U. S. Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Office of Cosmetics and Colors Fact Sheet
March 7, 2000

Beta Hydroxy Acids in Cosmetics

Throughout the last decade, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) have increasingly appeared as ingredients in cosmetics intended to reduce the signs of aging in the skin. More recently, beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or a combination of AHAs and BHAs, have appeared as ingredients in these skin care products. While both AHAs and BHAs act as exfoliants, it has been claimed that BHAs are effective in reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and improving overall skin texture, without the occasional irritation associated with the use of AHAs.

BHA ingredients may be listed as -

Currently, the BHA most commonly used in cosmetics is salicylic acid. On rare occasions, citric acid is also cited as a BHA in cosmetic formulations. More commonly, citric acid is referred to as an AHA.

The safety of salicylic acid used as a cosmetic ingredient has been evaluated by both the cosmetic industry and FDA. At a meeting in February 2000, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, the cosmetic industry's independent body for reviewing the safety of cosmetic ingredients, reached the tentative conclusion that the use of salicylic acid related substances in cosmetics is "safe as used when formulated to avoid irritation and when formulated to avoid increased sun sensitivity." CIR added that "when sun sensitivity would be expected, directions for use [should] include the daily use of sun protection."

In other words, according to CIR Director Alan Andersen, products containing salicylic acid should either contain a sunscreen or bear directions advising consumers to use other sun protection. In order to comply with the CIR recommendations, cosmetic manufacturers should test their products to determine whether or not they cause an increase in sensitivity to the harmful ultraviolet radiation in sunlight.

The long-term safety of salicylic acid in cosmetics also is being evaluated in studies initiated by FDA and sponsored by the National Toxicology Program. These government-sponsored studies are examining the long-term effects of both glycolic acid (an AHA) and salicylic acid on the skin's response to ultraviolet (UV) light. These studies have determined that applying glycolic acid to the skin can make people more susceptible to the damaging effects of the sun, including sunburn.

Until these safety assessments are completed, FDA advises that similar precautions be taken for the use of cosmetics containing AHAs and BHAs. These precautions are:

Consumers should report any adverse reactions, such as irritation or sun sensitivity, associated with the use of BHAs to their local FDA office, listed in the Blue Pages of the phone book, or to FDA's Office of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-532-4440.+

If you have purchased a product whose outer packaging has become separated from the product and you are unsure whether it contains BHAs, call the manufacturer, whose phone number may be listed on the inner packaging.

*From a chemist's perspective, salicylic acid is not a true BHA. However, cosmetic companies often refer to it as a BHA and, consequently, many consumers think of it as one.

See also: Information About Suntan Products, Sunscreens, and Tanning

+ Updated Contact Information:
Your nearest FDA district office. Their phone numbers are on FDA's Web site and in the Blue Pages of the phone book under United States Government/Health and Human Services.

FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) Adverse Event Reporting System (CAERS) by phone at 301-436-2405 or by email at

Foods Home   |   FDA Home   |   HHS Home   |   Search/Subject Index   |   Disclaimers & Privacy Policy   |   Accessibility/Help

Hypertext updated by cjm/rog/dms/dav 2006-JAN-31