Let’s get real for a second. Having good skin has become a thing. Like a THING. And I’m not just talking about good skin as in you don’t have the painful, blistering acne we all suffered through in our tweens. I mean you have BTS-worthy skin tone that shines, is plump and dewey and is healthy at the same time. There’s a lot that goes into a rockstar skincare routine, but the great thing is you can tailor yours to your budget, available time and unique skin care needs. You don’t need to follow 17 steps each night in order to get the skin you want, you actually just need a few things. Cleansing is crucial, using sunscreen is important, moisturizing is essential and exfoliation ties the whole routine together. Today I want to discuss an easy way to exfoliate without the use of harsh scrubs or abrasive facial brushes — chemical exfoliants.
Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliants
Exfoliating should be a part of everyone’s skincare routine, as it helps slough away dead skin cells, sebum, excess oil and other stuff that can clog your pores, cause breakouts and sit heavy on the surface of your skin. Exfoliating properly can help with everything from hyperpigmentation and dark spots to acne, scarring, oil production and even ingrown hairs.
There are two different ways to exfoliate: physical and chemical.
Physical exfoliation is the kind you’re probably already familiar with. It comes in the form of facial scrubs with beads and facial brushes that physically remove dead skin from the surface of your skin so new skin cells can form underneath. This method can be great once in a while, but I prefer using chemical exfoliants instead, and there are a few reasons why.
First of all, harsh physical exfoliation can strip your skin of key nutrients and healthy oils, and cause your skin to overcompensate and actually produce more oil than before. Chemical exfoliants also penetrate deeper than just the outermost layer of the skin, whereas physical exfoliants only work on the surface.
According to NYC dermatologist Michele Green for GQ, chemical exfoliants “gently penetrate the layers of the skin, breaking down dead skin cells through chemical reactions.” While this may sound intimidating we promise it’s not, and if you find the right chemical exfoliant you won’t feel a any tingling or irritation as it gets to work.
Types of Chemical Exfoliants
Chemical exfoliants range in terms of their ingredient lists and the forms they take — which is great news for you because it means you can find the formula that works for you and your skin. They can take the form of a lightweight skin brightener, a nightly serum or even a heavy-duty skin peel.
There are essentially five different types of chemical exfoliants out there that are worth covering and looking into.
- AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids, is one type of chemical exfoliant. Lactic acid and glycolic acid are two examples, both of which work to brighten the skin. This type is great for people who don’t have any super serious skin conditions that need remedying, and are great for overall skin tone and improvement.
- BHAs or beta hydroxy acids are great for acne-prone individuals who need something to calm redness, irritation and inflammation. Salicylic acid is a great example of this type of chemical exfoliant. BHAs can also reduce swelling from breakouts as well.
- PHAs or poly hydroxy acids work similarly to AHAs but are bigger in size so they typically don’t penetrate as deeply. They’re gentler, more mild and have hydrating and antioxidant benefits as well. Gluconolactone and lactobionic acid are examples of this type of chemical exfoliant.
- TCAs or trichloroacetic acids typically come in the form of a deeper peel, and a great for reducing signs of aging or melasma.
- Lastly there are fruit enzymes, which can also act as effective and gentle exfoliants.
How Often Should You Use Chemical Exfoliants?
You want to avoid over-exfoliating, and the sweet spot for effectiveness is going to differ based on skin type. However, 1-2 times per week is a solid rule of thumb, according to Dr. Green for GQ.
1. Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant
Paula’s Choice is a skincare brand I firmly stand by. Their stuff is great — including this leave-on chemical exfoliator. It’s made with beta hydroxy acids, one of the highlighted types of chemical exfoliants above, which is known to help diminish the appearance of enlarged pores, exfoliate dead skin cells and brighten skin tone. This formula is designed to go on smooth, be non-abrasive and be gentle enough for all skin types. It’s also formulated to delivery hydration and improve your pores’ overall performance. Paula’s Choice skincare also contains no fragrance, parabens or unnecessary fluff.
Paula's Choice 2% BHA Exfoliant
2. Naturium 8% Glycolic Acid Resurfacing Solution
Naturium is another skincare brand I’ve personally used and really love. Their stuff tends to be a bit more irritating when you first use it, so if your skin is super sensitive I’d recommend choosing something else. However, if you’re in need of a great chemical exfoliant this one is a solid bet. It’s made with 8% glycolic acid that’s high-purity and designed to improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, pores and overall skin tone. The serum also contains a fermented, marine-derived polysaccharide that helps strengthen the skin’s barrier against the outside world.
Naturium 8% Glycolic Acid Resurfacing Solution
3. The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
The Ordinary is an excellent budget skincare brand, as their formulas are super simple and straightforward which translates to their prices being super low as well. This Lactic Acid formula is a great AHA chemical exfoliant that’s alcohol-free, vegan and made without silicones. According to The Ordinary brand, it’s suitable for normal, oily, dry and combination skin tones. It’s a peeling formula, so you put it on and peel it off, and it offers mild exfoliation in the process. It’s a solution that’s designed for uneven skin tone, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and evening out texture.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
4. Drunk Elephant T.L.C Glycolic Night Serum
BEST FOR ACNE-PRONE SKIN
This chemical exfoliant from Drunk Elephant is made with both AHA/BHA exfoliants that work together to gently lift dead skin cells away from the face. It delivers the treatment via a serum designed to be put on at night and work gently without irritation, dryness or sensitization. Drunk Elephant’s formulas are all-natural and made to be biocompatible, without exposing skin to irritants repeatedly and putting it into a reactive, “sensitive skin” mode. I’ve personally been using this exfoliating serum for years and love it. It goes on smooth, dries quickly and doesn’t feel too heavy. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s worth every penny in terms of the benefits I’ve seen in my skin’s overall appearance, tone, and texture.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C Glycolic Night Serum
5. Paula’s Choice RESIST 10% AHA Serum
BEST FOR DRY SKIN
I had to include another option from Paula’s Choice because the brand is just that good. If you’ve got dry skin, chemical exfoliants are definitely the way to go because they’re designed to not strip your face of the essential oils it produces naturally, that keep it moisturized. You’ll want to err on the side of AHAs for your exfoliants if you’ve got dry skin since they tend to be gentler, and are designed to not irritate your skin further. This is a concentrated AHA formula made to smooth away things like sun damage and signs of aging. It’s a leave-on formula that’s non-abrasive and clears away pores for a more even skin tone overall.
Paula's Choice RESIST 10% AHA Serum
6. Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Serum
BEST FOR COMBINATION SKIN
For combination oily and dry skin, you’ll want an exfoliating serum that’s lightweight to not contribute to the oily parts of your skin, and has salicylic acid for an anti-inflammatory effect. This serum from Caudalie has both, and is formulated with grape seed antioxidants and essential oils for more nutrients. It’s 98% natural to avoid irritation and is formulated to reduce the appearance of imperfections.
Caudalie Vinopure Salicylic Acid Serum
7. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
BEST FOR MATURE SKIN
If you’re older and want to remedy signs of aging and sun damage, a peel like this one might be the way to go. This Alpha Beta peel from Dr. Dennis Gross has great reviews and is made with many of the effective exfoliants we’ve been discussing thus far. It’s a patented two-step design for anti-aging that includes an AHA/BHA peel pad that’s been pre-dosed with five acids including salicylic, lactic acid and glycolic acid. It’s designed to reduce dullness in the skin as well as uneven texture, dark spots and clogged pores. Step one harnesses the powers of these acids for exfoliation and pore refinement, while step two uses retinol and resveratrol to stop the acid activity and provide anti-aging benefits.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
8. ExfoliKate Intensive Pore Exfoliating Treatment
BEST FOR ALL SKIN TYPES
Whether you’ve got dry, combination, oily or all-of-the-above skin this exfoliating treatment is a solid choice. It’s a dual-action exfoliator that smooths and polishes skin so your natural glow comes through. It’s got lactic acid in it as well as AHA and glycolic acid. It’s also packed with fruit enzymes that help to clean clogged pores gently without stripping or irritation. The fruit enzymes include pineapple, papaya and pumpkin, and the formula also contains aloe vera, honey and vitamin E that help smooth the skin as it softens.
Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Treatment
9. Sunday Riley GOOD GENES Glycolic Acid Treatment
Sunday Riley is definitely on the pricier end of skincare brands, but this product comes highly rated on Dermstore as well as in several other skincare round-ups I consulted during my research. This is a glycolic acid serum that exfoliates the skin as it smoothes and restores shine. The glycolic acid molecules sink deep and break up debris in the skin to help alleviate congestion and sun damage. This serum also contains potassium lactate that gently exfoliates and boosts hydration levels at the same time.
Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment
10. Paula’s Choice Weightless 2% BHA Body Treatment
BEST FOR BODY
If you’re looking to exfoliate parts of your body that aren’t your face, but don’t want to use physical exfoliators like loofahs, dry brushes or pumice stones this body treatment from Paula’s Choice can help. It’s made with 2% salicylic acid, a BHA, and contains non-fragrant plant extracts to fortify your skin as well. It’s an antioxidant-rich formula that works quickly, and contains soothing ingredients like green tea and chamomile for your skin. It’s a lightweight solution that’s designed to not feel thick or sticky on your skin, and is free of parabens.
Paula's Choice Weightless 2% BHA Body Treatment
11. MALIN+GOETZ ingrown hair cream
BEST FOR INGROWN HAIRS
Another benefit of exfoliating your face as well as the rest of your body is it prevents ingrown hairs! Getting rid of dead skin cells is an excellent way to clear the surface of the skin and allow hairs to pop through unobstructed. This ingrown hair cream from MALIN+GOETZ does just that through the use of chemical exfoliants including glycolic acid and salicylic acid. The formula also contains allantoin and chamomile extract, and it calms and soothes with vitamin E and B5. It’s suitable for all skin types, and is designed to calm redness and bumps that can result from hair removal anywhere on the body, like on your face after you shave.
MALIN+GOETZ ingrown hair cream
12. First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
BEST FACE PADS
If you prefer your skincare in the form of a pad, this one’s the way to go. It’s designed as a daily treatment pad that contains lactic and glycolic acids and safely and gently exfoliates away dead skin cells. Each pad contains ingredients like cucumber and indian gooseberry to help with overall skin tone, as well as lemon peel and licorice root that brighten the skin as well. Using these pads regularly can help smooth out the skin’s texture, and it’s suitable for a wide variety of skin types.