A Beginner’s Guide to Chemical Exfoliation

Photo: ©ohlamour studio / Stocksy

If you think exfoliation stops at using buffing sponges and grainy cleansers, it’s time to slough off old definitions.

Physical exfoliation involves manually removing dead cells clinging to the top layer of your skin. If you’re like me and rely on facial scrubs to cleanse, you may have overlooked an alternative way to uncover baby-soft skin.

Chemical exfoliators incorporate ingredients that do the work for you. When applied, these special acids and enzymes loosen up and lift away dead skin—plus, the powerful agents penetrate pores to detoxify for an even deeper clean. Chemical exfoliants have distinct uses and yield unique results ranging from ageless, glowing skin to clear complexions for the acne-prone.

How exactly does this work? Let’s get scientific.

The most common types of chemical exfoliators are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). When you hear “AHAs” think water-soluble acids. These exfoliating ingredients are made from sugary fruits and encourage cell regeneration for smoother, tighter, and more even-toned skin. Glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid are among the most well-known AHAs.

BHAs are oil soluble, and these acids venture into pores to unclog and dry out excess sebum effectively preventing skin blockages. The most common BHA is acne eradicator salicylic acid.

If chemical exfoliation isn’t currently part of your skincare routine, check out these game-changing products chock full of AHAs and BHAs to address your most pressing skin concerns.

Good Molecules BHA Clarify Gel Cream, $10

Bye, blemishes! Backed by the powerful (and most famous) BHA, salicylic acid, this weightless gel cream gently exfoliates pores to keep acne away. The vegan formula also blends soothing green tea extracts with hydrating grapeseed oils to keep skin from drying out while treating blemish-prone complexions.


Indie Lee Gentle Daily Peel, $65

Packed with both BHAs and AHAs, these gentle peel pads offer the best of both worlds. With each swipe, the BHA wintergreen exfoliates, purifies, and encourages cell turnover, while AHAs derived from the Australian Caviar Lime (aka Finger Lime) promote hydration and collagen production.


Boscia Exfoliating Peel Gel, $34

This peeling gel works three times harder than conventional cleansers by acting as a physical peel to remove dead cells from your skin’s outer layer, a chemical peel to purge pores of toxins, and a treatment to firm and brighten. Formulated with multi-fruit AHAs such as sugar cane, lemon fruit, and orange extracts, this antioxidant-rich triple threat ventures deep into skin to purify, firm, and impart a natural glow.


Caudalie Glycolic Peel, $39

Arguably the most popular AHA and definitely the hardest working, glycolic acid tackles breakouts, hyperpigmentation, signs of aging and the list goes on. Glycolic peels can be likened to a skin rebirth giving dull complexions a much-needed boost of radiance while building collagen. In just 10 minutes, this two-in-one peel and mask tightens pores, diminishes dark spots, reduces oil, and renews skin texture for luminous results.


HoliFrog Halo AHA + BHA Evening Serum, $58

Make sure your skin drinks in a dose of AHAs and BHAs before bed—it’s the perfect nightcap. Featuring an 11% (!) blend of AHAs (glycolic, lactic, phytic, citric) and BHAs (salicylic acid), this glow-inducing serum clears excess sebum from pores and resurfaces skin while you’re sleeping—it’s a dream. The formula also includes antioxidants and humectants that add hydration to offset potential moisture loss from the high percentage of chemical exfoliants.

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