Skip to main content
The 4-1-1 On Chemical Exfoliants
June 15, 2020 at 4:00 PM
by Jessica Kelley
thumbnail (5).jpg

Skin naturally sheds billions of skin cells every day. In fact, it is said that 90% of household dust is made up of dead skin cells...ummm, EW! As we age, this natural shedding process slows down or stops due to many factors, such as: sun damage, dry skin, oily skin, genetics, or skin disorders. The results of this is dull, dry or flaky skin, clogged pores, blemishes, and uneven skin tone. Exfoliation is a key step to help the skin to balance itself and get rid of dead skin cell build up, while helping you to achieve a gorgeous, radiant complexion. And while some great physical and mechanical forms of exfoliation are available to us, one of my favorite methods of exfoliation is chemical exfoliation!

A mild skincare acid, either in the form of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), can work wonders on your skin! The main benefit of AHAs and BHAs is that they exfoliate by promoting skin turnover by breaking down dead skin cells for a clearer, smoother, more radiant complexion. But, while acids can give you that coveted glow, using them incorrectly can cause irritation and redness.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) are acids derived from natural substances such as sugar cane, milk, and grapes. They work by melting the intercellular glue that holds our skin cells together, to help the skin’s natural shedding process. AHA’s are made up of tiny molecules of water-loving and water-soluble acids. AHA’s are preferred for sun-damaged and dry skin because they exfoliate the skin’s surface and have the added benefit of also improving its moisture content. AHA’s don’t penetrate as deep as BHA’s (Beta Hydroxy Acids) and the effects are felt on the surface of the skin. AHA’s are great for skin rejuvenation!

Some AHA’s to know:

  • Glycolic Acid: derived from sugar cane; of all the AHAs, this is the MVP, the one you have definitely heard of. It has some of the smallest molecules of all AHAs which means it penetrates the surface incredibly quickly, hence the tingling sensation you get after applying it. Traditionally derived from sugar cane, Glycolic Acid is one of the best acids for corrective exfoliation and is pretty good at keeping the skin hydrated too.
  • Lactic Acid: derived from milk; another popular member of the team, Lactic Acid is slightly gentler on the skin than Glycolic. Extracted from fermented milk, it delivers an equal balance of exfoliating and hydrating benefits plus it has mild antibacterial properties, making it a great ingredient for acne sufferers. It also doesn’t tingle as much on the skin, so it’s ideal if you are new to AHAs.
  • Mandelic Acid: derived from bitter almonds; this is even larger in molecular structure than the previous two acids and is relatively non-irritating for most skin types. Traditionally it is derived from bitter almonds and has similar benefits to Lactic Acid, however, it is also thought to help control melanin production within the skin which is why it is such a popular ingredient in hyperpigmentation treatments.
  • Tartaric Acid: derived from grapes; if Glycolic Acid has the smallest sized molecules, Tartaric Acid has the biggest. Due to its large size, it penetrates the skin very slowly and tends to do most of its work within the top layers of the skin, so it causes little to no irritation or redness. It still exfoliates and softens the skin but it tends to take longer to show results, which is why it is often paired with other acids as a kind of support act to the main event.
  • Malic acid: derived from apples and pears; major kudos if you've heard of this acid, because this is one of the lesser known members of the AHA family. Apples are the main source of Malic Acid and along with all the expected exfoliating benefits, this acid has been shown to increase collagen levels within the skin and can even help to treat melasma without making the skin overly sensitive.
  • Citric Acid: derived from citrus fruits; although not as popular as the other AHAs, Citric Acid is used in more products than you realise. Extracted from citrus fruits like lemons and oranges, it helps to remove dead and damaged cells from the surface of the skin like any other acid but it also has antioxidant benefits which can repair cell damage and even brighten pigmented skin at the surface.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) are an oil-loving acid. BHA is preferred for oily, acne-prone skin and for treating blackheads and whiteheads. BHA’s can get through the oil that clogs pores and helps to normalize the lining of the pore that contributes to acne. BHA’s have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. BHA’s are oftentimes preferred for those struggling with rosacea. However, not everyone with rosacea can tolerate an exfoliant...it’s best to experiment with a BHA product to see how rosacea responds. It is likely you’ll see less redness and a smoother, even skin with fewer breakouts.

Some BHAs to know:

  • Salicylic Acid: derived from the Willow Bark Tree; Salicylic Acid is the most commonly used BHA and is one of the best ingredients for treating acne and problematic skin and is a high weight molecule, which means it cannot penetrate the skin deeply, and therefore it is most effective on the skin's surface. It helps to smooth out fine lines, soften the skin structure, and remove hyperpigmentation or scarring. Salicylic Acid is fat soluable, meaning that it can penetrate deeper into the pores in order to dissolve the build-up of sebum and old skin cells. It is therefore more suitable for oily or combination skin with both open and blocked pores, to dissolve congestion that can lead to inflammation in the skin, and to balance the production of sebum. Salicylic Acid is also anti-inflammatory which makes it a good choice for people with rosacea or inflamed acne.
  • Citric Acid: derived from citrus fruits and considered a crossover acid, meaning it can be an AHA or a BHA depending on its formulation. (This is why it's on BOTH lists!)

When using any products that contain chemical exfoliants, you MUST apply a full-spectrum SPF (however we encourage you to wear SPF daily)! This is because the act of removing the top layer of dead cells exposes the new skin that is hiding beneath, which is more prone to damage from UV rays. Remember, don’t use one without the other!

Anything I missed? Send me a shoutout and I'll answer your question.

Stay healthy, stay well, and have a beautiful day!

xo - Jessie

Become an AO Lifestyle VIP!

Stay updated on all of our news, sales, blogs, and special events! Sign up to receive our newsletter and stay in the know.