Exfoliating can be an intimidating business. Add the word "chemical" in front of it, which entails using acids to slough away dead skin cells, and it sounds downright scary. But adding acids to your routine really isn't as intense as it sounds once you understand how they work. As long as you're using the best chemical exfoliant for your skin type, the chance of encountering irritation on your quest for clearer, brighter skin is little to none.
To break things down, it's important to know that most chemical exfoliants contain acids that come in two forms: Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). There are several acids that fall under the AHA umbrella, of which the most well known are glycolic and lactic, while BHAs largely refer to salicylic acid. Both AHAs and BHAs improve the skin's tone and texture by gently breaking down the intercellular glue that holds the top layers of dead skin cells together, thus encouraging the skin's natural shedding process.
AHAs tend to be preferred by dry and sun-damaged skin types, as they work on the skin's surface to help fade hyperpigmentation and improve the efficacy of your moisturizers and other treatments. Meanwhile, BHAs are better for oily and acne-prone skin types because they're oil-soluble, so they work on the skin's surface and inside the pores. They also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, so BHAs can cut through oil that clogs pores while also helping to eliminate acne-causing bacteria.
If you have extreme skin sensitivities such as rosacea, you'll want to check with your dermatologist before you add any type of exfoliator into your routine to make sure you're using a product that won't exacerbate your skin condition. And, no matter what your skin type, if you're new to chemical exfoliants, you'll want to start out with a lower concentration of your acid of choice (between 2 and 5 percent) and work your way up as your skin becomes used to it. Exfoliation of any kind also makes you more vulnerable to sun damage, so you'll want to make sure to be extra diligent about using SPF (even on cloudy days) to keep your skin protected.
Ahead, you'll find six of the best chemical exfoliant products, from on-the-go pads to nightly toners, and even an exfoliation spray for your body.
1. Best Liquid Peel: A Powerful Weekly Peel That Contains AHAs & BHAs
This AHA and BHA combo is so powerful that you apply it like a weekly mask (on skin that's completely clean and dry) and rinse it off after just 10 minutes. Glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids make up the 30 percent AHA solution, while 2 percent salicylic acid serves as the The Ordinary Peeling Solution's BHA. Given the high concentration of acids, the brand included soothing and hydrating ingredients like aloe vera and hyaluronic acid in the formula as well.
Multiple Amazon reviewers referred to using this mask as a "religious experience," which helps to unclog pores, reduce the appearance of blackheads, prevent breakouts, and fade hyperpigmentation. The result? Smoother, brighter, and clearer skin with as little as two uses. Fans say it's also helped fade their milia and reduce leftover scarring from cystic acne.
2. Best Exfoliating Peel Pads: Daily Exfoliating Pads With AHAs & BHAs — Created By A Dermatologist
NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross created these at-home exfoliating pads to mimic the peel treatments he uses for his in-office patients. Beloved by beauty editors and skin care enthusiasts, the cult-favorite Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel is easy to use whether you're home or traveling, thanks to its pre-packaged and pre-soaked pads. It's a two-step process, with the first pad — which is soaked in a formula containing AHAs in the form of glycolic, citric, lactic, and malic acids, and the BHA salicylic acid — serving as the chemical exfoliant. The second pad helps nourish the skin post-exfoliation while further promoting improved texture and tone with ingredients like resveratrol and ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C).
Though on the pricier side, each box contains 30 two-step treatments (so 60 pads total). Use them daily or a just couple of times a week.
3. Best Liquid Exfoliant With AHAs: An Intense Treatment With 3 AHAs & A 10 Percent Concentration
For an intense AHA treatment, the Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate combines three AHAs — glycolic, lactic, and malic acids — in a 10 percent concentration. The leave-on treatment gets applied like a toner after you've cleansed, and it works to dissolve dead skin cells for a smoother, more even complexion that also helps your nightly moisturizer absorb better. Fruit enzymes like pumpkin, papaya, and pineapple also aid in exfoliating the skin, while peptides, honey, and tea extract combat any post-exfoliation irritation.
4. Best Liquid Exfoliant With BHAs: A Pore-Cleaning Treatment That Helps Eliminate Acne
This Paula's Choice chemical exfoliant treatment is formulated with 2 percent BHA in the form of salicylic acid. Not only does this BHA deep clean pores to help eliminate acne, but the exfoliation also helps to fade old acne scars while promoting a brighter skin tone and smoother, more even texture.
One Amazon reviewer shares, "This stuff should be called a miracle in a bottle. When I use it on my (pretty dry) skin, it transforms it from congested, irritated, and bright red to calm, clear, and glowing overnight." Another writes, "It cleared up all of my active acne and sped up the healing process of the dried out spots." Many users do note that a nighttime moisturizer is necessary to prevent the skin from drying out, and that you'll want to start by using this once daily to see how your skin tolerates it.
5. Also Great: This Glycolic Acid (a BHA) Toner With A Cult-Following
This alcohol-free toner has earned itself a dedicated following over the years for being gentle while still providing serious results. To give you smoother, brighter skin, Pixi's Glow Tonic contains 5 percent glycolic acid, and its lower concentration makes it perfect for beginners. In addition to glycolic acid, the brand also added witch hazel to help reduce the appearance of enlarged pores, due to its natural astringent properties. To further help with achieving brighter and healthier skin, Pixi included ginseng in the formula, and aloe vera also tops the ingredient list to help soothe and hydrate skin as it's being exfoliated.
6. Also Great: This Salicylic Acid (a BHA) Spray For Body Acne
Treating body acne can be more difficult than targeting the acne on your face because it's a larger, harder-to-reach area. But this Glytone Acne Treatment makes it much easier with a pump spray that even works when held upside down to reach your back, shoulders, and chest. The treatment itself uses 2 percent salicylic acid to exfoliate and deep clean the pores on your body the same way that other chemical exfoliants work on your face.
While Amazon users warn that the spray has a strong scent, they also credit it with quickly clearing up body breakouts. One reviewer notes, "This [spray] dries instantly, is easy to apply (it really does spray no matter how you hold the bottle), and lasts a good long time." Another user who purchased the spray to help with back acne writes, "I gave this product a try, and in four or five days my back was completely clear. It has been four months now, and I haven't had a single outbreak."
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