SKIN | What the hell is a chemical exfoliant?

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I think most people know that exfoliating is good for your skin, but the new trend of chemical exfoliators is a bit harder to get your head around. What the hell is a chemical exfoliant, and why should you choose it over a scrub?

Because I like to understand what I’m putting on my skin and what it does, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this. The benefit of this is that I will now translate it into a (hopefully) easy to understand blog post for you! So if you’re wondering what AHAs and BHAs are, and why people keep going on about acid toners, READ ON.

First of all, why should we exfoliate?

In essence, exfoliating removes dead skin cells. This improves the texture and appearance of your skin (makes it look nicer), reduces breakouts (makes it behave nicer) and can improve absorption of other skincare products you’re using (making it all-around better).

There are benefits to scrubs and other products that exfoliate in the ‘normal’ way, also known as physical or manual exfoliators. They can help remove dirt and dead skin from the surface of your face. Giving your face a good scrubby-scrub with a flannel or gritty cleanser is satisfying and makes your skin feel squeaky clean.

So what’s wrong with a scrub?

Well, there are a few things. First, lots of scrubs use microbeads, which are tiny balls of plastic. They’re good at exfoliating, but they’re not very good at biodegrading, and that’s pretty shit for the environment. Lena wrote more about this here.

More environmentally friendly scrubs often use chunks of walnut shell or other natural fibres, which are coarse and jagged, even if they’re super small. These can damage and irritate your skin.

Lastly and most importantly, they’re just not as effective! Scrubs can only remove what’s on the surface of your skin, whereas chemical exfoliants get deeper to shed more dead skin cells and promote healthy cell regeneration. Some can clean right into your pores.

How do chemical exfoliants work?

There are two types: AHA, or alpha-hydroxy acids, and BHA, beta-hydroxy acids. The two most popular AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. In cosmetics, BHA refers specifically to salicylic acid – an ingredient you should already know and love, if you have pimples.

AHAs are tiny molecules that penetrate the upper layer of your skin and help dislodge and dissolve dead skin cells. They also promote cell regeneration, meaning your skin repairs itself faster and more effectively. Glycolic acid is better at penetrating the skin than lactic acid, but they both do the job. Chemical exfoliators may contain one or both of these, or other AHAs entirely.

BHA, or salicylic acid, does the same thing, but it can also penetrate into your pores themselves (AHAs can’t do this). This means BHA treatments are often good for people with oily or breakout prone skin, as these are often symptoms of clogged pores. Salicylic acid is also anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant, which makes it extra good for people with acne.

How can I use them?

The most popular way to work AHA/BHAs into your skincare routine is with an exfoliating toner, or an acid toner, after cleansing. If you follow Caroline Hirons, you’ll know she’s a firm proponent of the Pixi Glow Tonic, but by no means is that the only one out there. Lancome does one, and Clarins, but for some reason the Clarins one isn’t sold in New Zealand.

There are also exfoliating pads, such as the Dr Dennis Gross Alpha-Beta Daily Face Peel, or the Go-To Skincare Exfoliating Swipeys. You use these just the same as a toner – after cleansing, and before other serums and moisturiser.

Some moisturisers contain AHAs and BHA, and this is another good way to integrate them into your skincare.

What about exfoliating cleansers?

They’re a nice idea in theory, but cleansers with a chemical exfoliant ingredient are a waste of time: the acids need to stay on your skin in order to work. Washing your face and then washing the cleanser off doesn’t give them enough time to be effective.

I saw the word ‘peel’ up there. Are they the same as a chemical peel? That sounds scary and I don’t want to ruin my skin.

A chemical peel uses the same ingredients as chemical exfoliators, but at a much higher concentration. At lower concentrations, AHAs do all the good things you want an exfoliator to do, but they won’t remove entire layers of skin in the way that a peel may. Most consumer chemical exfoliants have between 5% and 10% glycolic acid, whereas a peel is done by a skincare or healthcare professional and uses concentrations between 20% and 70%.

Is there anything else to know?

AHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you should wear sunscreen after using them (well, you should wear sunscreen all the time, anyway). And as always, pay attention to your skin, and if any product causes irritation, it’s probably a good idea to stop using it.

Are you going to stop writing about chemical exfoliants now?

Nope! Below, I’m going to review some chemical exfoliant products I’ve used.

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MAC Lightful Softening Lotion, $32 USD

This is a borderline acid toner, but it has lots of other good ingredients too, so it’s a good place to start if you want to transition from a pointless-mostly-water toner to something that actually does something. It contains salicylic acid and hyaluronic acid (that moisture-boosting miracle ingredient), as well as Vitamin C. MAC skincare has a particularly skincarey smell, which I like, but some people don’t. I also like the glamorous packaging.

John Plunkett Glyco Peel 25%*, $30 AUD

From one end of the scale to the other; this is probably one of the strongest AHA products you can buy as a consumer. This came in my June Violetbox, and I’m not sure if you can buy it anywhere in New Zealand. This is a clear gel which you apply at night. You can adjust your usage according to your skin’s needs and sensitivity, but JP recommends giving your skin one week on/one week off.

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Go-To Skincare Exfoliating Swipeys*, $49.95 NZD for 50

Cutest name ever? These little pads are very convenient to use, although there is a little bit of concern that the open container may cause the ingredients to be less effective as time goes on and they’re exposed to air. They contain lactic acid (an AHA, remember), and smell pleasantly of citrus. Unfortunately the addition of mandarin and lemon oils to give that citrus scent may cause irritation in some people, but so far, my skin has been fine. (For an essential oil free alternative, check out the Elizabeth Arden Skin Illuminating Pads.)

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SkinMedica AHA/BHA Cream*, $66.70 NZD

The SkinMedica cream contains fruit extracts that belong to the AHA family, although according to Paula’s Choice they are not as effective as glycolic or lactic acid. It also contains salicylic acid, and is a moisturiser, rather than a standalone topical treatment. It feels light and silky on the skin, and contains antioxidants too, which is good (I might write about antioxidants another time?)

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, $68 NZD for 200ml

This product was so promising, but remember what I said about exfoliating cleansers? The chemical part is useless. This does have little scrubbies for manual exfoliation too (jojoba beads, which are biodegradable, so don’t worry about the fishes), so it’s not entirely useless and it is a good cleanser, but don’t think you’re getting what you’re paying for.

I realise that most of these products aren’t available off the shelf in New Zealand, so I scoped out some ingredients lists in Farmers. Here’s what I found:

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Dr Lewinn’s Reversaderm Micro-Cellular Age Correcting Peel, with a combo of AHAs, was $61; Garnier Dark Spot Treatment Night contains 4% glycolic acid and was about $18; Biore Triple Action Toner contains a decent amount of salicylic acid and is $16; So Totally Clean from Formula 10.0.6 contains lactic acid and is $15; and the Palmer’s Anti-Aging Smoothing Lotion contains AHAs and is around $13. Elizabeth Arden also do 5% glycolic acid pads now!

If you read all the way to the end, congratulations on your new-found knowledge of skincare chemistry! Lets start a club of people who are gradually eliminating their hyperpigmentation and scarring with acids that aren’t as scary as they sound. Or just a club for people who wash their faces obsessively and love reading ingredients lists.

Do you use chemical exfoliants? Would you now, after learning a bit more about them?

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  • Lena

    Awesome article Morgan, and thanks for linking me 🙂
    I do use chemical exfoliants, and I’m a big fan. I’ve been using a lactic acid toner from silk naturals, but I’m planning on buying a stronger glycolic acid one from Paula’s Choice.
    One important thing is even if a product does have an acid in it, it needs to be at the right pH to exfoliate, otherwise it’s a waste of time. Stridex extra-strength pads are the right pH but the sensitive ones aren’t. God only knows why they bother making them then.

    I also had a chemical peel done, a fairly gentle one and omg the improvement on my pigmentation has been amazing. I’m planning on getting another one before too long, so my face can be perfect (if that’s even possible).

    • Thanks for pointing out the pH thing! I left it out because it’s really hard to find out the pH of consumer skincare.

      I’ve never had a peel but I am thinking it might be a good idea to get one, to boost the improvements I’m seeing in my skin lately!

      • Lena

        Yeah it’s annoying, I only know because people on forums have tested things that I use, they did the leg work for me. I had one using Dermalogica products and it was really good.

  • I freaking love chemical exfoliants Can I just bathe in them?

    Of these, I’ve used the Skinmedica, although mine looked a little different — it was labelled 15% AHA/BHA and the packaging was a different colour. I’ve also been liking the Garnier serum, and currently the Environ AHA gel. And I’m never without something that has BHA in it!

  • Zoe

    This was so informative! Especially liked the linking to products available at Farmers – v useful.

    • Thanks Zoe, glad it was helpful!

  • Awesome, awesome awesome!! I’ve read in Amazing Face that chemical exfoliants are the best but I had no idea around products. Thanks for enlightening me Morgan.

    • You’re welcome, thanks for your comment!

  • Lucy Amon

    Great article. How much AHA or BHA is too much? How is it best incorporated into a daily regime? Would AHA swipes and a moisturiser be too much? Thanks.

    • Thanks Lucy! It’s really variable depending on your skin. If you have oily skin you’ll probably find you can use it more regularly – for example, I use an AHA toner morning and night, and the stronger peel once or twice a week. For some people, once or twice a week with any product will be enough. I’d recommend seeing how your skin responds after one use, and if there’s no irritation, you should be able to increase it!

  • ally

    So, if I want to use a chemical exfoliant in pad form (think I’m gonna try Stridex… cheap and readily available to me), I cleanse and then swipe and then…..? How long do I need to let the stuff do its thing before I move on to moisturizer? I’d appreciate anyone’s advice. I’m a newbie to chemical exfoliants.

    • I’d suggest giving it about half an hour before moisturiser, especially to begin with. If you feel like it’s not doing much, you can leave it for longer (if you’ve got time), or less time if it feels harsh on the skin.

  • Marina

    Thank you so much for this! I have been following Caroline for a while but have found it near impossible to find any of the products she suggests available in NZ! The alternatives you have mentioned in the post are a great place to start so once again, thank you!

  • Lena and I were talking about this post yesterday after I mentioned I had bought litmus tests to check out the pH of my cleanser! I am scared now that my cleanser is too high on the scale (7-9 depending on whether you add water or not) and think I might have to switch to a chemical exfoliant + a gentler cleanser.

    I am thinking of trying the Pixi glow tonic because a bunch of my fave Korean beauty blogs have given it good reviews. What do you think? I’ve also heard that you need to leave your exfoliant product on for 10-15 minutes before you put any other products on overtop in case the other product interacts and stops the chemical process. Have you heard this? I’m so bad at science!

    • pH is a whole other thing I need to write about! Which cleanser are you using?

      I haven’t used the Pixi tonic but it is widely recognised as being really good!

      Leaving your chemical exfoliant on without putting anything on top means that you don’t risk pushing the pH out of the active range, or interacting, although there’s mixed advice. If you have the patience then there’s no harm in waiting before adding moisturiser, imo.

      • Ya I’ve started waiting when I put vitamin C serum and my benton aloe BHA toner on before adding my other layers even though I’m not sure the logic extends to the vitamin C serum? Prob not a bad thing to let it soak in.

        I’m using the Innisfree green tea cleanser, I honestly think it’s a dream although I will buy a different cleanser next because I want to see if it makes a difference. Maybe I’ll pick up some Pixi tonic when I’m in the UK (let me know if you want a bottle)!

        Would loveeeeeee to read a pH post <3