Everything You Need to Know About Chemical Exfoliants Before Applying Them to Your Skin

Discover what's best for your skin type and needs.

Chemical Exfoliation
Photo: Lara Callahan / Refinery29 for G/Getty Images

With chemical exfoliants becoming all the rage in recent years, it seems like everyone's constantly on the prowl for the next best resurfacing product.

But before you pick up your next AHA, BHA, or PHA serum, it's probably a good idea to do a little research on the ingredients to make sure you're using what's right for your skin type and needs. Because let's face it, the last thing any of us needs right now is for our skin to start flaring up due to a bad reaction to a new product.

Luckily, you won't have to prowl Google to find the answers. Instead, we reached out to three top dermatologists to give you the facts — straight.

Here's everything you'll ever need to know about chemical exfoliants.

What Are the Most Common Types of Chemical Exfoliants?

Alpha hydrocxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and poly hydroxy acids (PHAs) are among the most popular. "Alpha hydroxy acids include glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid," says Dr. Elyse Love, a board-certified New York City-based dermatologist. "Beta hydroxy acid is synonymous with salicylic acid."

There are also PHAs. "Examples include gluconolactone and gluconic acid," Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, shares.

What's the Difference Between the Three?

"Although AHAs and BHAs are both hydroxy acids, they differ in their composition and mechanism of action," explains Dr. Tess Mauricio, a San Diego-based dermatologist. "Alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble substances that act as a chemical instead of a physical exfoliant like a scrub. It allows exfoliation of the skin and improved penetration of products. Beta hydroxy acids are lipid soluble and penetrate the skin through the oil glands. BHA tend to be preferred in skin conditions like acne where oil production is part of the disease process."

PHAs, on the other hand, have a larger chemical structure than AHAs, making them ideal for those with sensitive skin. "They even have humectant properties, helping to hydrate the skin," says Dr. Zeichner.

Is It a Good Idea to Mix Chemical Exfoliants?

It depends. Mixing acids can make certain treatments more effective, but you should avoid doing this on your own.

"Since each exfoliant interacts with the skin in slightly different ways and provides slightly different benefits, exfoliants can be combined to provide multiple benefits with one treatment and/or more intense benefits with one treatment," Dr. Love says.

But if you want to go this route, it's best to leave it to the professionals to do the work for you. "Using too high a concentration of a single acid may be too irritating," Dr. Zeichner says. Dr. Love adds that there are many products on the market that offer safe combination formulas for at-home use — so your best bet is to stick with those.

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Which Acids Are Best for Sensitive Skin?

If your skin is prone to sensitivity, Dr. Zeichner recommends sticking with PHAs since they are more gentle on the skin and offer hydrating benefits. Dr. Mauricio suggests that depending on your skin needs, using low concentrations of AHAs or BHAs can also suffice. "Salicylic acid at lower concentration is preferred for sensitive skin," she says. "A lower concentration glycolic acid exfoliant can also be well tolerated by those with sensitive skin. Lactic acid is effective in treating dry skin."

How Often Should I Be Applying Chemical Exfoliants to My Skin?

"Stronger agents should be used two to four times a month, while daily options may be incorporated into the skincare routine on a daily to weekly basis," says Dr. Love. However, for those with darker skin tones, be mindful of any developing irritation and halt use if you notice your skin seems to be flaring up. Irritation from these acids can lead to hyperpigmentation.

How Long Will It Take to See Results?

Let's just say if you're looking for an instant or overnight treatment, this your best bet. "Glycolic acid tends to deliver instant exfoliation which is one of the reasons it is very popular," Dr. Mauricio shares. "The exfoliation that happens can result in instantly brighter, fresher, and smoother skin."

However, not all acids are built the same. "PHAs are slower to work because they have a more gentle effect on the skin," says Dr. Zeichner, adding that in the end, they will all give you the same results.

Which Chemical Exfoliants Do Dermatologists Recommend?

There are a plethora of products on the market that offer chemical exfoliation benefits, these are a few of the MDs' go-tos. But no matter which one you choose, make sure to consult with your dermatologist prior to use to ensure that it will work for your unique skin type.

Chemical Exfoliants

No7 Laboratories Resurfacing Skin Paste

"For those who are looking for an affordable over the counter product with effective chemical exfoliants, I like to recommend the No7 Laboratories Resurfacing Skin Paste," Dr. Mauricio shares. "This product contains Derma-Peel Complex with a AHA & PHA blend with skin soothing licorice and powerful glycolic acid complex for those who want a luxurious spa like treatment at home."

To shop: $23; skinstore.com

Chemical Exfoliants - Glow Recipe

Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA +BHA Pore-Tight Toner

"The new watermelon toner combines BHAs and PHAs to remove excess oil and dead cells from the skin to minimize the appearance of pores and maintain skin hydration," Dr. Zeichner says.

To shop: $34; sephora.com

InnBeauty Foam Around clarifying daily cleanser

Innbeauty Project Foam Around Clarifying Daily Cleanser

"It combines glycolic and lactic acids with gluconolactone in a formula that brightens without overly drying the skin," Dr. Zeichner shares.

To shop: $22; credobeauty.com

How to Fade Dark Spots - OBAGI CLINICAL Blue Brilliance™ Triple Acid Peel

Obagi Clinical Blue Brilliance Triple Acid Peel

"I am partial to in-office peels, but I have been using the Obagi Clinical Blue Brilliance Triple Acid Peel, which contains salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid, during social distancing and have noticed a visual improvement in skin smoothness," says Dr. Love.

To shop: $145; obagi.com

Daily Repair Pads

Vivant Skin Care Daily Repair Pads

"I also use Vivant Skincare Daily Repair Pads, which contain salicylic, lactic, and mandelic acid a few times a week during the warmer months to control oil production," the MD adds.

To shop: $66; dermstore.com

What Should I Be Most Mindful of When Using These Products?

Simply put, don't do the most. "Be cautious when combining hydroxy acids with manual scrubs or other sensitizing ingredients like retinol," says Dr. Zeichner.

However, feel free to slap on the SPF since these acids increase your risk of sunburn, and thus, sun damage.

Oops, I Didn't Listen. How Can I Repair My Skin If I Went Overboard with Chemical Exfoliants?

If you're noticing any irritation, stop using all exfoliating products immediately, including retinols or retinoids. You should also avoid applying any forms of vitamin C to the skin. Instead, swap your regular routine out for more gentle products.

"Use a simple balm or cream-based face wash with no active ingredients and a soothing moisturizer," Dr. Love suggests. The derm suggests using products like Avene's Soothing Cleansing Cream, Vichy's Mineral 89 Hyaluronic Acid Gel Face Moisturizer, and La Roche Posay's Double Repair Face Moisturizer until your skin has settled down.

"If the skin has developed a rash, it may be beneficial to [talk to] a dermatologist for a prescription anti-inflammatory agent to calm the skin," she continues. "This is particularly important for patients who tend to develop dark spots in areas of prior rashes or pimples. Treating the irritation early can decrease the effects of post-inflammatory changes."

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