Why every beauty editor keeps this cult clarifier under the sink

·4-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Not all of the best beauty products are crafted with Instagram grids in mind. Gilded packaging, weighty compacts and glass jars are all appealing, sure, but sometimes the most treasured beauty formulas are destined not for the curated vanity top, but for the gloomy shelf beneath the bathroom sink.

Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Exfoliating Toner is one such product. It’s not big and it’s not sexy – but boy is it an efficient skin saviour. Whisper the words ‘Paula’s Choice BHA’ into a room full of beauty editors, experts or facialists, and you’ll be met with approving nods across the board. Everyone loves it – and the adoration has absolutely nothing to do with the utilitarian, strangely 1980s grey and white bottle.

The success of this truly cult clarifying toner is solely down to its no-frills effectiveness. The brand, which is a firm favourite of the ‘skintellectual’ community, doesn’t call on A-listers to bolster its appeal, and clearly has little interest in courting the aesthetically minded Instagram crowd. But this salicylic acid infused toner is known as the one used by people who really know what they’re doing. There's a lot of those people: one sells every seven seconds worldwide.

Ok, so ‘BHA Liquid Exfoliant’ may make sense to the aforementioned 'skintellectuals', but it’s ok to be a bit baffled at this point. Essentially, this unassuming bottle is an amped-up skin toner, infused with a high percentage of salicylic acid: a beta-hydroxy-acid that slips into your pores and clears them of any congestion, excess oil and grime. Regular use means cleaner pores, and cleaner pores means less blackheads.

"BHA (beta hydroxy acid, aka salicylic acid) is such an effective skincare ingredient, particularly for those of us with acne-prone skin," says brand founder and famously straight-talking skincare oracle, Paula Begoun. "It's an effective exfoliant, which works by loosening the bonds of dead skin cells trapped to the surface, so that skin can shed as it should, revealing the newer, plumper, softer layer underneath."

"Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, which allows it to penetrate inside the pore to remove excess oil, dead skin and debris (all the things that are breeding grounds for blackheads, white bumps, and acne-causing bacteria). These qualities make it one of the fastest-acting ingredients in skincare, with almost immediate results."

There are now plenty of other BHA toners on the market, yet the original Paula’s Choice formula – which has remained unchanged for 22 years – still reigns supreme. Begoun credits the unshakeable success down to the strength. "Compared to similar products on the market, the specific formula we made has the advantage of being completely fragrance and alcohol-free, which is one of the staples in our formulation philosophy and ensures the product is as gentle and irritant-free as possible."

"The pH is another crucial factor—salicylic acid works best at a pH between 3 and 4. Formulas outside of this pH range will be less effective or could significantly disrupt the skin’s barrier," she adds.

Indeed, it’s this fine balance that makes Begoun’s BHA exfoliant the one beauty experts never stray from. Others on the market are amped up with a supporting cast of alpha-hydroxy-acids, doubling down on the exfoliating powers yet ultimately leading to skin-barrier carnage, while others are loaded with fragrance that increases the sensory appeal, but can hamper effectivity in sensitive types.

"By creating an irritant-free, gentle, pH-appropriate formula, we could effectively yield the benefits of this amazing bio-active ingredient for skin, while keeping the sensitisation rate under control: even with daily usage," says Begoun – and if 22 years of repeat purchases say anything, it’s that she’s probably right.

How to use Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

If you're new to exfoliating toners, it's important to start small with this one, applying it no more than two-to-three nights per week to ensure your skin doesn't get over-excited.

Cleanse using a simple, hydrating milk or gel, then swipe the toner over your face using a cotton pad. Do not rinse, and follow up with a good moisturiser – make sure it's an SPF formula by day.

If the toner feels sticky on application, it's likely you're using too much: remember, less is more. While its blackhead-banishing powers may be satisfyingly swift, stick with it and you'll reap additional rewards too: think tighter pores, smoother texture, and an overall reduction in breakouts.

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