Chemical Exfoliation Explained. What is the Best Chemical Exfoliator for you?

There are two types of chemical exfoliators: AHA's and BHA's. We will break down the different types of chemical exfoliators and which exfoliator is best for your skin type.
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Exfoliation is when we encourage the skin to shed its excess dead skin cells to reveal the fresh skin that looks and feels more radiant and healthy. Our skin naturally sloughs off its dead skin cells to allow fresh skin cells to come to the surface about every 30 days, but it does not get rid of all unwanted dead skin especially as we age. As we age our cellular turnover rate slows down and this can lead to dull, flakey skin and even fine lines and wrinkles.

Exfoliation is also very crucial in acneic skin as the cellular turnover rate is too fast in acne-prone skin which can cause congestion and breakouts.  There are two different ways you can exfoliate your skin at home; physical exfoliation where you can use an abrasive such as a facial brush or scrub that contains tiny abrasive particles and the second is chemical exfoliation, where we rely on products that contain chemical acids to slough off the dead skin. Chemical exfoliation is much more effective than physical as it can treat other skin conditions as well.

You may have a negative perception of chemicals as natural products continue to grow in popularity, however, chemicals can also be natural compounds found in things like fruits and plants. Throughout my career as an Esthetician, I have learned both natural and clinical ways of treating the skin. Some of you may be timid to use active ingredients like a chemical acid. I am here to assure you that using acid to exfoliate and treat other conditions of the skin is extremely effective and can actually be better for certain skin conditions like acne and rosacea.  I want to present to you what exfoliating acids are available and which might be best for your skin type, tone, and skincare goals. 

Types of Chemical Exfoliants: The Difference Between AHA’s and BHA’s

When it comes to chemical acids there are two main types. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s), which are water-soluble, and beta hydroxy acids (BHA’s) which are oil soluble. There are many AHA’s and just one BHA. View the table below to learn more about where each chemical acid is derived from and what it is best used for in skincare.

Alpha Hydroxy AcidsDerived FromBest For
Glycolic AcidSugar caneCongested and dull skin, lighter skin tones
Lactic AcidMilkHyperpigmentation, sensitive, dry or mature skin
Malic AcidApplesHyperpigmentation
Mandelic AcidBitter almondsSensitive & inflamed skin, acne
Citric AcidCitrus fruitsStabilizing other acids and Ph, preservative
Tartaric AcidGrapesStabilizing and enhancing other acids and Ph
Kojic AcidFermented foodsHyperpigmentation, lightening, lighter skin tones
Beta Hydroxy AcidDerived FromBest For
Salicylic AcidWillow barkOily skin and acne

All of the acids shown above are exfoliating but they range in other characteristics. Some acids are better for sensitive skin like mandelic or lactic acids; this tends to be due to the molecular weight of a molecule. Mandelic and lactic both have a larger molecule meaning they will not penetrate the skin as fast or as deep, so there is less irritation or burning sensation for sensitive skin types.

Glycolic acid on the other hand has the smallest of molecular weights or the smallest molecule so it can penetrate the skin very easily and deeply making it great for tough or thick skin and congestion, but it can also easily irritate sensitive skin types.

Another important thing to note about Glycolic acid is that it can be contraindicated for darker skin tones (Fitzpatrick 4-6). This is because the quick rate in which it enters the skin can be too much too fast for darker skin and this can cause unwanted hyperpigmentation. The key is to slowly introduce the acid into your regimen so that your skin can acclimate to it.

How to Use a Chemical Exfoliant

Like I mentioned above with slowly acclimating your skin to an acid if you have a deeper skin tone, this is a good general rule for anyone to follow who hasn’t used many active products. There are many products that can contain a chemical exfoliant. These range from toners, serums, and masks. Products with chemical acids will have a certain percentage or concentration of the acid.

I recommend starting with a lower percentage product usually toners are a good place to start. Then as your skin becomes acclimated you can add in a product with a higher concentration like a serum and use on alternating days at first or maybe even just a couple times a week. It is also a good idea to patch test a new active product before using it on your face. Regular exfoliation is important to improve any skin condition or issue but it is very critical that you are mindful and careful while utilizing acids in your routine, as you do not want to overdo it and compromise the skin in any way.

Working with an Esthetician

With so many potentially exfoliating products out there it can be easy to start chemically exfoliating, but it can also be easy to over-exfoliate which can compromise the skin barrier making it overly sensitized, dry, or even chemically burned. That is why I recommend consulting with a skincare professional when implementing a chemical exfoliant.

An Esthetician will not only help to steer you towards the best exfoliating products for you and your skin but can also instruct you on the frequency of use and make sure that the rest of the products in your routine will play nice and keep your skin balanced. Medical Aestheticians can also perform treatments on you that exfoliate deeper than your at-home exfoliants, such as chemical peels, dermaplane, and microdermabrasion which allows your skin to achieve quicker results in what you are trying to treat as well as helps your at-home active products to penetrate more efficiently into your skin.

The easiest way for you to start addressing your skin concerns is to find an esthetician that can help guide you. You can also chat online with a certified Esthetician here at Pomp who can recommend the best exfoliating product for you. I strongly believe in the power of regular exfoliation is an essential step in everyone’s skincare regimen and wish you all the best in your skincare journey!

Nicole Hatfield
NBC HWC & Certified Esthetician, Founder of Radiant Beings Wellness & Beauty Coaching

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