Acids for chemical exfoliation are my skin’s most favorite friends. A real skin love affair. Acid used to be a four letter word, something that should just never come near my skin. But we have grown.
Exfoliating acids, when used correctly, can repair and prevent your biggest skin concerns. We are talking aging, acne, dryness (I said it), uneven texture, and glow. Feeling interested? Read on for a crash course in chemical exfoliation so you can learn why chemical exfoliants are not so scary and how to use them to achieve your best skin yet.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase through the link I may make a small commission. I am not a medical pro, just someone who loves skincare and has done the research. Everyone’s skin is different and any serious skin issues should be consulted with a dermatologist or your esthetician.
What is exfoliation?
Exfoliating is the process of removing dead skin buildup from the upper layer of your skin. This can be done through chemical exfoliation (my queen) or physical exfoliation.
Physical exfoliation is the physical process of rubbing your skin using a tool or your hands paired with a scrub. A gentle physical exfoliant, when used properly, results in instantly smooth and glowing skin. Physical exfoliation can be an essential part of any skincare routine, but we’ll get back to this topic another time.
The instant gratification we get from a physical exfoliant can be addicting, but there is a better way to see long-term results. Bring in: chemical exfoliants.
Chemical exfoliation uses acids to break down the bonds of dead skin cells sitting on your skin allowing beautiful skin to emerge. Chemical exfoliation works hard on prevention and repair by evening out tone and texture and lightening up fine lines and wrinkles.
But wait, why would I put acids on my face?
Our skin goes through regeneration every 30 or so days. This happens naturally but slows as we age (so fun). Slower regeneration translates to more build-up of dead cells on your skin’s surface. This build-up can result in clogged pores, uneven tone and texture, fine lines and wrinkles, and blemishes.
This is where a nice acid comes in. Alpha Hydroxy Acid, Beta Hydroxy Acid, and Poly Hydroxy Acid sound scary, but these acids are derived from nature and not from a faraway land. This means that acids used for facial exfoliation are not going to become toxic to your body (phew).
How to use chemical exfoliation in your skincare routine
Chemical exfoliation comes in at step 3 of your skincare routine after you have cleansed and applied your rehydrating toner. How your exfoliant is applied will vary, so it is important to follow the instructions on your product carefully.
Essential tip: if chemical exfoliants are new to you, ease them into your skincare routine. Reach for a product with an acid concentration of 5% or less once or twice a week until skin adjusts. This will reduce potential irritation caused by over-exfoliation resulting in an angry and disrupted skin barrier.
Benefits of chemical exfoliation for your skin
It is important to understand your skin type and your core skin concerns when choosing an exfoliant.
Chemical exfoliants are very versatile and can be compatible with every skin type, from stubborn to sensitive. To choose the one (or two!) for you, get to know the benefits that each acid can provide.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
AHAs are water soluble acids, which means that they will not break down oils in the skin. They work on your skin’s surface to give you the smooth even texture you have been dreaming of. AHAs are plant-derived, making them a pleasant option when it comes to acid application.
The most common AHAs include glycolic (superstar), lactic, malic, mandelic, tartaric, and citric acids. AHAs vary in molecular size, where the smaller the size, the better it penetrates the upper layers of your skin. Glycolic and lactic acids are the smallest of the bunch, with glycolic reigning queen. All AHAs are effective and hydrating (really!), but some are less intense than others and work best on certain concerns.
Glycolic acid is the smallest AHA, meaning it will penetrate the skin’s upper layer better than any other AHA. It makes your skin smart. Not only does it slough away at rough, dead skin, it also teaches your skin to retain hydration. It will brighten and tighten your skin by stimulating collagen production. All of this action can smooth lines and wrinkles and repair pigmentation from sun damage. That is impressive.
Another reason glycolic is a beloved skincare ingredient is because of how heavily studied it is. Glycolic acid has proven effectiveness, making it a key player in the glow game.
If you have sun damaged skin and pigmentation, glycolic is the acid for you.
Glycolic acid is effective at concentrations of 5% or more. Remember to be careful with concentrations above 5% and ease into a routine to avoid an angry skin barrier.
Lactic acid has a small molecular weight but is a bit larger than glycolic meaning it works a little slower. This makes lactic acid less aggressive and safer for skin types who experience irritation.
Lactic boasts the same benefits as glycolic, but goes the extra mile with hydration and keeping your skin moisturized naturally. Lactic acid is great for dry skin as it will smooth rough patches and teach skin to retain moisture.
For exfoliation, look for lactic acid concentrations between 5% and 10% for maximum effectiveness. A concentration of 2% will work to hydrate your skin, but exfoliation benefits will kick in at the 5% mark.
If you deal with keratosis pilaris (KP), aka chicken skin, lactic acid can help. Lactic acid helps to dissolve build up in your hair follicle so that you can finally smooth out those bumps!
Mandelic acid is the largest AHA, meaning it will not penetrate into your skin like glycolic or lactic acid will. It will take more time to see the results you are after, but for sensitive skin, this is a winner.
Like the other AHAs, mandelic will work to smooth, brighten, and tighten rough or sun damaged skin. Mandelic acid is a great choice for those with acne as studies have shown that it is both antibacterial and antifungal. This will help skin clear overtime and reduce inflammation while remaining gentle.
Some favorite AHAs for your skin:
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum. Skin brightening serum, loved by many. This is a real powerhouse with a blend of glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic acids.
Herbivore Natural Prism Exfoliating Glow Serum. Serum meant to make you G L O W. This has a blend of Lactic, Glycolic, and Malic Acids plus 3% concentration of Willow Bark BHA and Vitamin C. It is packed with the goods.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA. The Ordinary loves to keep things simple for us. This 10% concentration plus hydrating HA will leave you with a smooth glow for a low price!
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)
BHAs are oil soluble, meaning they are able to work inside of your pores to dissolve oil. Known as salicylic acid (we have all heard of her), BHA is the ultimate multi-tasker. BHA clears and reduces the appearance of enlarged pores all while brightening, hydrating, and improving the look of fine lines. What can’t she do?
Adding BHA to your skincare routine can dramatically improve the look and feel of your skin. Adding BHA is one of the best decisions I have ever made for my skin. Redness, rough patches on my nose, and those time of the month blemishes have significantly reduced with consistent use.
Look for a BHA concentration of 2% for effective exfoliation. Products with a BHA concentration greater than 2% should be used less frequently. Always follow product instructions and know that BHAs in high concentrations should be left on the skin for less time.
Current favorite BHAs for your skin:
Paula’s Choice 2% Skin Perfecting Liquid Exfoliant. My true love. This has a major cult following, and it lives up to the hype.
- Oily skin may prefer the gel version over the liquid. This gives you all the benefits of the liquid but is specifically designed for oily or combination skin.
COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid. This liquid has a massive following and is considered a gentle form of BHA that still packs the punch.
Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHA)
PHAs work like AHAs to smooth your skin and even out tone and are considered to be the most gentle chemical exfoliant. The size of PHAs is bigger than that of AHA, making them least effective at penetrating your skin’s pores. Despite this, PHAs are effective exfoliants and work to keep your skin strong and ready to repair damage and loss of firmness.
Those with sensitive skin love PHAs like luconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid. Each of these will keep skin glowing and strong and help other ingredients absorb into your skin, increasing their effectiveness. PHAs work exclusively on your skin’s surface, reducing potential irritation that may be caused by acids that penetrate deeper. For those with extra dry skin or who struggle with eczema or rosacea, PHA is a great choice as your skin will draw in moisture and keep it there.
Favorite PHAs for your skin:
COSRX PHA Moisture Renewal Power Cream. This will give skin moisture it is craving while smoothing and brightening at the same time.
Olehenriksen PHAT Glow Facial. This mask is a little facial in a bottle that will leave you with a smooth and glowing complexion.
Combining Acids in your skincare routine
I know how exciting it is to learn about ingredients and want to throw them on your face immediately, but this can be risky business. Acids can be combined, but it’s best to use a product formulated with combined acids, rather than layering yourself.
The big risk in combining exfoliating acids is dryness and irritation. You run the risk of causing major disruption to your skin barrier leaving you with stripped skin that needs to be repaired.
If you prefer to use AHA and BHA in separate products, try alternating use morning and night or on alternate days. How often you use an exfoliant will depend on the product and your skin type, but I like to alternate days with AHA and BHA applications. On retinol nights, I skip a chemical exfoliant altogether and let that retinol work its magic.
Essential tip: if you use any exfoliant in your routine, it’s critical that you close your routine with sunscreen at spf 30 or higher. Exfoliation brings out fresh glowing skin, but this makes it even more sensitive to the sun. Lather up everyday!
Combining Acids with other skincare ingredients
There are a lot of misconceptions out there around combining acids with other skincare ingredients like vitamin C and niacinamide. The truth is, a high-quality vitamin C or niacinamide can play nice with exfoliants and shouldn’t lead to irritation or reduced effectiveness.
The key to combining an exfoliant with any other ingredient is to be observant of how your skin reacts. Everyone’s skin is unique and can be sensitized in different ways. If you do experience irritation, try alternating use of the products between morning and night or on alternate days.
I apply vitamin C every morning, but I exfoliate at night. When I have combined exfoliants with vitamin C in the past (sometimes a girl needs it), I have experienced zero redness or irritation.
Paula’s Choice (love you) published a great article on exfoliation myths and combining with other actives. Read more here.
Now we glow
Do you think acids are a four letter word, or are you convinced of their magical powers? Learning the essentials of exfoliation leaves you armed with the knowledge you need to obtain the glow of your dreams.
Go wash your face and exfoliate and make sure you lather up on spf when you are done! Let us know your favorite acids and how your skin has been transformed by incorporating exfoliation into your routine!