Good or Nah: Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid

I just finished my second bottle of Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29/4.0 oz) and have another waiting in the wings, so I figured it’s probably time for a review.

Unfortunately, this is a hard product to get REALLY PSYCHED about. It doesn’t claim to do anything miraculous — no “after just one peel, you’ll see younger skin!” or “Dramatically diminishes dark spots!” — and it doesn’t do anything miraculous … unless you consider the slow, gradual, cumulative effects of Science a miracle, in which case, sure.

This stuff is what the name suggests — a 2% concentration of a beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic) in a hydrating liquid base. Paula’s Choice also offer 2% BHA concentrations in gel and lotion, but the gel stripped my skin and the lotion made my skin erupt into oodles of tiny shallow whiteheads — not a huge fan of either formulation. (There might be a reason that this 2% BHA Liquid is their bestselling product.)

Texturally, this is a watery toner, and I use it like one — after washing my face at night I splash some of this on a cotton round, wipe it all over my face, and leave it. It’s unfragranced and smells faintly sour, but not in a way that lingers.

I’ve never experienced irritation, redness, or peeling from this — it’s not that strong — but I also don’t use it morning AND night (though the instructions suggest you should). Though I find that it’s hydrating rather than drying, I did stop using this during my Accutane phase — I could tolerate it again after a few months adjusting to the meds, but I didn’t see a reason to add any unnecessary stressors to my tortured skin.

What happens as a result? Eh, not much, at least not initially. You’ll first notice that it’s dissolved some dead skin, and that your face is a little smoother and less scaly. Over the course of a couple weeks, you’ll start to notice that sebaceous filaments are smaller and less gross-looking, that your skin is less congested, and (if you’re blackout-prone) that your blackheads are noticeably diminished. Over the next couple of months, you might notice that your complexion is a bit more even-toned and ‘glowy’ overall — again, nothing dramatic, but noticeable. Paula’s Choice suggests that you’ll notice your fine lines smoothing out and diminishing, but my only “fine” lines are near my eyes, and I don’t put this near my eyes because “Acid & Eyeballs” seems like a bad combination, but maybe a cool band name. [Ed.: I’m pretty sure that’s a Cramps song?]

Basically, this is Pixi Glow Tonic for the acne-prone. Pixi Glow Tonic features an alpha-hydroxy acid (glycolic); and while AHAs are great at dissolving dead skin and treating the visible effects of sun damage and imparting a general ~glow~, they’re water-soluble — they can’t dissolve the sebum crap that clogs your pores. BHAs are oil-soluble, so they CAN; if you’re oily or acne-prone, BHAs are definitely the way to go. (If you’re normal/dry and don’t have major problems with acne, you may as well go for that AHA glow!)

What this DOESN’T do: eradicate deep acne scars or prevent cystic zits. If you have Troubled Skin — like, “maybe I should give Accutane a try” skin — this isn’t going to solve your main woes. But even if your skin is as shitty as mine was/is, this can still help — getting rid of sebum and dead skin does result in less fodder for bacteria and clogged pores.

THE VERDICT : GOOD. This is an integral part of my pre- and newly-post-Accutane skincare regimen (granted, I’m still waitin’ for all those cumulative effects to pile up this time around. The bottle I just finished off was a touch past the expiration date, thanks to my long Accutane stint, but my skin IS less gunky since I’ve started using it). $29/4 oz might seem like a lot of money for an exfoliating toner — Pixi is about half the price — but I get 6-10 months of use from a bottle when used once-daily. If a dermatologist promised “Hey, for $3-$5/month I can dissolve a lot of the sebum in your pores, gradually improving the texture of your skin” I’d be like HECK YES LET’S DO IT. This is that, minus the dermatologist and plus some cotton rounds. Good enough for me.

Finch’s skin was Hella Dry and Hella Troubled for years. Then she went on Accutane, during which time it was Hella Dry and Flaky and Red and Angry and Painful, But With Fewer Cystic Zits. Since going off Accutane, her skin is going through a little bit of an identity crisis — is it sensitive? Dry? Oily? All of the above? WHAT IS HAPPENING — but still acne-prone (though with fewer cystic zits, thank goodness). She’s still dealing with major acne scars and hyperpigmentation, but at least acne pain doesn’t wake her up at night anymore. Progress!