I Tried 11 BHAs and here’s my fav: Paula’s Choice Resist 2% BHA

Since discovering Skin & Tonics just over two years ago, I’ve known that a good BHA is an essential part of an anti-acne routine, but I was truly stuck on finding the right one for my skin. I’ve never fully reviewed a BHA on fan-b despite my anti-acne skincare obsession–I simply couldn’t find one that I was truly wild about. I wondered if I really needed a BHA, I’d go long stretches without one, and I sort of gave up hope. I thought that I’d have to choose between clear pores and a major dry flake situation (which could contribute to clogs and enlarged pores, so wtf) or continue to apply BHAs only when I thought my skin could handle it, leading to a lot less consistency and more breakouts.

I Tried 11 BHAs and here's my fav: Paula's Choice Resist 2% BHA
I’m on my second bottle of Paula’s Choice Resist 2% BHA; I’ve upgraded the packaging to an airless pump.

What’s the big deal about BHAs

Anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and exfoliating on both the surface of skin and within pores, BHAs are the wonder ingredient that we can only hope Pinterest will discover next. Or not hope Pinterest will discover next, now that I think about it; things could end up going very wrong in the hands of lemon and baking soda enthusiasts.

The story of me and this BHA

Have you ever had the feeling of driving and suddenly hitting ice? Your stomach bottoms out and you’ve got to get your head in the game fast, not panic and slam on the breaks, not overcompensate, just steer as well as possible and hope for the best.

That’s sort of what adult-onset hormonal acne has felt like for me: trying to steer on ice. BHAs have been my black ice nightmare, inspiring wild oversteering, quitting, and more than a few wipeouts so bad that I decided to walk away and just not use them despite the logic of my oily, clogged skin perhaps needing an acid that helps exfoliate oily, clogged pores.

Many times I’d crack open a new bottle of BHA while whispering “Jesus Take the Wheel” only to realize that there was a miscommunication about which wheel.

When I said "change my skin" I mean for the better, yo.
When I said “change my skin” I mean for the better.

I ordered this BHA as part of a BHA set (the individual BHA bottle was sold out at the time) on 31 October. The USPS says it reached me 5 November and I gradually introduced it to my skin.

I started using this haphazardly because I was then doing a lot of strong weekly peels that required pre- and post-peel breaks from acids. I’d apply it once per day when I could and I was happy to find that my skin liked it. When I ran out of my weekly peel formula (from Makeup Artist’s Choice) I decided to give gentle daily acids a shot and I started using this BHA once per day in the morning.

Given that my skin was taking this BHA and a 5% AHA lotion also from the Resist line once per day like a champ, I decided to try to use both twice per day.

Well, I feel kind of dumb. It wasn’t that my skin can’t handle BHAs–it turns out it LOVES this BHA–it’s that my skin can’t handle the formulas of some BHAs. And trust me, I’ve tried a few.

Other things I’ve tried

There were 10 failures or imperfect fits before I found The One.

Daily BHAs

CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

Smells like fermented trash. Like, it’s so unpleasant to me that I couldn’t stomach using it. It’s also made out of betaine salicylate, which is gentler than the salicylic acid used in most Western BHAs. But seriously, the smell.

CosRx Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol

This isn’t really intended to be an all-over treatment, but a post-acne spot treatment. It also contains alcohol, which I try to avoid in my acne products, if possible.

CosRx One Step Pimple Clear Pad

These pads felt undersaturated to me and way too gentle for my skin (the concentration is 0.5% betaine salicylate, which is already weaker that salicylic acid). When I subbed them in for my usual Stridex Maximum Strength about a year ago I started breaking out a lot in ways that aren’t consistent with purging. I think they just lacked the acidy muscle my skin requires.

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

As many reviewers have noted, this BHA liquid is pretty damn good, but the oily feel it left on my skin was really unpleasant to me. I also found that my bottle ended up leaking a lot, but that could have just been a function of how I stored it at the time (not standing up, but laying down in a drawer).

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Gel Exfoliant

I found the gel texture to be really unpleasant on my skin–as if I had egg whites painted on. That might be fine for people who don’t follow up with a full routine, but the egg white-ish gel tended to mix with my other products and prevent them from absorbing quickly.

Stridex Maximum Strength

This popular BHA should be ideal: no oily finish like the Paula’s Choice 2% liquid, cheap price, easy application, no alcohol. My problem with Stridex is that the top 1/3 of the pads were not strong enough to control my acne, the middle 1/3 were rough but pretty ideal, and the bottom 1/3 attempted to scrape my face off. I wondered if it was a case of the BHA falling out of the solution somehow and sinking to the bottom of the container (my grasp of science is limited to some Galileo I read for a Renaissance history class once ahaha), but @beautyandthecat commented with a much better idea on my Instagram: that acid buffering agents evaporate from acids over time, which could make the bottom pads vastly more concentrated than those on top. That sounds plausible to me.

I think that these would be my choice if I needed to be very careful with money. These days, I just want to be careful with my skin.

Weekly BHAs

In the course of trying to clear up my skin I also tried a few weekly BHAs and combo peels involving BHAs in hopes of breaking my skin deadlock. They helped a lot, but prevented me from having a consistent acid routine each day of the week. Ultimately, I really think that my skin needs the “cooking strategy for cheap, fibrous cuts of meat” approach: slow and low, but super consistent.

Makeup Artist’s Choice Mandelic (15%)/Salicylic (15%) Peel

This is one fineass brick across the face, and I mean that in the best way possible. This combo has shown up many times on my snapchat (usually in combination with near crying due to the burn), and contributed to a lot of pore clearing.

The reason I decided to experiment with gentle daily acids 7 days per week rather than continue with this was due to fears of overexfoliating my skin combined with concerns about taking days off from acid to allow for skin prep and recovery when using peels in order to not overexfoliate. I figured that 7 days per week of acid and prescription medication with vastly less overexfoliation risk might end up making my skin better in the long run. I think that’s the right choice for my skin.

Makeup Artist’s Choice 15% Salicylic Acid At Home Peel

LORDDDD. I don’t know how it’s possible, but the MUAC Mandelic/Salicylic peel felt gentler to me (while still being brutal). This just seemed too rough on my skin.

Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Retexturizing Foaming Treatment 4% BHA

Oh. My. God. This foam acid ripped into my skin like my skin is a college basketball star and this BHA is a coach known for sideline abuse. It was ugly (burning, flaking, dried skin bumps, pain) to the point that I booted the product from my house and gave it to a friend who has had luck with it. Lab Muffin commented on my Instagram that the reaction may have been caused by the penetration enhancers in the product taking the acids too deep too fast for my skin. YIKES.

BHA Spot Treatment

Paula’s Choice Resist BHA 9

I found this time-release serum to leave a pretty unpleasant, heavy, oily film on my skin. It’s also mind-blowingly expensive per ounce in my opinion and eventually leaves crop circles: exfoliated skin surrounding blemishes with a ring of dried skin marking the start of the untreated area. I’d rather just go full-face and gentle, honestly.

Why Paula’s Choice Resist 2% BHA is special

I Tried 11 BHAs and here's my fav: Paula's Choice Resist 2% BHA
All of my photos have cat hair in them, a gift from my kids.

It feels like water in my hands. No matter how much I apply it feels like microscopically moisturizing nothingness. And yet it’s effective.

I Tried 11 BHAs and here's my fav: Paula's Choice Resist 2% BHA
This stuff basically looks and smells like water.

The Resist BHA is also not drying to my skin and it’s gentle enough that I can use it two times per day even in combination with a 5% AHA lotion and my Curology prescription. I feel no irritation or even light buzz when applying this to my face.

It doesn’t smell like anything, even if I jam my nose right into the dispenser and try to hoover up a scent.

The pH level of a bottle approaching the end of its life is the same as one I’ve recently cracked open. That suggests to me that the cosmetic chemists at Paula’s Choice have formulated the acid so that there aren’t drastic drops or spikes in the pH level after awhile. Spikes or drops in pH level can cause more or less of the acid to be available to exfoliate your skin, so I prefer to use acids that have built in ingredients to control pH down the line.

The Resist BHA also doesn’t seem to vary in effectiveness or strength over time like the Stridex Maximum Strength pads do.

It doesn’t feel too strong nor too gentle. It’s just right.

What Resist 2% BHA Does for My Skin

Keep in mind that my results may not be your results.

  • smaller pores

I really never thought I’d see the day where my pores got smaller. I envisioned getting older with my pores ever widening until you could fit a kitten inside my nose pores. My nose is still very much “in process,” but pores elsewhere such as on my forehead and on my cheeks near my nose are getting noticeably smaller. MIRACLE. Sometimes plugs of oil and dead skin decide to surface, allowing me to just brush them away without any squeezing or irritation. I mean…STUFF IS FALLING OUT OF MY SKIN, YO.

  • a purge followed by clearer skin

My skin certainly reacted when I doubled down on this BHA. I began to have pimples like I got in high school: cone-shaped and isolated to one pore rather than flatter and spread over many pores. The purge was unlike an AHA purge, which for me results in flatter closed comedones with no whiteheads suddenly being exfoliated to reveal white pus dots that are just sort of sitting there without forming a pushed out cone. What I’m trying to say while grossing you out with in-depth zit analysis is that my skin purged some of the stuff in my pores out and that I know it was a purge because the sort of pimples created after I started using this more regularly were distinctive.

After the purge my skin has settled down a lot and I’m left with some remaining jawline closed comedones and a lot of PIH (hyperpigmentation marks) from past blemishes. Any new blemishes that threaten to rear their pointy, irritated heads seem to get shot down fast by my routine.

  • preventing breakouts

This product, in combination with the rest of my routine, is carving out more territory on my face that I control and can count on to be free from acne.

The downside

I Tried 11 BHAs and here's my fav: Paula's Choice Resist 2% BHA

The big bummer is the price. This is not cheap no matter how you look at it. It’s especially expensive outside of the US. Here’s a quick price comparison versus two other popular BHAs.

  Paula’s Choice Resist 2% BHA CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Cost per bottle $30 $17-$21 (varies a lot, can be found cheaper) $28
Bottle Size 3 oz. 100 ml / 3.38 oz. 4 oz.
Price per oz. $10 $5.03-$6.21 $7

The other drag is the method for dispensing the liquid, if you’re using your hand and fingers to apply it. The hole in the bottle is way too big, resulting in a lack of control, splashes, and wasted product unless you’re super careful. A similar hole opening made just a bit smaller like the Son & Park Beauty Water dispenser top would be a massive improvement. I solved this by dumping a portion of the bottle into an airless pump.

I’ve got to be honest: if there was another BHA that was cheaper and worked for me, I’d have never tried this. I consider it something of a last option due to the price.

If you like your current BHA and aren’t in a “driving on ice” BHA situation, I see no need to buy this one.

I certainly recommend grabbing some samples before investing in a bottle, at least. They’re $1 each on Paula’s Choice and there are often free shipping promotions that could help make your testing less costly.

That said, if you’re facing a choice between using a product you can’t stand or that makes your skin incredibly irritated, $3 more per ounce may be a good investment.

How to use it

I Tried 11 BHAs and here's my fav: Paula's Choice Resist 2% BHA

I squirt or shake a few splashes of this BHA into the palm of my hand and paint it onto my face with the fingers of the opposite hand. You could apply it with a cotton pad, but that seems a bit wasteful, especially considering the price.

This product fits in the exfoliation and prescription part of my routine–after cleansing, but before things like essences and creams. Here’s a zoom-in on that segment of my routine; to see the full visual guide to [international-style] kbeauty see my visual guide.

exfoliation 1080px visual

These days I use Mizon’s AHA & BHA Daily Clean Toner as my pH-balancing toner, skip the vitamin c (I only have so much time for my rotuine tbh), use the Paula’s Choice Resist 2% BHA (wait 5 minutes), and follow that with Paula’s Choice 5% AHA lotion (wait 15-20 minutes). In the evenings, I follow all of that up with my Curology prescription (0.018% tretinoin, 1% clindamycin, 8% azelaic acid). In a perfect world I’d give each of my acids 20 minutes to work, but I have to make it to my job so I can keep buying beauty products! ahhaha To me, what’s most important is using the products consistently.

I use this BHA both in my morning and evening routines. Over the past months and bottles I haven’t found my skin getting overexfoliated or sensitive; it seems that the formulation of the BHA and the other things I’m using keeps my skin barrier strong and healthy while clearing my pores.

I do make sure to rinse my hands with water after using this and other acids; it doesn’t burn or tingle if I leave it on my hands, but it will eventually cause the skin under my rings to peel unless I rinse.

How to Start Using this

As always, this review isn’t medical advice and my results may not be your results.

It makes sense to start using acids very slowly. Given that Paula’s Choice offers samples of all of their products one could start with some low-commitment samples (they’re $1). My personal rule is no more than one new acid, vitamin c, or prescription upgrade every 6 weeks. One bump in the road every 6 weeks, max. Seriously.

Where to Buy It

Paula’s Choice website (click here for $10 off your first order of $15 or more) | Amazon | Nordstrom | Dermstore

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