BHA Exfoliants: CosRX vs Paula’s Choice

Today I’m reviewing and comparing 2 BHA exfoliants:

• CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
• Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

I’ve been a long time devoted customer of Paula’s Choice – I just checked my account, my first order from her was in 2011!  My favourite products from her are the chemical exfoliants – they just work and are well-priced. So what prompted me to try something else?

I guess I would chalk it up to curiosity and increased availability of alternatives. CosRX has been making a name for itself for effective yet affordable skincare so I had to give them a whirl.

Source.

First, a brief background what BHA exfoliants are about and how I use them: BHA stands for Beta Hydroxy Acid.  The primary ingredient for BHA is salicylic acid. It is a chemical exfoliant that is oil soluble and penetrates deep into pores to clear out sebum, dead skin and dirt. In order to be effective, BHA must have a pH between 3 and 4. BHA exfoliants are typically most suitable for oily skin types – some BHA formulations can be drying on the skin. My skin is combination with oilier t-zone and dehydrated skin on my cheeks and under eye area. I’m most blemish-prone on my chin area. I have sensitivity to a variety of ingredients and my skin doesn’t tolerate harsh physical exfoliation, but I usually tolerate chemical exfoliants quite well. I typically use BHA only at night, applying right after I’ve washed and toned my skin – then I wait about 15 minutes before applying other face products like serums and face moisturizer.

Here are my thoughts and comparison of the 2 BHA exfoliants.

CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid


I bought this a few months ago based on rave reviews online. I’ve used BHA on and off over the years and lately I’ve been needing to use it nightly especially on my t-zone to combat blemishes. I thought I knew what I was doing until I started using CosRX…

The product has a scent which I can’t identify (like white glue?) but isn’t offensive to me. It has the consistency between water and an essence – I find the best way to apply onto my face is directly with my fingers rather than onto a cotton pad.

First night’s initial application: I used 3 pumps and spread all over face. Within the hour, my face turned red and felt hot to the touch and was slightly throbbing. 😮 My cheeks remained pink and warm for the next 24 hours! But, my skin felt very smooth. The next night I applied the liquid only to my t-zone where it tolerated it much better but my skin was still turning quite red on the areas where I had applied the product (the SO to me: “what did you DO do your face? It’s so red!” 😳 )

By the third night I reduced down to just 2 pumps spread very thinly on my forehead and nose, and more concentrated on my chin where I’m most oily and blemish-prone. My skin continued to look smooth and my active blemishes on my chin were reduced. In addition, my skin also started to slough off and peel.

I should note that I did not use any other exfoliants – chemical or physical – during my first two week trial with CosRX. Finally, after a couple of weeks of using this, I used my Up&Up Exfoliating Cotton Rounds (review here) and sloughed off a whole layer of skin, primarily from my chin and nose area. My skin felt incredibly smooth and the pores were so clear! Now I’ve been using this for over a month every night and my skin has mostly acclimated to it – no more bright red skin or burning sensation. But I only ever use this on my t-zone.

CosRX contains 4% Betaine Salicylate, which is the first time I’ve been this ingredient used as a BHA rather than Salicylic Acid. It is a natural BHA (made from sugar beets) and claims to be more effective than Salicylic Acid. I’ve read mixed thoughts on this – that Betaine Salicylate is more gentle and weaker than Salicylic Acid – so it might be why CosRX has bumped the concentration up to 4%. The Blackhead Power Liquid concoction also contains niacinamide* (brightening) and sodium hyaluronate (aka hyaluronic acid, for hydration – presumably to combat the drying effects typical of BHA).

Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Water, Butylene Glycol, Betaine Salicylate, Niacinamide, 1,2-Hexanediol, Arginine, Panthenol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Xanthan Gum, Ethyl Hexanediol.

* Note that since this contains niacinamide, it’s not advised to be use with vitamin C products. The combination of the 2 negates the effects of each ingredient (although, I have read that with modern formulations it’s not an issue – I don’t know who to believe!)

Overall, I do like this BHA product, BUT it’s not a miracle worker to prevent blemishes. I still get blemishes but I do find that my skin clears up more quickly. Where I find this product to excel is to keep my pores looking clearer especially around my nose area. So if you’re not experiencing active blemishes but want to keep your pores clear, this product is ideal for that purpose.

This is how much I used in a month.

This retails for $21 USD (approx $28.80 CAD) for 100ml and I purchased it on sale for $15.75 from Jolse.com

Pros:
• Effective
• No sticky residue
• Absorbs quickly
• Pump bottle
• Correct pH level
• Also contains niacinamide and hyaluronic acid for additional benefits
• Inexpensive / affordable

Cons:
• Has an odour
• May be irritating to those with sensitive skin
• Note readily available (must be ordered online)

Stash worthiness: 8/10

Bottom line: caution using this if your skin is sensitive!


Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

The packaging is very simple – there is no outer box, just a safety seal over the twist off cap.

Paula’s Choice offers the BHA in 3 different delivery modes: liquid, gel or lotion as well as different concentrations ranging from 1% to 9%. I’ve only tried the liquid and gel and I prefer the liquid since I found the gel to leave a sticky residue. The liquid version does still leave a shiny finish but it’s not an issue for me since I only use BHA exfoliants at night time.

The formula is watery and the best way to apply it is using a cotton pad. I used to apply this with my fingers but I found that I was able to achieve a more even application using a cotton pad. This BHA product has no odour that I can detect. Unlike the CoxRX, I’m able to use this all over my face including my cheeks without any issues. In fact, I never experienced any burning sensation with this product even when I used it initially some years ago. I do like that I am able to use this on my cheeks where I sometimes experience the random clogged pore. I’ve never had peeling or dramatic sloughing off of my skin using the Paula’s Choice – just a steady gentle exfoliating effect.

This product works well for me to keep my skin smooth and clear but again, it’s not a miracle worker in preventing blemishes altogether. The main gripes I have of this product are that since I need to apply this using a cotton pad, I do waste a bit of product. And, without a pump, it`s more challenging to control the amount of product I use each time. Also, the price keeps increasing and it now costs $29 USD (approx $39.80 CAD) for a 118ml bottle. Recently there was a massive sale on this item, knocking the price down to $19 USD (approx $26 CAD). Now, if this was the regular price, I’d be 100% on board with it!

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ingredient list:

Water (Aqua), Methylpropanediol (hydration), Butylene Glycol (hydration), Salicylic Acid (beta hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Polysorbate 20 (stabilizer), Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract (green tea/skin calming/antioxidant), Sodium Hydroxide (pH balancer), Tetrasodium EDTA (stabilizer).

I must say, I always like how Paula’s Choice lists the ingredients with explanation of what each ingredient is for.

Lately I have been purchasing the CLEAR Regular Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution With 2% Salicylic Acid in place of the Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (shown here in my February Trash Stash) because it’s $2 cheaper and I find they work the same. In fact, I think the CLEAR product feels even better on my skin since it includes glycerin and hyaluronic acid for more hydration. I’m thinking I’ll try the Paula’s Choice BHA lotion one of these days to see if I like that delivery method better. You can read more on Paula’s Choice site on choosing the right BHA for you.

Pros:
• Effective
• Gentle / non-irritating
• Correct pH level
• Odourless
• Available in various concentrations and formats

Cons:
• More expensive
• No pump on bottle
• Not readily available (only online)

Stash worthiness: 8/10

Bottom line: great starter BHA without any frills.



I’ve rated both equally, and I can’t definitively recommend one over the other! Going head to head, CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid against Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant:

Similarities:
• Effective in keeping pores clear
• Correct pH level of 3 – 4
• Do not prevent blemishes entirely
• Can only be purchased online

Differences:
• CosRX has a pump bottle while PC is just an opening (+ CosRX)
• PC is odourless while CosRX has a smell (+ PC)
• CosRX is less expensive (+ CoxRX)
• PC can be used all over my face without irritation (+ PC)
• CosRX looks / feels better on the skin (+ CosRX)
• PC is offered in various formats and BHA strengths (+ PC)
• CosRX is made in Korea whereas PC is made is US (neutral)
• 4% Betaine Salicylate vs 2% Salicylic Acid – I’m not sure if these 2 ingredients’ concentrations can be compared directly so it’s a draw

Another limiting aspect of the CosRX for me is that it contains niacinamide which prevents me from using my vitamin C serum at the same time. I guess for some people, the inclusion of the niacinamide is a bonus, but for me, I wished the product just focused on the BHA without any bells and whistles. Which brings me to: The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution:

It’s a basic formula and I’m planning on trying it next. It costs $4.90 CAD which seems inexpensive until I saw that it’s for only a 15ml bottle. To compare to other 2 BHA exfoliants:

And, keep in mind that both CosRX and PC do regularly go on sale, whereas The Ordinary does not. CosRX is still the cheapest option at regular price. 🙂 Stay tuned…

Are you a fan of BHA exfoliants? What do you use? Have you tried either the Paula’s Choice or the CosRX?

54 thoughts on “BHA Exfoliants: CosRX vs Paula’s Choice

    1. Ouch, that’s not good! I do find that glycolic acid is quite strong. You’re probably better off with lactic acid or other milder forms of AHA. And BHA typically doesn’t sting like AHA does.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll have to try it one of these days. My skin is weirdly sensitive – for example, the 25% Perfect C serum from MyChelle doesn’t make my skin tingle, but the lower concentration one (17%) does tingle when I apply.

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    1. It’s a good size and price to give out BHA, for sure! Only 15ml so you aren’t as committed if it doesn’t work well for you. Although, I should mention that Paula’s Choice does sell samples and travel sizes of her products so that’s really handy.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Oooooh. I haven’t tried anything from either brands but I have been looking into a lot of the CosRX products, but the BHA Blackhead Power Liquid didn’t make it to my to-buy list. But now, I’m putting it on there. I’ve actually been looking for a good exfoliant and either product seems like a good choice. And I love that it has Niacinamide as I love that ingredient so much! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely want to try more products with niacinamide, but right now I’m really liking the results that I get from vitamin C serum. I’m looking forward to trying more CosRX products too – what are you thinking of getting from them?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ohhh. A loooot! Lowph gel cleanser, aloe vera moisture cream, aha/bha clarifying toner, aloe vera soothing sun cream, rice mask… and more! Hahaha. I’m thinking about hoarding like 3/4 of their products. :p

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  2. Nice comparison! I have only ever tried one Paula’s Choice product before (I can’t remember what it was, probably something acne-prevention-related). I do have the CosRX Blackhead Power Liquid, and because I have dry skin, when I read that you slathered three pumps all over your face, I fell off my chair! LOL. If I did that I would be in biiiiiiig trouble.

    I bought it to combat the blackheads on my nose. I just use a tiny dab (like, almost nothing) and the next day my nose is peeling! Aiiiie. But it does work to keep my pores looking smaller and less clogged. Because I only use such a tiny, tiny amount like, once a week, I will have to throw out the bottle long before I ever come close to finishing it. I need to get DH using it, as he has oily skin.

    What works best on my skin for preventing zits is benzoyl peroxide. I used to use PanOxyl 2.5% Aquagel. My skin loves it, but I can’t find it anymore! I have a backup and I use it sueper-sparingly.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh haha, I just saw this – let me check to see if I have a referral code. I’ll email you!
        Yes, their BP 2.5% is great! Very effective. I had a cystic spot that popped up on my jaw that never came to a head and it’s really helping to get rid of it.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a large face, ok. I need 3 pumps! 😛 But yeah, with your dry skin, you really do NOT need to use much of this. The bottle will last me quite a few months since I’m mostly using on my chin and nose area now.

      You should try the Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide! I’ve been trying it and liking it a LOT for my chin. It did make my skin red for a first few nights but I was applying it directly to my skin without a buffer in between. I learn that if you experience irritation from BP, it’s best to apply on top of face moisturizer to buffer it. It works!

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  3. This is a good comparison. Even though my skin is oily and I usually don’t have severe reactions to skincare, I kind of stayed away from BHA so far but I am getting curious about it lately.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So many wins in one post.

    Okay, your CosRx situation with the red face freaks me out 😅 I don’t know if I’d continue with it if my face turns so read that SO will be vocal about it.

    I don’t think I own any BHA product. Only tried AHA anf salicylic acid in the past. I hate my breakout near my brows and on my chin. Will use any chem to bust them off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was a fool to use so much right off the bat however, I had been using the Paula’s Choice without any issues before so I thought it would be the same. I’m not one to do patch testing on my arm or whatever since the skin on my arm isn’t the same as my face. And my cheeks aren’t the same as my forehead or my chin. I just jump in with both feet usually! XD

      Salicylic acid IS BHA, silly! BHA is very good to help with breakouts. AHA is more for surface exfoliation and better for anti-aging effects. That’s how I used to remember them: BHA = blemishes , AHA = anti-aging

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ohh so helpful to hear of your experience with the CosRX liquid! I currently have it in my eBay basket now but I haven’t checked out yet (already spent quite a bit this month…). Probably won’t any time soon either cos I bought something else already but definitely still in my future wish list!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No I haven’t actually! I know of it though. It’s the pinky reddy looking solution right? Ever since I last ordered with them, it seems they have some new products such as foundations and the salicylic acid! Will be sure to try something new once am done with majority of what I’m using from them now! 😀

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        1. No the BHA is a clear liquid.
          Yes, I’ve seen the new foundations from The Ordinary. I”m very curious and there’s a lot of hype around them! I might drop into one of their stores over the weekend. (We’re very lucky, we have several Deciem stores in Toronto)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh, hm, there is definitely something else that is a weird pinky-reddy colour.

            Ah neat! I looked online on the website I normally order off and they’re very high-in-demand so everything is pre-order at the moment. Even then, I wouldn’t know how long I’d have to wait to try them out because it looks like a months long queue. They’ve advised to order other items in a separate order which is smart of them to do XD. The colour selection looks impressive.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I heard about the back order on those foundations! I was hoping to get my hands on one pronto at the stores but I suppose if they’re out of stock online… they’re likely out of stock in store too! *pout* I hope you’re able to get yours soon – did you pre-order? I am impressed by the shade selection too! Based on online swatches, I’m thinking I’m between 1.2Y or 2.0N. I also cannot decide between the Serum or the Coverage formulas so I’ll likely try BOTH! 😉

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  6. Thank you for this! Sorry to hear about your first reactions.. maybe it was your skin feeLing “out of place”..?
    I have Cosrx Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol, which I’ve been using as essence because I’m really not sure what it is (and I just found out that it’s a toner). And I’m stiLL not sure what it’s doing exactLy ^^;

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s possible my skin was just adjusting to something new – that happens a lot with me. Usually the first week my skin is resisting and then it calms down.
      Hmm I just looked up the CosRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol and it has Alcohol. But it also has Propolis which is supposed to be good for healing skin (it’s from bees). I’m not sure what percentage of BHA it is… I’d say the toner is more for calming skin but not as much for preventing breakouts.

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  7. I wrote to PC’s FB team about this very thing: whether Niacinamide & Vit C applications conflict & be kept separate (not sure where I got this into my head but I’m also concerned whether my AHA cream will conflict with the copper serum I’ve been using lately… DECIEM’s CS hasn’t been terribly helpful so far & I found more info about their products on the beautymouth blog than on their own website :S )

    From my F/B messages:

    MAR 16TH, 10:01AM
    Me: “is it ok to mix the Vitamin C & Niacinamide boosters? or do they conflict with each other… so should keep 1 for am & the other for pm”

    PC: “Ideally, we suggest layering our Boosters to ensure a uniform application over the entire face. Both the Vitamin C and Niacinamide Boosters can be used both day and night, one after another. We hope this helps!”

    Liked by 1 person

        1. How are you enjoying your long weekend?! We went to the Beaches area yesterday – so gorgeous! Today is COLD… we’re going to see a movie instead.

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  8. This was so detailed; I loved it. I never really knew anything about all the different ingredients, what not to mix, what to look out for etc but as someone with (annoyingly) oily skin that doesn’t like physical exfoliation either, I definitely need to check out some of these products. Genuinely, this is SUCH an informative and helpful review post 🙂 x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found this helpful! I love learning about skincare ingredients and what they do. I think you’d really benefit from some form of BHA product provided that they’re the right pH. They just help to keep pores clear looking. I’m still learning about what ingredients don’t mix… I know I’ve definitely mixed some before that aren’t supposed to!

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  9. Wow, those were great reviews and very helpful. 🙂
    I think some companies say not to use Vitamin C + Niacinamide at the same time, mostly because either product can cause a bit of redness and together you might get more redness for a short time and people might think they are having a reaction and complain when it is in fact harmless. So to avoid that hassle they just say “don’t do it”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to know about the Vitamin C + Niacinamide = redness caution. I never experienced redness with Vitamin C. And I haven’t used many Niacinamide products. I’m quite scared of retinol products though – they seem so potent!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. A worthy comparison of 2 good products that turned out to be having an equal rating by you and I love the technical and composition element of the product and it feels like we are all learning more about the science of beauty along with indulging in actual beauty itself. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed this. I do like learning about skincare ingredients and what they do for the skin. It helps me make better informed decisions and hopefully help others!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for sharing this awesome post! I also have combination/oily acne-prone skin. The CosRX exfoliant looks very promising! The only thing keeping me from using them so often is because my skin can be sensitive and I don’t like the tightening/tingling/burning sensation I get when I use exfoliants. But after reading this post, I’m convinced I should try it again. Slowly and steadily! I like how the CosRX exfoliant also gives you tips for better results. x

    Valerie // avecvalerie.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. BHA typically doesn’t cause tightening / burning sensation – that’s usually AHA. I think your skin would benefit greatly from a low percentage of BHA. I recommend giving it a try!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve never tried anything from Paula’s Choice – I wouldn’t even know where to start, although I’ve read many good reviews on her products. I’m super intrigued by that anti-redness exfoliating solution – I have a lot of redness on my cheeks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s difficult for me to recommend specific products for you from Paula’s Choice since she offers so many, and our skin types are so different. BUT, I would definitely say that her exfoliants are probably her most popular products – both BHA and AHA. They really work and are reasonably priced (would be better if not for the exchange rate!)

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow, this is a great post! I can’t believe I’ve missed it!

    Thanks for the info about vit C and niacinamide – I’d never have thought that they might cancel each other out. And I would believe this statement because I don’t think that a modern formulation would remedy this problem. How would they do that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only recently learned about the possible interaction between vitamin C and niacinamide when I was researching how to layer my skincare. I think the idea is that the modern formulas are more stable compared to how they were. Who knows. I have read that people advise not to use the 2 at the same time but if you wait 15-20 mins for the pH level to adjust, then it’s ok to layer.

      Liked by 1 person

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