COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid Review: Paula’s BHA Sucks Balls
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I don’t think there’s been one product that has more single-handedly given me that sexy “glow” and gotten rid of my closed comedones like this bad puppy has.
As you may remember, I’m not a big fan of the Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid (Extra Strength), so this review will be a comparison of sorts including some before and after picutres of my forehead to illustrate the difference the COSRX BHA made!
Let’s waste no time and get right into it.
Table of Contents
Ingredients and Benefits.
Like most COSRX products, this one lured me in with its nice simple ingredient list. Check it out.
Salix alba (willow) bark water, butylene glycol, betaine salicylate, niacinamide, 1,2-hexanediol, arginine, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, xanthan gum, ethyl hexanediol.
Great, isn’t it? On a firsthand glance we already see that they’ve completely cut out all the unnecessary ingredients that are little more than filler.
Willow Bark Water
People often confuse willow bark extract with salicylic acid. They are not the same thing. Willow bark simply has salicin in it, which in the presence of enzymes, or when absorbed orally, converts into salicylic acid.
So no, this won’t turn into an ungodly amount of salicylic acid when applied on skin. Rather, it’s put into this formula because of the soothing and anti-inflammatory benefits it has. Something I think COSRX deserves credit for!
They always try to really maximize their formulas, so rather than simply filling it up with water they went that little extra mile to sneak in some added benefits. 🙂
This is essentially the “salicylic acid” in the formula. Just a very quick refresher on what salicylic acid is in case you don’t know. It’s a chemical exfoliant that’s known for its keratolytic, comedolytic, bacteriostatic, and anti-inflammatory properties.
If all that sounds confusing, here’s the english translation: it sloughs off dead skin cells, unclogs pores, reduces inflammation, and creates a hostile environment for the bacteria that exacerbates acne. So overall, salicylic acid is pretty great!
With that said, I think the biggest thing everyone wondering about the COSRX BHA is whether its variation of salicylic acid (betaine salicylate) is as effective as salicylic acid itself. It’s a hard question to answer because of limited research, but I’ll try my best using the given information available and share some personal experience as well.
What do we know about Betaine Salicylate?
It’s derived from sugar beets, and many consider it a more gentle alternative to salicylic acid because it isn’t pH dependent, meaning it does not require an acidic environment to work optimally.
Fun fact: salicylic acid has to be formulated with a pH of 3-4 to work best, otherwise it might precipitate out of the solution and form crystals like this!
I’ve gotten several questions about the controversy over the COSRX BHA having a higher pH than advertised (around 5.5). Rest assured, this is not something we have to worry about with neutralized forms of salicylic acid (i.e. salicylate).
In fact, there is some evidence that salicylate (the active BHA in COSRX) at pH 6.5, works just as well as salicylic acid in an acidic vehicle (pH 3.12) after only two days of application.
Moreover, one study that found 4% betaine salicylate was just as effective as 2% salicylic acid after 10 days, without the drying or irritating effects that salicylic acid had.
You can essentially think of betaine salicylate as a more gentle and moisturizing salicylic acid. Or as the researchers put it themselves,
“This new product becomes ideal for leave-on and rinse off compositions that require mild exfoliation and antimicrobial properties blended with substantial moisturizing and anti-irritation claims.” (1)
Do note however, that the sample size of this study was very small, so it’s not the most reliable piece of information. But based off of PERSONAL EXPERIENCE alone, I think betaine salicylate has potential to treat acne (specifically clogged pores and blackheads) better than salicylic acid itself. Here’s why:
When trying to prevent and treat breakouts is very important that we limit irritation whenever possible. That’s something I discuss in my how to treat acne article. Irritated skin is less resilient and capable of fighting off pathogens and infections, which could further irritate breakouts. It doesn’t help that salicylic acid is often irritating on the skin.
Personally, I was never able to use the Paula’s Choice 2% BHA because it was simply too drying. I would try to introduce it into my skincare routine time and time again, only to my disappointment and newly found irritated skin.
This would in turn lead to more clogged pores, and it just became a never-ending cycle of trying to use more product to treat the problems that the product was causing!
UPDATE 7/12/17: The Paula’s Choice BHA also broke me out because it contains polysorbate-20, which aggravates the fungal skin sensitivities I have. If you want to read more about how to treat “fungal acne,” or adult acne that is incredibly stubborn, check out this guide on malassezia I wrote that took me 3 months to finish!
Now back to our scheduled programming….
After doing some research I decided to switch to the COSRX BHA because everyone and their mom was raving about it and how gentle it was. Here’s the difference it made in about 45 days.
The photo on the left was what the Paula’s Choice Extra Strength BHA did to my forehead after trying to use it 4 times weekly for about a month. In other words, it completely nuke my moisture barrier and acid mantle (and aggravated my malassezia / fungal sensitivities)! Just looking at the photo makes me cringe. If you didn’t know what over-exfoliated skin looks like…. well, now you do.
And I have reason to believe that this excessive irritation didn’t just happen because the skin on my face is sensitive. Why do I say that? Because my hands are pretty tough. I usually wash them anywhere from 5-10 times per day. Yes, I know that’s bad! Don’t remind me.
Yet they were hardly ever dry until I introduced the Paula’s Choice BHA! Every stinking time I tried using it I would have flakey dry skin on the palm of my hands after a few days.
NOTE: I pour the BHA into my palms to save product. I haven’t used cotton balls in ages.
So you can see the complete 360 the COSRX BHA made my skin do! It doesn’t feel nearly as dry anymore (winter is approaching so I’m still currently experiencing some dryness), and I can get away with using it every other day without experiencing any irritation whatsoever. At one point I was using it every day for about two weeks, but I ended up getting some minor flakey skin so reduced the frequency.
To add to that, every morning I wake up I feel like it gives my skin a bit of a glow! I’ve NEVER experienced this with a product before, so to say I’m beyond the moon about it is an understatement.
And best of all it’s gotten rid of some stubborn closed comedones that I had for months! I was literally beginning to think that they were just going to be a permanent part of my face. Several 15% salicylic acid peels hardly made them budge. But I sh*t you not, within a few days of using the COSRX BHA one of them nearly shot out of my face!
And a lot of the other closed comedones I had have since disappeared as well. Cooler yet, it didn’t even make my skin purge. Generally when I use active ingredients they will make the clogs I have come to a head, and I’ll be left with a nice little whitehead for a couple of days. -___-
But for the first time ever, the closed comedones seemed to just disappear on their own! In other words, they didn’t come to a head. And this hasn’t just happened to me. I have read several people on the r/asianbeauty subreddit report very similar experiences.
One of my all-time favorite ingredients. This does a little bit of everything. It’s very effective at brightening skin tone, treating hyperpigmentation (skin discoloration), and hydrating the skin. (2, 3) There’s also ample evidence that it has anti-aging benefits. (4, 5, 6, 7) In fact, one study showed it’s anti-wrinkle properties are akin to tretinoin! (8)
It also increases collagen production, and does comparatively better than antibiotics in treating acne. (9, 10)
An amino acid with antioxidant properties.
A vitamin that’s part of the B complex. It improves barrier function, hydrates the skin, promotes keratinocyte differentiation, and may help treat burn wounds. (11, 12, 13, 14) A study on children also found that it could help treat dermatitis. (15)
Also known as hyaluronic acid. This is a very potent humectant that’s capable of holding 1000 times water weight.
It hydrates the skin by slowing down the rate at which water evaporates from its surface by drawing moisture from the dermis (deeper layer of skin) and the atmosphere. Studies have also shown it helps significantly speed up wound healing. (16, 17, 18, 19)
Related reading: Hyaluronic Acid for Skin: Literally EVERYTHING You Need to Know!
And that does it for the ingredient list! Just a very basic formula that packs a punch with the things that it does include.
Application, Feel, and Scent.
This thing applies gloriously! I’m going to have to throw shade at the Paula’s choice BHA again (sorry). For comparison sake, just look at the difference in spreadability/finish between the both of them.
(COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid)
(Paula’s Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid)
For starters, the COSRX BHA has the most gorgeous slip! It feels like silky water and spreads super easily. And look at the beautiful dewy finish it leaves behind!
On the other hand, the Paula’s Choice BHA takes for-freaking-ever to dry, and once it does it leaves you looking like an oily mess (probably the high amount of methylpropanediol). Not only that, it adheres to the surface of skin, and requires more effort to spread, whereas the COSRX BHA just glides smoothly (again, most likely the higher amount of solvents).
Oh, and the Paula’s Choice BHA smells like a** too. I understand that Paula’s Choice has a quarrel against fragrances because they’re potentially irritating, which is good. Kudos to them. But goodness, this stuff stinks haha.
On the other hand the COSRX BHA is reminiscent of my childhood because it smells exactly like those lemon lime green shots the ice cream man use to sell! If you have any idea what I’m talking about you’re awesome. :p
And last but not least, the Paula’s Choice BHA isn’t hydrating in the slightest, whereas the COSRX BHA provides some moisture.
How to Use the COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid.
Because this is a pH dependent product it’s important to use it in the right step of your skincare routine. This will be after cleanser but BEFORE moisturizer. Because many people from the Asian beauty community use it, here’s a sample routine considering MANY things. Of course, not all of this stuff may apply to you so adjust it accordingly.
- OCM or Oil cleanser.
- Gentle pH-balanced cleanser.
- Acid toner
- Low pH serums (e.g. ascorbic acid vitamin C). Wait 20-30 minutes.
- Use the COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid here. Wait 20-30 minutes.
- AHAs (lactic, glycolic, mandelic etc.). Wait 20-30 minutes.
- Retinoids like tretinoin.
- Hydrating toners
- Creams, moisturizers, sleeping packs, or sunscreen.
- Face oil
- Occlusives like vaseline or aquaphor.
- Ingredients: 5/5
Has a very minimal formula without any unnecessary ingredients. But the stuff that’s in there packs a punch including 4% betaine salicylate (a gentler form of salicylic acid), niacinamide, arginine, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, and willow bark water!
- Benefits: 5/5
Gives the skin a glow, treats discoloration like hyperpigmentation, unclogs pores, prevents breakouts, and provides some hydration.
- Application: 5/5
Feels like silky water and spreads very easily. Dries leaving a dewy finish, and smells faintly of lemon lime shots! :p
- Packaging: 5/5
Comes in a beautiful and sturdy bottle with a pump dispenser for easy application.
- Value: 5/5
Freaking cheap considering how long it will last you and what a great product it is.
Overall: 5/5 — BOOM. Holy grail status unlocked. This is the 2nd Asian beauty product on this blog to do so. The only other being the Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence (see full review).
And that does it for this review! I highly recommend the COSRX BHA if you’re on the lookout for a gentle BHA. If you want a stronger and more traditional salicylic acid exfoliant, I don’t think you can go wrong with stridex in a red box (full review here)! It’s the only pure salicylic acid product I’ve tried that worked for my skin because I’m prone to fungal acne / malassezia flare-ups.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this article! :-))
Tell your friends about this lemon-lime shot smelling BHA! Share this!
Hi! I was wondering why this is no longer a holy grail product for you. Thanks for all your helpful posts!
This is where I mean to ask this question.
How long did it take for your skin to heal from overexfoliation and what was in your arsenal to repair the damage?
I stumbled upon your blog last night and I am so glad I did.
hi! may i ask you,can i use bha corsx everyday? i had forehead acne and whitehead like you,and it did amazing on my face but my forehead just still the same 🙁
This shining review has convinced me to give the COSRX BHA (wow that’s a lot of capital letters) a shot once I run out of my Paula’s Choice Regular Strength BHA. I like their Regular Strength BHA but if there’s an alternative that’s potentially just as effective but less irritating and cheaper, then it seems a no-brainer to me.
I’m a bit confused how it manages to include niacinamide, however, as I was under the assumption that with an acidic pH niacinamide would convert to niacin and cause facial flushing. Supposedly the flushing is harmless, but it was always enough to convince me that acids and niacinamide ought to be spaced apart. So the fact that it’s actually included in an acid product here is odd to me. Have you experienced any kind of flushing or was that all a bunch of bologna?
Hey FC, I was wondering if you had heard anything about CosRX increasing the pH of this BHA. I’m a bit confused as to whether or not it is still effective as a BHA or if it should just be treated as an anti inflammatory serum now. Any thoughts?
Hi! I emailed you awhile back. Do you think I had the right address?
I know the holiday time is busy.
I was wondering if during your time of compromised barrier if you were still exfoliating (exfoliating of any kind)?
And what are your reasoning for using Vaseline every other night vs every night?
Thank you! I look forward to a response.
Do you know if this product expires? I’ve had it sitting in my cabinet for quiet a while. I’m wondering if I should give it a try!
I was using every other day.
Then bha. Aha. Day off. Bha. Aha. Day off. My skin transformed within a wk. So I continued the same this week and my skin looks bad like overnight. Boo. I got too cocky. I think my skin needed more time to adjust. It’s not itchy or tight. Looks a bit rough and feels a bit rough too. Skin is such trial and error.
Thank you for always responding!
Hi, I am so happy I found this post, it’s a wealth of information!
To tell you everything, I started a Korean skincare routine 3 weeks ago and as you may have guessed, it includes the Cosrx BHA blackhead power liquid. As BHA worked amazingly on my skin, I recently started to do research about it and I was chocked to read it is actually carcinogenic.
Now, I’m quite reluctant to use it. At the same time, you mentioned above that Betaine Salicylate is a variation of Salicylic acid that seems to be safer and more gentle. So, I don’t know what to do…
What are your thoughts on it? 🙂
Thanks in advance!
In your post about the pH of skincare products, you mentioned using something acidic like a BHA would neutralize the antioxidant effects of something like Niacinamide because an acid trumps the buffering effect a moisturizer would have. Why do you think the cosrx power liquid includes these two together? Is the niacinamide still effective in the presence of the BHA? Is it that it’s included for reasons other than providing hydration. Thank you!
Hi’m i’m thinking of trying out cosrx’s bha and aha power liquids. I’m a little bit skeptic about the bha though cause i used to use mario badescu’s acne facial cleanser (which contains salicylic acid) just to try it out cos everyone was raving about it. And i BROKE OUT SO BAD. Im not sure but i think it’s because of the salicylic acid? 🙁 So i’m kind of worried that since the bha contains ~salicylic acid~ it may not work on my skin???? If i do decide to try it out though, what would you suggest as to how to introduce it to my skin? Should i do bha, off, aha, off, bha, so on?
Sorry for the lengthy question! And thank you so much for this blog i’ve learned so much over the past couple of days reading your posts than the last 6 years i’ve been dealing/researching how to deal with my acne 🙁
Hey there! I really want to try everything Cosrx makes haha. I got super into Korean products recently only to find most of them have added fragrance, lavendar or citrus oil, etc (AKA stuff that makes my skin dry, itchy and exploded in zits all at once) Thanks to Cosrx and Benton, I can hop on the Korean skincare bandwagon without fear! Yay!
Anyway, I’ve used Paula’s Choice Clear line to get rid of 95% of my acne for the past 2 years, so I thought I’d share my opinion. First off, I hate the Paula’s 2% BHA because it feels greasy (even though I’m not oily to begin with), but I love Paula’s Clear Regular Strength 2% BHA which feels like water. It’s tailored more to acne and oily skin than the original. I generally have very sensitive skin, but I’m not sensitive at all to salicylic acid so I can easily apply the 2% BHA twice daily without a moisturizer (pretty lazy and I don’t recommend lol) and experience no increase in dryness or irritation. I found it more effective for blackheads than acne and it makes my skin a bit smoother. I think when I finish my bottle I’ll try the Cosrx BHA because I need extra moisture badly as I use benzoyl peroxide, and now that I’m 25 my oily skin type is becoming normal/dry type and I’m starting to get a fine line or two. I like the extra help that the Cosrx version offers for dry-skinned acne sufferers like myself!
While I’ll be using Paula’s Choice 2.5% benzoyl peroxide til I die (my acne will follow me to the grave, I’m sure), I’m skeptical the Clear 2% BHA is doing much for my acne and my skin in particular. Not to say it’s not a excellent formula, it’s just not for me. I don’t think a skincare nut can ever truly be happy with one brand, anyway.
But I am nervous about the plant extracts in the Cosrx BHA that I couldn’t find much or any research on in the context of skin (at least not in English). I’ll probably just give it a go and see how it goes for me.
Thanks for the review and for sharing your experience!
Hey, if I may ask, now you use any product for daily use?
very helpful. thank you 🙂
Hye!! I’m so glad I came across your blog. It’s soo informative and trustworthy because you have those clickable links to the journal or studies you were referring to. Anyways, I’m veryyyyy new to bha power liquid, yep I’m using the one from COSRX, is there any tips or precautions steps to wear it. I’m really scared of the purging stage and afraid by skin would bombards out all the acnes and blackheads etc ? I have a very large and clogged pores.
I recently purchased this about two weeks ago because I’ve had these weird large pores on my forehead that kinda have oil pool into them, making them obvious, but I never really get break outs there. I started using the product primarily on my forehead, and after a couple days I saw no reaction. So, then I decided to move on to trying it on the rest of my face where I did in fact have terrible cystic acne before. Now, most of my skin is totally okay, but I have a couple “new” big bad zits suddenly, which I am using the cosryx acne spot bandages on now. Probably a dumb question since I know the BHA product is well, BHA, and therefore an exfoliant, but is there any way for me to know whether this is my skin purging or whether the product itself is causing break outs? I really don’t want to go back to how horrible it was before, and I’ve had no new breakouts prior to the introduction of the BHA for 4 weeks now. *crossing fingers*
I have blackheads on my nose and a few on my cheeks and little bumps on my cheeks like really closed pores(not acne or pimlpes) do you think the BHA can solve both peoblems or should i use bha and aha?
I’ve never used any AHA/BHA products before but I’d like to give it a shot.
I’ve had acne since I was 11 and I’m 21 now. My acne is usually pus filled pimples which I get on my cheeks, nose and chin. Forehead is super duper clear, has been since forever. I’ve got huge pores on my cheek area.
I’ve recently changed my routine where I use the shea terra organic black soap with rosehip oil, following with Thayer’s witch hazel toner and Sebamed clear face gel (upon your recommendation).
Since this routine is still really fresh, I wanted to know when I can introduce COSRX BHA?
How do I incorporate it in my routine? How many times a week should I use it? How should I know it suits my skin?
How do I differenciate between a purge and a reaction?
Also, how long does it take for you to realize whether the product is working or not?
Hi there! I sent you an email last night. I am still waiting for your reply, though I am not in a hurry since I can see there are a lot of questions to be answered here also.
I just want to say thank you for making this blog!!!
P.S. My questions are in the email and I don’t want to be annoying for repeating them again here haha
COSRX didn’t work for me. I couldn’t see improvements after months. Going to try Stridex next