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A wide range of ingredients are added to skin care formulas as chemical exfoliants. These range from gentle ingredients suitable for daily use (like lactic acid, for example, to stronger ingredients (like glycolic acid), which can work as an at-home chemical peel.
A versatile and effective group of ingredients, you can find chemical exfoliants in a whole range of skincare formulas, from cleansers to toners to masks. Let's take a closer look at how they work.
How does chemical exfoliation work?
When you think of exfoliation, you may first think of scrubs or abrasive tools that work to physically slough off the top layer of the skin. These are known as physical exfoliants, and while a good scrub can feel satisfying, this method can be harsh on your delicate skin barrier.
Chemical exfoliants are a gentle yet effective alternative.
The low pH of acids or enzymes works to dissolve and wash away the dry, dull, or dead cells on the skin's surface or within the pore. Essentially, the "glue" of the skin is broken down to reveal the glowy, fresh skin underneath.
The skin is resurfaced, all without the need for harsh scrubbing.
What does chemical exfoliation do?
Chemical exfoliants deliver visible results for a wide range of skin concerns, which is why they're widely considered a skincare staple.
They can help to treat or prevent acne, fade hyperpigmentation, minimize visible pores, reduce fine lines, balance oily skin, hydrate dry skin, and treat sun damage.
While this list is extensive, it's worth noting that not every chemical exfoliant ingredient will be suitable for every skin concern or skin type. It's worth getting familiar with different exfoliant ingredients to help figure out which formulas will work best for your skin.
Types of chemical exfoliants
Most chemical exfoliant ingredients are classified as a type of acid: an AHA, a BHA, or a PHA. All work slightly differently and have distinct characteristics that make them suitable for a range of different skin concerns.
Here's a rundown:
AHA stands for alpha-hydroxy acid, a group of water-soluble acids that are usually derived from fruit. They work to peel away the surface of the skin to reveal even, smooth skin underneath.
AHAs can help to correct discoloration, improve the appearance of fine lines, prevent breakouts, brighten your complexion, tighten large pores, and increase product absorption.
They are especially effective at targetting the signs of aging, though can also have acne-fighting properties.
The most common AHAs found in skincare are glycolic acid (from sugar cane) and lactic acid (from lactose). These have been found to be the most effective with a lower risk of irritation.
Other types of AHAs include citric acid (from citrus fruit), hydroxy caproic acid (from royal jelly), hydroxycaprylic acid (from animals), malic acid (from fruit), and tartaric acid (from grapes).
BHA stands for beta-hydroxy acid. These oil-soluble acids penetrate the pore to cleanse dead skin cells and excess sebum.
BHAs are particularly effective for combination to oily skin that is prone to acne, bumps, congestion, or enlarged pores. They also have skin-calming properties that make them suitable for those who are prone to sensitive skin, rosacea, or redness.
The most common BHA found in skincare is salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid is effective as an acne-busting ingredient. It penetrates the pore and fights the inflammation and redness that comes with breakouts.
Plus, salicylic acid has bacteria-fighting properties to help keep further breakouts at bay.
PHA stands for poly-hydroxy acid. These glow-getting acids actually fall under the umbrella of AHAs. The difference is they have larger molecules.
PHAs can't penetrate as deeply, making them more effective for sensitive skin types. While they're peeling quality won't be as strong as glycolic acid, for example, they can be formulated for safe daily use.
PHAs help to gently clean up the surface layer of the skin to reveal soft, smooth, hydrated skin. The most common PHAs are gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid.
The most gentle of the chemical exfoliants, fruit enzymes work to dissolve the bonds on the top layer of the skin. The most common are pineapple or papaya enzymes.
Fruit enzymes can be used on their own as a gentle exfoliant, or formulated with acids for an extra resurfacing boost.
How to add a chemical exfoliant to your routine
Chemical exfoliants are found in a diverse range of skincare products. Some are formulated to be washed off (such as a face wash or mask) while some can be left on your skin (like a toner, for example).
How often you can use a chemical exfoliant will rely on factors such as the specific ingredient, your skin's tolerance, and the other products in your routine. A gentle toner can be used daily, but a harsher peel mask should be used at most once a week.
Many ingredients work well together, but remember that any chemical exfoliant increases your risk of irritation or sensitivity.
The more ingredients that are used on your skin, the greater your chance of a reaction. If you want to include multiple exfoliant ingredients in your routine, it's better to not mix and match them yourself. Instead, ditch the guesswork and choose a product that has them pre-combined in a safe formula, such as a mask that contains both AHA and BHA.
It is possible to use chemical exfoliants in a routine with retinoids (such as acne-fighting adapalene or over-the-counter tretinoin). However, extra caution should be taken. As these both work to turn over the surface of the skin, the combination is deemed just too irritating for some.
If your skin can tolerate it, remember to never use them at the same time. Try using them on alternating nights, and make sure to support your skin barrier with moisturizer in between.
When you find the right chemical exfoliants for your skin you'll never look back. But with their risk of irritation, it's important to start slow.
Finally, make sure to wear sunscreen. Chemical exfoliants make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so SPF is extra important every morning.
Best Chemical Exfoliants
The vast range of exfoliating products on the market can be daunting, so we've done the hard work to round up our faves. These formulas have been intentionally created and tested by the pros to maximize the results of their chosen ingredients.
As always, all of the products we feature are certified cruelty-free. We want to make it easy to make conscious consumer choices. There's no place for animal testing in the beauty industry.
So, if you're ready for soft, even, glowing skin, here are our top chemical exfoliants:
|Ingredients||Lactic acid, salicylic acid|
|Best for||Dullness, uneven texture, blemishes|
This cleanser is formulated with lactic acid and salicylic acid, both dissolve excess oil on the surface of the skin and within the pores. It also contains jojoba beads for a gentle physical exfoliation that is suitable for even sensitive skin.
This cleanser is a great option to resurface dry skin or fight blemishes for those who are prone to acne. Use it two-three times a week to take advantage of the exfoliating power of AHAs and BHAs while you shower.
|Ingredients||Salicylic acid 2%|
|Product type||Leave-on liquid|
|Best for||Enlarged pores, texture|
This cult favorite toner is a godsend for oily or combination skin. Salicylic acid works deep within the pore to clear out any oil or buildup. The result is visibly minimized pores, with the added bonus of a reduction in fine lines and uneven texture.
This leave-on liquid is gentle enough to use every day in the morning or evening. Use your hands or a cotton round to apply this over a clean face. Follow it up with moisturizer and sunscreen in the morning.
|Ingredients||Lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid,|
|Product type||Wash-off mask|
|Best for||Blemishes, dullness, pores, aging|
Five out of eight acids in this effective exfoliating mask are AHAs. These combine to thoroughly dissolve any dead, dry, or uneven surface skin. For a gentle exfoliating texture, it also contains bamboo powder and berry seeds. The result? Refined pores and a smoother skin texture.
Suitable for even sensitive skin, this mask is gentle enough for daily use. Leave it on for up to five minutes and rub it in with your hands in circular motions to activate a double exfoliation.
|Ingredients||10% glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid|
|Best for||Dullness, blemishes, pores|
Add this affordable serum to your evening routine and you'll have glowing skin by morning. AHAs glycolic and lactic acid are combined with BHA salicylic acid to resurface the skin and unclog pores. When you wake up, your skin will feel smoother and look more radiant.
Use this serum in the evening up to three times a week. Apply it to clean, dry skin and wait a few minutes for it to sink in. Follow up with the rest of your routine, including any hydrating serums or moisturizers. (As a bonus, chemical exfoliation can improve the absorption of the rest of your skincare routine!)
Best For Sensitive Skin:
|Ingredients||Gluconolactone, salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid|
|Best for||Enlarged pores, dryness, dullness|
If your skin is feeling dry or dull, this toner can help bring back that glow.
Gluconolactone (a PHA) works to gently resurface any dead skin cells, while salicylic acid (a BHA) cleanses any buildup within the pore. Hyaluronic acid then works its hydrating powers to soothe and plump that fresh skin. (Note: hyaluronic acid isn't an exfoliant.)
This toner is gentle enough to use daily, either morning or night after cleansing your face. Apply it with a cotton round or with your hands, and make sure to follow it up with sunscreen in the AM.
|Ingredients||Salicylic acid 2%, allantoin 0.5%, zinc compound|
|Product type||Gel cleanser|
|Best for||Blemishes, oiliness|
To get results, chemical exfoliants don't have to stay on your skin long. This is proven by exfoliating cleansers. In the time it takes to rub this foaming cleanser in, salicylic acid is able to penetrate your pores and fight blackheads and breakouts.
A great option for combination or oily skin, this formula also contains allantoin and a zinc compound to soothe and reduce excess sebum. This cleanser is gentle enough to use twice a day. Simply massage it into a dampened face to remove makeup, pollution, and oil.
|Ingredients||Glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid|
|Product type||Wash-off mask|
|Best for||Dullness, uneven texture, blemishes|
You probably recognize this infamous mask for its bright red color that looks like, uh, blood. But aside from the way it looks, this affordable mask has gained popularity for its ability to leave your skin feeling smooth and even in just 10 minutes.
This mask uses glycolic and lactic acid to dissolve the dead, dull skin on the surface, and salicylic acid to clear out the pores.
A great option for acne, this mask can help resurface any scars or texture from previous breakouts, as well as keep future ones at bay. This mask should be used at most twice a week. Preferably in the evenings.
|Best for||Dark spots, hyperpigmentation, fine lines|
Lactic acid is one of the most gentle chemical exfoliants out there. When used daily, this cult favorite serum has a smoothing, brightening effect on the skin to reduce the appearance of dark spots, pores, blemishes, and fine lines.
This serum can be used daily in the morning or evening. If you're on the sensitive side, try introducing it as a mask for 15 minutes at a time.
|Ingredients||Glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid|
|Product type||Wash-off mask|
|Best for||Pores, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, dullness|
This wash-off exfoliating mask is formulated with four different AHAs to reveal smooth, refined skin.
Glycolic, lactic, tartaric and malic acid combine to dissolve dull skin on the surface. This mask can be used to treat both the signs of aging and acne in just 10 minutes. Squalane is added to help hydrate and support the skin's sensitive moisture barrier and to keep fresh skin plump.
Use this mask at most twice a week. Apply it to clean skin and leave it for three-ten minutes. A slight tingle is normal for peeling masks, but never leave it on if this becomes uncomfortable.
|Ingredients||Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, retinol|
|Best for||Anti-aging, uneven texture, blemishes|
These wipe duos use a trifecta of chemical exfoliant ingredients to slough away any dull skin on the surface or within the pore. They also contain retinol to fight the signs of aging.
The first wipe contains glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acid, which work to turn over the skin cells and fight concerns such as wrinkles or blemishes. The second wipe then plumps the skin with the hydrating power of hyaluronic acid. It also contains retinol to further encourage skin cell turnover.
While combining chemical exfoliants and retinol in your routine should be approached with caution, these wipes are an example of trusting the pros. Formulated to balance each other out, these extra strength peel wipes can be worked up to daily use.
After cleansing, massage Step 1 onto your skin until the pad is dry. Wait two minutes before doing the same with Step 2. When your skin is dry, continue your routine with a moisturizer to keep that fresh skin hydrated and glowing.
|Ingredients||Salicylic acid, papain enzymes (from papaya)|
|Product type||Powder cleanser|
|Best for||Uneven texture, blemishes|
This unique cleanser formula blurs the line between physical and chemical exfoliant.
The rice-based powder cleanser feels slightly textured when first applied but quickly dissolves on wet skin. It harnesses pore-clearing salicylic acid and gently exfoliating papaya enzymes to smooth texture and fight acne.
Apply this powder to wet hands and massage it into your face to form a creamy lather. This exfoliating cleanser is gentle enough for those with sensitive skin or rosacea.
|Ethics||Cruelty-free, clean beauty, vegan, organic|
|Ingredients||Salicylic acid, pomegranate fruit enzymes|
|Product type||Cleansing scrub|
|Best for||Dullness, uneven texture, pores, dryness|
This luxe cleanser will cleanse and exfoliate your skin, without leaving it feeling stripped or squeaky.
While BHAs are often used to target acne, this cleanser uses salicylic acid in its formula to target dullness in dry or combination skin. Salicylic clears out the pores, while pomegranate enzymes and apricot microspheres provide gentle chemical and physical exfoliation on the top layer of the skin.
This cleansing scrub is gentle enough to use twice daily. It's a great choice for the summer months, when there is more surface oil and buildup.
|Ingredients||Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, citric acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, pineapple and papaya enzymes, charcoal|
|Best for||Pores, blemishes|
For those that can't kick the feeling of a good face scrub, this face and body enzyme scrub will be both satisfying and effective.
A mixture of AHAs, BHAs, and fruit enzymes work to dissolve dry, dull skin, while charcoal works to draw impurities out from within the pores. Charcoal also has a gentle physical exfoliant effect to leave your skin feeling deeply detoxed.
Apply a generous amount of this scrub to clean, dry skin on your face and neck. As you start to massage it in, you will notice it balling up as it collects dead skin cells. Rinse the excess off with warm water, and enjoy the satisfaction of freshly scrubbed skin.
This scrub can be used once or twice a week on your face, décolletage, and even underarms.
|Ingredients||Lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, pineapple and papaya enzymes|
|Product type||Wash-off mask|
|Best for||Dullness, aging|
This weekly mask combines the power of AHAs, BHAs, and enzymes to leave your skin bright and glowy. It works on hyperpigmentation, surface texture, and enlarged pores to leave the skin feeling instantly smoother and looking more even.
This supercharged exfoliating mask should only be used once a week and is not suitable for sensitive skin.
Apply a thin layer to clean, dry skin and wash off after two to three minutes. Make sure to follow it up with a rich moisturizer to support the skin barrier and bask in that fresh, exfoliated glow.
|Ingredients||30% glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid|
|Product type||Wash-off mask|
|Best for||Pores, fine lines, uneven texture|
This weekly exfoliating mask is a great option for those that are familiar with glycolic acid exfoliators. It is quick and effective and will tackle any uneven texture or dullness in the skin.
Formulated with hyaluronic to hydrate and plump the skin, this effective mask is surprisingly suitable for sensitive skin types.
Apply this chemical peel mask once every week or two to clean, dry skin. Leave it on for only 30-60 seconds before thoroughly rinsing off.
Remember, it's better to go slow with chemical exfoliants (especially glycolic acid) rather than risk a reaction.
|Ingredients||Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, gluconolactone|
|Best for||Blemishes, redness, pores|
This exfoliating toner is a great option for acne-prone or sensitive skin.
It contains a blend AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs, but is formulated to be gentle enough for daily use. Soothing aloe, glycerin, and niacinamide are added to calm and support the delicate skin barrier after exfoliation.
With daily use, your skin will feel softer and appear more even.
Sweep this exfoliating solution over clean, dry skin using a cotton round. Let it sink in before applying your moisturizer. Don't forget the SPF.
Chemical exfoliants are the key to smooth, glowing skin, but they aren't one-size-fits-all. It's important to respect your unique skin needs and restrictions when choosing the right chemical exfoliant for you.
Whether you choose a cleanser, toner, or peeling mask, make sure to start slow. With gentle, consistent use, chemical exfoliants can help you achieve a glowing, even skin tone.
While it's worth trying a few different formulas to see which ones work best for you, here's a round-up of some of our standouts:
- Best Cleanser: Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
- Best Serum: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
- Best Mask: Alpyn Beauty Wild Huckleberry 8-Acid Polishing Peel Mask
- Best Budget: Good Molecules Overnight Exfoliating Treatment
- Best For Sensitive Skin: Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner
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