What Is the Best Chemical Exfoliant for Me?

·14 min read

The words “chemical exfoliant” don’t sound particularly skin-friendly, but the right kind can really give your routine a boost.

As Dendy Engelman, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York explains, “chemical exfoliation uses a powerful dose of acids to weaken the cellular bonds between skin cells in the dermis. This helps to slough away dead, dull-looking cells, reveal healthy cells, reduce hyperpigmentation and improve skin texture." In short, it keeps your skin clear, smooth and glowing.

How Do Chemical Exfoliants Work?

Let’s take it from the top, shall we? According to our friends at the American Academy of Dermatology, exfoliation is “the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layers of your skin.” Skin is in a constant state of regeneration. Because of this, most of us end up with dead cells that sit on the surface and cause that dullness, dryness and break outs for some.

Exfoliation helps remove those old cells, allowing healthy, new skin underneath to come to the surface. And there are two ways to do this: chemical and physical exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliation, which is the kind we'll focus on here, uses, well, chemicals (more specifically alpha or beta hydroxy acids or fruit enzymes) to gently dissolve surface skin cells and the intracellular glue that holds them together so they are more easily removed.

How Often Should I Use A Chemical Exfoliant?

Most derms we've spoken to recommend easing into an exfoliating routine with just one to two days per week to start, and then working your way up to no more than three to four days per week from there.

“It’s very important to mention that neither chemical nor physical exfoliants should be a part of your daily skincare routine,” says Whitney Yehling, an esthetician at POMP. “Over-exfoliating is possible and if you notice signs of this (excessive dryness, redness, peeling/flaking, soreness or inflammation) stop exfoliating and discuss the products you’re using with your esthetician or dermatologist before easing back in.”

What Are the Different Types Of Acids?

The most commonly used acids found in chemical exfoliants are as follows:

  • Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

  • Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs)

  • Glycolic Acid (a type of AHA)

  • Lactic Acid (another type of AHA)

  • Salicylic Acid (a type of BHA)

If you are acne-prone or tend to easily get blackheads, BHAs are your best bet. "Beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid or willow bark extract have keratin-dissolving properties that can break down dead skin cell build-up and decongest pores," says Engelman.

If you have dry or dull skin, Engelman recommends an AHA. "Alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic or lactic acid has the smallest particle size, meaning it is the most effective at breaking down the cellular bonds, which in turn, helps to reveal new, fresh skin cells." What this means for you: Major glow.

If you have sensitive skin that is easily irritated, try a PHA. "Polyhydroxy acids like gluconolactone or lactobionic acids have a larger molecular structure than AHAs and BHAs, which means they take longer to penetrate the skin and they won’t penetrate as deeply, so they’re a much milder way to exfoliate," explains Engelman.

The market is saturated with options, so we narrowed down some options for you to try, according to skin type, specific skin issues and, of course, budget.

1. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Extra Strength Daily Peel

The Derm Favorite

Inspired by a top dermatologist’s in-office peels, this two-step peel is a longtime favorite of many fellow derms, celebrities, editors (and their moms). In fact, in the 20 years since its initial launch, it is still the #1 peel at Sephora and one peel is sold every three seconds. Formulated with malic, mandelic, salicylic, glycolic and lactic acids, it helps with a number of skin issues from acne to blackheads and sunspots. That said, it is quite potent and could be a tad too strong if you have sensitive skin—in which case, you might want to try the gentler version.

Buy it ($88)

2. The Ordinary Peeling Solution 30ml AHA 30% + BHA 2%

The Fan Favorite

Despite its bright and, quite frankly, bloody looking appearance when you first apply it to your skin, this beloved exfoliant has legions of loyal fans (with over 10,000 reviews on Amazon alone). With a whopping 30 percent alpha hydroxy acid and two percent beta hydroxy acid formula, it’s meant to be used sparingly and exactingly. That is, at night, no more than twice a week, on a freshly washed and dried face and rinsed with lukewarm water after no more than 10 minutes. As one reviewer noted: “This is powerful stuff, so I don't use this any more than once a week—and that's more than enough. It lightens or eliminates any sunspots or discoloration on your skin and makes your face feel soooooo smooth."

Buy It ($8)

3. Versed Skincare Doctors Visit

Best for a Quick Glow

This two-minute mask is great for those mornings when you wake up with a dull pallor to your face and need to turn things around quickly before your next Zoom call. Loaded with three different types of acids, including AHA, BHA and fruit enzymes, it dissolves dead skin (the enemy of glow), while delivering a boost of vitamin C for instant radiance.

Buy it ($18)

4. Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA +BHA Pore-Tight Toner

Best for Sensitive Skin

For a gentle, gradual glow, we love this alcohol-free toner that feels bouncy to the touch and uses polyhydroxy acid (PHA) and willow bark (a natural form of BHA) to unclog pores without causing any irritation. Watermelon extract and cactus water soothe and hydrate, while imparting an enjoyably fruity scent. “It definitely makes skin feel instantly hydrated, plump, and gives an overall clean feel. Have had no issues with this product and seems to work well with most moisturizers,” says one fan.

Buy it ($34)

5. AMOREPACIFIC Treatment Enzyme Exfoliating Powder Cleanser

Best for Beginners

If you’re nervous about overdoing it on the exfoliating, we’d recommend this enzyme powder that is activated by adding water and gently removes dead skin cells with zero stinging sensation. Made with green tea-derived probiotic enzymes (lactobacillus ferment, to be exact) and papaya enzymes, it can be used daily to keep your skin bright and clear. One reviewer calls it her “holy grail product,” adding that it “is so soft and doesn't irritate [her] skin at all.” Another recommends it for people like her who have “skin that’s too sensitive to use acids.” Despite the initial sticker shock, the powder is meant to be doled out conservatively (no more than a light sprinkle at a time) so one bottle lasts a fairly long time.

Buy it ($60)

6. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

Best for Bumpy Skin

Chances are that if you have a bump—whether it’s a whitehead, a case of keratosis pilaris, or just your run-of-the-mill pimple—this liquid exfoliant can help. Made with a combo of salicylic acid and green tea leaf extract, it clears pores while soothing any inflammation. As one review (among the over 9,000 and counting) exclaims: “I’ve had many procedures and many trips to the dermatologist. Nothing I’ve ever used, nothing I’ve ever done, has made such a profound difference in the appearance of my skin. If I could give it 100 stars I would.” This editor has been using it nightly on her upper arms to clear up her persistent keratosis pilaris.

$30 at Amazon

7. Dermalogy by Neogenlab Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Pads

Best for Oily Skin

Each pad features three layers of textured cotton and gauze mesh to sweep away sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells without causing irritation. Plus, they’re soaked in a Vitamin C rich serum and lemon extract, which, in addition to smelling great, leaves your skin radiant. Fans love that the pads are “easy to use” and “convenient,” praising them for being more effective and much less messy than scrubs.

$27 at Amazon

8. BeautyCounter Counter+ Overnight Resurfacing Treatment

Best in Clean Beauty

This lightweight serum uses both resurfacing acids and soothing acids to encourage cell turnover and improve skin texture, while being gentle on the skin. Formulated without PEGs and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, it’s chockfull of botanically derived ingredients to give you a healthier glow. Fans also praised its texture and finish: “It felt like a little drop of oil that my skin instantly absorbed. My skin instantly felt soft after applying this, so I was really excited to see my skin in the morning. Very smooth. Very clear. No tacky feeling.”

Buy it ($63)

9. Peter Thomas Roth PRO Strength 10% PHA Exfoliating Clarifying Liquid

Best for Maskne (and Acne)

If you’re experiencing maskne—that is mask-related acne—you’re not alone. Face masks, while important for our safety, can trap in humidity, dirt, oil and sweat causing breakouts. Proper hygienic measures will help (i.e., washing them regularly in hot water) as will adding a clarifying treatment like this one to your routine. With 10 percent gluconolactone (PHA), five percent glycolic acid (AHA), and 0.5% salicylic acid (BHA), it’s basically the trifecta of pore-clearing ingredients. Use nightly to keep bumps at bay.

Buy it ($58)

10. CosRx AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner

Best for All-Over Use

Thanks to the mist-on formula, this skin clarifying toner can be used anywhere your hands can’t reach—like your mid-back, where bumps often form. AHA and BHA keep pores clear, while allantoin soothes and softens. One reviewer cleared up a bad bout of bacne using it. As she explains, “I had an IUD implanted a few months ago and it caused my first ever breakout on my upper back. I was tempted to take it out, but I tried this spray first. After three nights of spraying this on my back, the acne from the IUD is almost gone! I'm so glad I thought to use this before having it taken out.”

Buy It ($19)

11. GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid Overnight Glow Peel

Best Pads

For those seeking that Gwyneth glow (and really, who isn’t?), this weekly treatment is packed with an impressive 15 percent glycolic acid, making it one of the most potent at-home peels we’ve ever tried. To use, slip your fingertips inside the glove and swipe the soft side over the delicate skin of your face and the textured side over your neck, chest and shoulders. Note: You will likely feel a tingling sensation at first, but you will also wake up with a well-rested radiance that’s hard to come by these days.

Buy it ($125)

12. Summer Fridays Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution

Best for Dry Skin

New from the brand that has perfected the overnight treatment (we love you, Jet Lag Mask), this exfoliating serum is packed with niacinamide and 16 percent AHAs from lactic acid and glycolic acid to slough off dead cells, visibly brighten your complexion and reduce the appearance of pores while you sleep. “After cleansing at night, I rub this amazing product all over my face and wake up with an amazing glow. I'm in my upper 30s and this makes my skin super soft. The appearance of my skin is also getting smoother. I love that this product has no alcohol, so it doesn't dry out my skin,” says one fan.

Buy it ($54)

13. Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate® Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment

Best for Makeup Lovers

As any makeup lover knows, applying foundation over rough, uneven skin is a frustrating endeavor—which is where this leave-on treatment comes in. Used weekly, it dissolves dead skin buildup with a blend of glycolic, malic and lactic acids, as well as, pumpkin, papaya and pineapple enzymes. The result? Smooth, soft-to-the-touch skin. “I have very textured skin from when I was younger and now that I'm getting older and I'm getting wrinkles, my acne scars show up more. I hate the way makeup looks on my skin and to have noticed a difference in just a week blows my mind. Even the pores on my T zone are smaller,” says one reviewer.

Buy it ($58)

14. Moon Juice Acid Potion Resurfacing Exfoliator

Best for Large Pores

We were pleasantly surprised by this nourishing exfoliator (which some have called a natural dupe to Biologique Recherge's P50, a cult French tonic that’s known for its potency). With five acids including glycolic, lactic and salicylic and niacinamide in the formula, it boosts cell turnover and minimizes the appearance of pores. Reishi improves barrier function and reduces redness. “Four hours of sleep, no filter, no makeup, and my skin still looks good,” raves one fan. “I have bad acne scarring post Accutane, redness, and pores that resemble small swimming pools. It hasn’t even been that long [since I started using it] and I can already see my skin transforming,” she adds.

Buy it ($42)

15. Dr.G Brightening Peeling Gel

Most Satisfying to Use

Ever hear of a gommage peel? Gommage, which means “to erase,” in French is a popular spa treatment that combines physical and chemical exfoliation to shed dead skin cells. In this case, natural cellulose creates a pilling effect on the surface of your skin, as you rub your fingertips over it. The experience is very tactile and satisfying because you can actually see little gritty balls of gunk (which is a combo of the aforementioned cellulose and the dead skin cells it picks up along the way).

$13 at Amazon

16. Herbivore Botanicals Prism 12% Exfoliating Serum

Best for Layering

If you’re one of those people who light to layer their products, you’ll enjoy the lightweight texture of this serum. Packed with 12 percent AHAs and 3 percent BHAs, it leaves your skin feeling smooth and glowing. It also contains kakadu plum—a natural source of vitamin C—to brighten dull skin, while aloe water and hyaluronic acid sooth and hydrate. To use, apply four to eight drops to clean skin and pat into skin before applying moisturizer.

Buy it ($54)

17. Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask

Best for Combo Skin

Formulated with natural BHA and enzymes, this decadent face mask reduces the appearance of pores and improves the overall texture and tone of your skin. Pink clay absorbs excess oils and buildup from the surface, while pomegranate enzymes brighten. Use weekly to reset skin (and dab a little over blemishes to shrink them overnight). “It consistently gives me good results. I notice a real difference in texture without any of the harsh side effects I've sometimes gotten with other exfoliators,” says one fan, while another commended it for being the only face mask her husband and her both love despite their different skin types. (She has dry skin; he has oily.)

Buy it ($65)

18. Sunday Riley Good Genes

Best for Smoothing Texture

A go-to for one of our most discerning editors, she calls this exfoliating treatment a game-changer. As she shares, “It promises to clarify, smooth and retexturize the appearance of skin—and it actually does. Every morning I apply it all over my face, layering it underneath a water gel moisturizer and sunscreen, and my skin looks even-toned and dewy. You only use one pump at a time, which eases the blow of the price tag.”

Buy it ($85)

19. Pixi Glow Tonic

The Cult Favorite

This UK import is made with five percent glycolic acid and aloe vera, so it’s strong enough to slough off any dead skin (which can get trapped in the mix with oil, sebum, and keratin and clog your pores) without being overly irritating. “I have said goodbye to exfoliating scrubs,” exclaims one fan. “This product is so gentle on your skin, does not smell harsh and genuinely does what it says on the bottle. Effects are rapid and the change in my skin is positively noticeable. Worth every penny,” she adds.

Buy It ($18)

20. REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Toner

Best for Brightening

As the name implies, this toner is meant to give you a “ready steady glow.” It’s not a quick fix like some of the others on this list but rather it keeps your skin in the clear with continued use, (which is why we always keep a bottle on hand). The crisp citrus scent offers a nice pick-me-up, while the lactic acid and willow bark extract unclog pores and azelaic acid brightens. We also like the push-pump top because it dispenses a modest amount of tonic without any of the accidental spills or overpouring that can happen with liquids.

Buy it ($38)

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