Do Natural AHA and BHA Alternatives Work? :: A Beginner's Guide (Part 3)

DIY/Natural Chemical Exfoliants, AHA & BHA Alternatives - Do They Work?

When I started The Acne Experiment, I stated that I wanted to create a streamlined regimen. My main focus was that holistic acne cures tend to have less ingredients in them, and I figured it would make it easier to hone in on the ingredients that are helping and those that are triggers. As fun as being an acne detective is, it can be frustrating to try and piece together what may or may not be causing problems when your face is messing with your self esteem.

While I still want this, I realize that sometimes "natural cures" are not potent enough or appropriately formulated to relieve acne entirely. Not all "natural cures" (like some essential oils* and plant extracts, for example) are even safe choices for acne prone or reactive skin. I'm going to reiterate a skincare platitude I've been seeing everywhere recently: Just because it's "natural," doesn't mean it's safe. Just because it's not "natural," doesn't mean it's toxic. Additionally, just because it's "natural," doesn't mean it can't cause break-outs; that includes anything I put in this article.

I'm happy to report, however, that many chemical exfoliants do have holistic counterparts. I'm less happy to report that some of these "natural treatments" are ineffective, while others are downright terrible for skin. If we keep in mind that AHAs are most effective under a pH of 3-4, while BHAs are best under a pH of 3, we can break down the effectiveness of each of these home remedies with science. As with any skincare, spot test first to make sure you're not sensitive to it (I'm no doctor, people):
  1. Salicylic Acid - White Willow Bark Extract

    Salicylic Acid is derived from white willow bark, so it makes sense that people would make the mental leap to say white willow bark IS salicylic acid. White willow bark contains a substance called "salicin." Salicin is a gentle alternative to aspirin, but it is not a BHA like salicylic acid is; it does not convert to salicylic acid in water like aspirin does either. It requires enzymes in the intestines and liver to do that. ... which would be a super fun DIY! ...no?

    White willow bark/salicin does have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties, so it's not a terrible choice for acne. It's just not going to exfoliate like a properly formulated BHA will. Note: White willow bark contains tannins, so if you are sensitive, don't use it.

    Technique: Steep about a tablespoon of white willow bark in 1/3 cup boiling water (the same way you would tea) for about 10 minutes. If you don't do this in a tea bag, filter out the white willow bark with a coffee filter after it's steeped. Once cooled, you'll have a simple toner that you can apply with a cotton ball. You can spruce it up with tea tree oil, jojoba oil, or ACV if you like. (This is my review of Aspirin for skincare.)

  2. Malic Acid/Lactic Acid - Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)

    I love this option because it is simple and natural, but still regulated, so it will give more consistent results. Raw unfiltered ACV has a pH of about 3, making it ideal for chemical exfoliation. While Bragg ACV contains about 5% acid, I'd wager most of that is acetic acid (it's vinegar, natch). I couldn't find any information about the specific concentration of malic/lactic acids in undiluted ACV, but I suspect it is fairly low. Malic acid is also a very weak AHA because of its molecule size, FYI.

    Technique: ACV can be used as a toner (leave it on for 20 minutes then rinse), in a clay mask (instructions + review here), and also makes a great natural conditioner (dilute it 50/50 with water). I've tried it as a hair rinse and it made my hair super soft and shiny. Be forewarned however, if you put ACV in your hair you will smell like rotting fruit until it dries; you may attract wild animals in the meantime (boy do dogs love the rot).

  3. Lactic Acid - Plain Yogurt (and other sour dairy)

    Plain yogurt has a pH of 4.0 which puts it in the right range for an effective AHA; unfortunately, it contains less than 1% lactic acid which is not ideal. Buttermilk, with a lactic acid concentration of 3-4%, is a better choice, but it's higher pH (4.5) makes less of that percentage available for exfoliation.

    Technique: If you want to give buttermilk a try, you can apply with a cotton ball, leave it on for 20 minutes, then rinse it off. Plain yogurt can be used as a mask - apply for 20 minutes then rinse. Add some manuka honey for an antiseptic kick.

  4. Tartaric Acid - Cream of Tartar

    Tartaric acid is a byproduct of winemaking and a close relative to cream of tartar, aka potassium bitartrate. Cream of tartar is frequently used in baking and is considered weakened tartaric acid for that purpose. Cream of tartar is an acidic salt with a pH of 4.85, which is a touch too high for effective exfoliation. Additionally, because tartaric acid is already a weaker AHA due to it's large molecule size, I can't imagine cream of tartar would be an effective exfoliant on its own.

    Technique: You can try cream of tartar as a mask or toner by mixing it with water or ACV (or a combo of the two). I found very little on this particular ingredient online, and I haven't tried it myself, so I can't recommend specifics. Proceed with caution.

  5. Tartaric Acid/Malic Acid - Unripe Grapes

    Grapes have a pH of about 2.8-3.8, which isn't too shabby. The issue is more about the concentration of Tartaric & Malic Acids, which are found in fruits in trace amounts. Additionally, as a grape matures, their acids are replaced by glucose (sugar). Glucose is not an AHA.

    Technique: If you'd like to try unripe grapes as a face mask, mash them up, apply for 20 minutes, then rinse.

  6. Glycolic Acid - Sugar/Sugarcane

    The idea is that since glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane, that sugar by itself can be used as a DIY chemical exfoliant. Even if you disregard the fact that sugar does not contain AHAs without being processed, plain white sugar has a pH of 5.0-6.0 which is too high for exfoliation.

    Technique: If you really want to put something sweet on your face, I recommend exploring the exhilarating world of Manuka Honey. While it isn't a chemical exfoliant, manuka honey is antiseptic and a fantastic healing agent. It can be used as a spot treatment, a mask, or a cleanser. (This is the exact kind of Manuka Honey I use. It's not cheap, but it lasts forever).

  7. Glycolic Acid - Fruits (Unripe or Green Papaya, Pineapple)

    Pineapple ranges in pH from 3.20-4.00, and Papaya ranges in pH from 5.20-6.00. The "unripe" part is important because pH goes up (ie the fruit becomes less acidic) as the fruit matures. In this case, pineapple should fall in the correct range, while papaya would have to be super unripe to hit a really effective pH. As stated previously, glycolic acid is found in fruits in trace amounts.

    Papaya also contains a substance called "papain" which has exfoliation and restorative properties in it's purest form (ie processed from fruit, not directly applied from the flesh of fruit); it can also be classified as an irritant. Papaya and Pineapple also contain pantothenic acid and folic acid, but neither are AHAs. Additionally, people that are allergic to latex may also be allergic to papaya.

    Technique: If you'd like to test out green papaya or pineapple as a face mask, blend the flesh of the fruit, apply for 20 minutes, then rinse. You can also combine it with plain yogurt to get a little lactic acid boost, or with manuka honey for some antibacterial action.

  8. Citric Acid - Citrus Fruits (lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit)

    I've seen this one all over the place: Rub a half of a lemon on your face to fade hyper-pigmentations! It sounds great in theory, but the reality is at home citric acid "exfoliation" is an awful idea. Lemon has a pH as low as 2 (which is actually fine from an exfoliant perspective), but it's phototoxic which means it makes your skin super sensitive to the sun (think burns and hyper-pigmentation - we're trying to get rid of those right?). Plus citric acid is not even that great of a chemical exfoliant when used on its own (it's used primarily pH adjuster). Bottom line: Citrus juice should not be applied to the skin.
The biggest issue with using DIYing an AHA or BHA is that you have very little control over concentration or potency. In the case of fruit, you're held at the whim of mother nature: fruit pH varies between the individual fruits, different varieties, and the stages of ripeness. Also, the amount of hydroxy acids in these natural options is probably not high enough to be as effective as a formulated AHA or BHA would be. This is not to say that a homemade mask or toner is not beneficial to some - there are a lot of people out there that love them. As can be said for virtually any skincare product: Regardless of what you read on the Internet, do not expect miracles.

So, meh, worst case, a DIY exfoliant could end up ineffective. Actually, scratch that, the actual worst case is skin damage, sun sensitivity, and a messed up acid mantel (the face has a pH of 5.5). Luckily, only one DIY choice listed here has a serious potential to damage skin: lemon and other citrus. Avoid those.

Out of the other seven options, the raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar is my favorite for acne treatment. It may not be the best exfoliator, but I have personally seen skincare benefits from an Aztec Clay mask. I've also tried a greek yogurt mask, and while it didn't help me, it didn't hurt me either. It might be worth a shot if you've got some extra Oikos hanging around your fridge.

If you're looking for an effective, but "natural" AHA or BHA, my recommendation is to go with a holistic brand like Garden of Wisdom (GOW). They disclose pH and percent concentration of their chemical exfoliants while offering a range of trial sized, low-ingredient exfoliants (salicylic, glycolic, lactic, and mandelic). Keep in mind that if you do go with a preservative free product, you may need to refrigerate it.


*The following are some of the essential oils & extracts that are classified as irritants and may be a bad choice for certain sensitive/reactive/acne-prone skin, especially if used in high concentration: thyme, oregano, clove, cinnamon, cumin, lemongrass, citrus (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, bergamot, angelica, limonene), menthol, eucalyptus, mint, peppermint, wintergreen, linalool, camphor, and lavender. (sourcesourcesource)

It's important to note that many of these fruit/plant extracts/oils are found in both natural and traditional skincare products, so if a product is causing irritation or an allergic-like reaction, check the ingredients. Everyone's skin reacts differently to these things.

Even if irritation is not a concern, some products tout exfoliation abilities based on the addition of certain extracts/oils. If you're looking at labels, know that there is a difference between a plant extract and an actual alpha/beta hydroxy acid. A "natural" brand can rip you off the same as a traditional brand can.

PS: I'm really curious to know what "plant extracts" were in the facial that one beauty blogger received. Eeesh.

(pH source)


This is Part 3 of my 3 part series on chemical exfoliants:

Part 1:  A Beginner's Guide to AHAs & BHAs
Part 2:  10 Things to Know Before Using an AHA or BHA
Part 3:  Do Natural AHA and BHA Alternatives Work?

ALL Acne Experiment Posts are listed at The Acne Experiment MOTHER HUB.

Do Natural AHA and BHA Alternatives Work? :: Crappy Candle
Do Natural AHA and BHA Alternatives Work? :: Crappy Candle


  1. Thank your for this! I have pretty good skin, but I'm nearly 30 and still have blackheads on my nose. They're driving me crazy. I've been afraid to take the bha plunge because of the sun sensitivity...

    1. If your skin isn't dry, I recommend trying aztec clay with organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar as a mask. I get what I always thought were little "blackheads" on my nose, but I figured out they're actually something called "sebaceous filaments." For the mask: I mix it up, apply generously, leave it on for 20 minutes, then remove with a warm washcloth. It's the only thing that I've tried that gets rid of those suckers, although they always come back. (I have a full review of the mask here: http://www.crappycandle.com/2014/09/aztec-healing-clay-mask-review-acne.html)

  2. Salycylic Acid is also used as a carrier for other ingredients because it penetrates the skin deeply. Sometime please experiment with chives ( Allium schoenoprasum) in combination with salycylic. I never got to that, but someday will try it.

  3. Wow, thank you for this great post! It really helped me a lot. :)
    I'm using a korean skincare routine, and I use both AHA (7%) and BHA (4%) for my skin (combination, T zone really oily + blackheads/large pores everywhere + some dark spots). I'm also using a vit C serum and I was wondering if I could make a low pH toner (preferably pH 3.5-4.5 for brightening, light exfoliating and prepping for my serums/exfoliators, as vit C works well on low pH (it's not a stabilized vit c serum)), and I was thinking about adding a little lemon juice to water or my pH 5 toner, but now I see it's not a good idea... There are so many and so mixed posts and advices on this topic, but this one helpled me a lot. Thank you! :) :)

  4. Would like to know how to get rid of all my tweezing scars on the face n chin area? Will regularly applying ACV on my problem areas work?? Pls advise.tia.

    1. ACV will not work as well as a formulated AHA. There are a ton of great glycolic acid products, but if you want something more gentle, look for something with lactic acid as the primary acid. (I have a guide that you may find helpful: https://www.crappycandle.com/2015/02/10-things-to-know-before-using-aha-or.html)

      Also, if the scars are discolorations, look for a product that specifically target that. A good vitamin C serum can do wonders.


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