensitive to fragrance.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Active ingredientsAHAs (malic, glycolic & lactic acids), BHA (salicylic acid), bakuchiol, PHA (gluconolactone)
Type of productExfoliating mask

When your skin needs a reset, this full-strength chemical exfoliant will work on any discoloration, dullness, or fine lines to reveal fresh, glowing skin.

This formula combines the deep exfoliation of a blend of AHAs, the soothing properties of salicylic acid, and the skin-renewing power of bakuchiol (a natural retinol alternative).

For this formula, the PHA gluconolactone is added to clean up any left over dead skin cells on the surface. This is after the more hardcore ingredients have had time to penetrate.

Designed to be used at most once a week, this wash-off mask will leave your skin tingling and possibly red. This is to be expected with stronger chemical exfoliants, though if you have very sensitive skin or rosacea it's best to skip this product.

AHAs and BHAs can make the skin more sun-sensitive, so it's best to use this mask at night. (And remember your SPF in the morning, of course!)

Best For Anti-Aging:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan, clean beauty
Active ingredientsBakuchiol, PHA (gluconolactone)
Type of productSerum

Bakuchiol, extracted from the Ayurvedic Babchi plant, is a natural ingredient that can deliver retinol-like results to the skin.

For those with sensitive skin or conditions such as rosacea, bakuchiol can work to smooth the appearance of fine lines without the risk of irritation. Combined with the gentle exfoliation of gluconolactone, this serum is a great choice for those wanting to gently tackle the signs of skin aging.

Apply this unscented, jelly-like serum in the morning or evening, followed by your favorite moisturizer. Though bakuchiol doesn't make the skin quite as sun-sensitive as straight-up retinol, always remember to use SPF in the morning.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Active ingredientsAHAs (glycolic & lactic acid), BHA (salicylic acid), PHA (gluconolactone)
Type of productExfoliating toner

If you have sensitive, acne-prone skin, this gentle exfoliating toner (and gen Z fave!) may be a great addition to your daily routine.

A delicate blend of acids will help to tone skin, tighten pores, and fight breakouts. While it does contain AHAs and BHAs, it is formulated to go gentle on stressed-out skin.

The moisturizing and conditioning properties of gluconolactone, a PHA, combined with the soothing aloe, calming niacinamide, and hydrating glycerin of the "Anti-Stress Complex" make this toner suitable for daily use.

Best For Acne:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Active ingredientsPHA (gluconolactone 3%), ceramides, zinc
Type of productSerum

Often, breakouts are caused when the skin barrier is stressed. Rather than nuking incoming acne, this gentle serum is formulated to calm a breakout in its early stages.

Gluconolactone works to gently dislodge any congestion, while ceramides and zinc combine to support a healthy skin barrier. Over time, your skin feels more balanced, hydrated, and clearer.

After cleansing, use a cotton round to sweep the liquid formula over your face, before moisturizing and applying sunscreen (if used in the morning). To avoid skin stress and build up a tolerance, start slowly by using it two-three times a week.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Active ingredientsPHA (gluconolactone), centella asiatica
Type of productSerum

One of the only products out there that has a PHA as its star ingredient, this serum from French brand Typology is formulated to specifically tackle the marks left behind by acne.

The gluconolactone exfoliates pigmentation while keeping the skin moisturized and supported. Along with the calming effect of Centella Asiatica, a plant extract used for centuries for its skin healing properties, this serum works to support the skin barrier and reveal even, glowing skin.

If you are overcoming acne, the chances are that your skin is sensitive or reactionary. While stronger chemical exfoliants will work on scars faster, this serum is a great option to continue to support your freshly clear skin.

Use it morning or night and afterward, lock in the benefits with a nourishing moisturizer.

Best On A Budget:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Active ingredientsPHA (gluconolactone 3%), niacinamide 3%
Type of productExfoliating toner

The INKEY List is a brand known for its single active ingredient formulas, and this gluconolactone toner is an affordable option if you're trying PHAs for the first time.

Gluconolactone works to gently exfoliate surface layer dead skin cells. Niacinamide helps to control excess oil, reduce blemishes, and soothe redness. Together, this simple toner is effective at improving skin texture and minimizing marks.

While layering products with only one active should be approached with caution (it can be easy to overdo the ingredient combinations), this toner is well-rounded and gentle. Apply using a cotton pad either in the morning or evening, and layer with a gentle hydrating serum and moisturizer.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan, clean beauty, organic
Active ingredientsAHA (mandelic acid 3%), BHA (salicylic acid 2%), PHA (gluconolactone 1%)
Type of productExfoliating toner

While a blend of three types of acids may seem daunting, this gentle formula is suitable for sensitive skin. The three actives work to even skin tone, smooth texture, and even prevent acne.

Mandelic acid, an AHA that is derived from bitter almonds, helps exfoliate dead skin and hyperpigmentation. Salicylic acid works to dissolve oils deep within the pore to prevent breakouts.

Gluconolactone, a PHA, supports the formula by encouraging cell turnover on the surface and supporting the skin's moisture barrier.

This exfoliant is gentle enough to be used every day but should be introduced slowly. A little goes a long way!

The Verdict

If you're looking for smooth, clear, glowing skin (uhh, who isn't?), PHAs are worth a try. They provide gentle exfoliation alongside barrier support, making them a great option for those who are prone to sensitivity.

From toners to serums to masks, PHAs have earned their place in a wide range of cruelty-free skincare products. These gentle acids can improve the look of pigmentation, skin texture, fine lines, and dullness.

If you've been scared off by chemical exfoliants, it's time to reconsider. Let PHAs work their magic. Get ready to glow.

To summarize some of our top picks, if you're looking for the best PHAs, our cruelty-free recommendations are:

Best Overall: Glow Recipe's Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner
Anti-Aging: Herbivore Botanicals' Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Smoothing Serum
Acne: Byoma's Clarifying Serum
Budget: The Inkey List's 3% PHA Toner

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