What are PHAs? The new(ish) active skincare ingredient that won't make sensitive skin mad.

If you've got sensitive skin, there's a good chance you probably experience a lot of skincare FOMO. 

While everyone else is having the time of their lives with their 'active' skincare ingredients and 3,568 serums, sensitive skin types miss out on all the fun.

And if they do decide to try a lovely exfoliating mask or a moisturiser with just a hint of fragrance? BAM. Cue red, hot, angry skin.

But if you've got sensitive skin and have always wanted to give chemical exfoliation a try, PHAs might be for you.

Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about this gentle yet effective exfoliating acid.

WATCH: Here are seven ways to improve your skin while you snooze! Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

First, what is chemical exfoliation again?

Chemical exfoliation is the process of using active skincare ingredients to dissolve dead skin cells and miscellaneous pore gunk. 

Rather than physically scrubbing the skin with a traditional grainy scrub that might also cause damage, chemical exfoliants are a gentler and more effective alternative.


The most common types of chemical exfoliants you'll hear about are:

  • AHAs (alpha-hydroxy-acids) like glycolic acid, citric acid, lactic acid and malic acid gently eat away at the top dead layers of skin.
  • BHAs (beta-hydroxy-acids) like salicylic acid do the same thing, but their smaller molecular structure means they can dive a little deeper into the skin to dissolve the yucky stuff causing spots and blackheads.
  • Retinol derivatives aren't in the same hydroxy acid family, but they also work to turn over dead cells and promote skin cell renewal.

Chemical exfoliants come in different strengths and concentrations, and if over-used, can result in red, flaky skin. This is because over-exfoliating can damage your skin barrier (the thing that keeps all the good stuff in your skin and the bad stuff out).

LISTEN: We explain the difference between skincare acids on this episode of theYou Beauty podcast below. Post continues after audio.

What are PHAs?

PHAs, also known as polyhydroxy acids, are a type of chemical exfoliant that also dissolve dead skin cells. 

But unlike BHAs (the overachieving first born) and AHAs (the charming middle child), think of PHAs as the shy, conscientious cousin that'll get the job done, but doesn't want to cause any trouble.

PHAs don't pack the same punch as AHA and BHA products, but that's exactly why they're great for sensitive skin types who can't handle the chemical exfoliating tingle.

Why are PHAs better at chemical exfoliation for sensitive skin?

There are a few reasons chemical exfoliation products are generally better tolerated for sensitive skin.

The first has to do with the size of the molecules. 


PHA molecules are bigger than those of medium-sized AHAs and small BHAs, so they can't travel as deep into the skin. This means they only work on the surface of the skin and can't disturb the more delicate deeper layers. 

This isn't a bad thing - you'll still see a difference in your skin texture and radiance over time with consistent use - but the instantaneous results that come with deeper exfoliation can aggravate sensitive skin types.

A couple of other cool things about PHAs: they bind to water to keep the top layers of the skin hydrated and they won't leave you susceptible to UV damage like AHAs and BHAs do (although, you should be wearing sunscreen every day no matter what.)

LISTEN: We also talk about finding the perfect sunscreen you'll actually want to wear every day in this You Beauty episode. Post continues after audio.

Best skincare products with PHAs.

Some products with PHAs will have it spelt out on the packaging, and you'll often see products with a mix of PHAs, AHAs and BHAs. But if you're not sure, look for names like lactobionic acid and gluconolactone in the ingredients list on the back of the bottle.

Here are some PHA products to try if you've got sensitive skin and want to chemically exfoliate like everyone else.

Feature Image: Getty.