Wednesday, February 27, 2019

3 BHAs: Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid, CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, and Stridex Maximum Strength Medicated Pads

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Review of Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid, CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, and Stridex Maximum Strength Medicated Pads

I've been using Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid ($30) as part of my (almost) daily routine for over a decade now. I consider salicylic acid (BHA) one of three staple ingredients that keep my skin in good shape, along with niacinamide and (more recently added) azelaic acid (reviewed here). But with Paula's Choice prices steadily rising (it was less than $20 Canadian when I started to use it!) and my income not keeping pace, I decided to gamble on a couple of more affordable, but equally popular, BHA products. I'll review them here, along with the PC BHA, which (spoiler!) I ultimately went back to. (Hope you like acronyms, everybody!)

CosRx makes a very popular and affordable liquid BHA that is now easily accessible in the US in places like ULTA ($22) and on Amazon ($15). Because I'd previously tried Paula's Choice's BHA gel and found it less effective than the liquid, I decided to try the highly-recommended liquid from CosRx. The consistency is actually significantly thicker than the watery PC BHA, which makes it easier to apply without using a cotton pad. It's decidedly a liquid and not a gel, however. It spreads easily on my skin and soaks in well, without leaving much of a film or a sticky residue. That's nice, because I apply my BHA first thing in the morning after washing my face, and so I want it to play well with makeup and other products.

There's not a lot to say about the CosRx BHA experience, except that it did not play well with my Paula's Choice Niacinamide Booster. When I used them both at the same time, my face flushed. It didn't last more than half an hour, and my skin wasn't irritated--my face just got pink and warm. There's nothing dangerous or damaging about this sort of thing, as far as I know, but it's a little unpleasant. I haven't had that experience mixing either of those products with anything else, and it was solved by just using one in the morning and the other at night.

Otherwise, the CosRx didn't cause any problems for me, but unfortunately it didn't do much for my skin, either. The role of BHA in my routine is to reduce clogged pores and blackheads, and to keep the pimples that result from them away. It doesn't really prevent hormonal/cystic acne for me, but it certainly reduces inflammatory acne when its working. The CosRx might have helped slightly, but I wasn't as satisfied with the state of my skin while using it as I was when I used the PC version.

The main ingredient in the CosRx BHA is probably what makes the difference for me. I know that salicylic acid works for me, but the CosRx contains a different form of BHA: betaine salicylate. This ingredient is sometimes said to be gentler than salicylic acid and is supposedly longer-acting. I don't experience irritation from BHAs in general, so I can't really comment on those qualities. My (admittedly very limited) experience suggests to me that if SA works well for you, you can't necessarily count on BS (ha!) to work as well--but on the other hand, if you've had bad luck with SA, a product with BS might be worth trying.

My second affordable BHA product was a bit of a desperation purchase. I traveled a bunch, visiting family and in-laws and friends, in September, but I somehow didn't pack enough of my PC BHA to last for the whole trip. By the third week, my skin was congested and breaking out, so I picked up a tub of the Stridex BHA pads (in the red packaging!) ($4-7), which had been recommended to me on multiple good authorities. The container holds a lot of pads and a lot of liquid, so they're not likely to dry out before you finish them. In fact, one pad was more than enough for my face, and so I started to cut them in half.

The pads are soaked in a 2% salicylic acid liquid, closer in composition to my PC liquid than to the CosRx product. They also contain a bit of menthol, so you get that medicinal smell and a mild cooling sensation--too mild to call it a "tingle." Still, I could do without it, considering it doesn't add anything. These pads served well enough in a pinch to start clearing up my skin a bit. In the long run, however, after I got home again they just weren't quite as effective as the PC liquid. My breakouts subsided and my pores weren't quite as clogged as they had been, but not as clear as I knew they could be. I ended up, as you know, going back to Paula.

I'm still using the Stridex pads, though. I've found over the years that otherwise disappointing BHA and AHA products work great as aftershave on my legs and armpits. If I swipe these on after shaving and before moisturizing, I almost never get razor burn or ingrown hairs. In fact, the price is so good, that I'd recommend picking up a tub of Stridex pads specifically for this purpose if you're a shaver. Their anti-inflammatory and exfoliating properties are ideal.

So now I'm back on the Paula's Choice BHA to stay, I guess. It's a thin liquid about the consistency of water, but it feels a bit sticky on my skin after I apply it. I think the stickiness bothers some people, but since I always follow up with moisturizer and/or sunscreen, I don't mind it (the product on top gets rid of that stickiness). It works perfectly well layered under every other product, skincare or makeup, I've used. And while the bottle is expensive, I only used 4-6 drops at a time, so it lasts me up to six months of daily use. Most importantly, it effectively and significantly reduces clogged pores and inflammatory zits for my skin.

I'll probably never stop testing cheaper alternatives to products I like, even if they fail to impress me half the time, but I suppose there's something satisfying in knowing that I haven't been wasting my money all these years. It's also a reminder that if I had ruled out BHAs entirely after trying the CosRx, I would have been missing out. Just like how glycolic acid doesn't do anything for my face, while lactic acid is excellent--if I had ruled out products called AHAs on the basic of glycolic acid alone, I'd be missing something useful.

Has anyone else tried all three of these? How do they compare for you? I'm also curious about other people's philosophy's on searching for less expensive alternatives to "holy grail" skincare products? Is it worth the gamble, or do you fear you'll almost always end up spending more money in the process?


  1. Did you ever know that you're my hero?? I'm reluctantly searching for replacements for my Paula's Choice products too. I just cannot believe what has happened to their brand over the last ten years.
    I was gonna try the Ordinary's salicylic acid next, but the CosRX was definitely on my list. Thank you for saving me $15!

    1. I have to admit I'm also curious about The Ordinary's. If you try it, will you report back??


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