Over the past few months, my skin has been seriously out of whack. And even though I knew better, I was so afraid of aggravating it further I began skipping one of the most important steps of all: exfoliating. A cardinal skincare sin, I know, but all that microbead business had me paranoid about physical exfoliants (AKA scrubs) and the alternative—acid-based chemical exfoliators—just sounded scary. I was afraid the latter would be too abrasive for my flare-ups.
But finally, after having enough experts tell me I was out of my damn mind for going on a exfoliating hiatus (in retrospect, I totally was), I finally had a go at the chemical stuff. And let me tell you—What. A. Difference.
I haven't been doing it for that long, but my skin is already clearer, brighter, smoother, and healthier-looking. In other words, this is the kind of treatment you want to give yourself when you need to look ***Flawless for an occasion.
"Physical exfoliators can be a bit scratchy for people to use," explains Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salon and Skincare Collection. "Chemical ones are more controllable in terms of depth of the peel—and they technically are more uniform."
One of the key ingredients in these skin-renewing products is glycolic acid, which improves the appearance and texture. "It dissolves dead skin cells and debris from the skin's surface," explains Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care and assistant clinical professor at the department of dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center.
As for as how often you should use a chemical exfoliant, it depends on your skin type, but Dr. Tanzi advises that it should be no more than once or twice a week, and that those that have rosacea or are redness-prone should be using a gentle formula (I'm loving Bioelements' Quick Refiner leave-on gel). It's also important to note that SPF daily is non-negotiable. "Removing part of the dead skin layer will slightly increase sun sensitivity," she adds. So you have to be especially wary of this as spring and summer months approach.
Chemical exfoliants are broken down into two categories: AHAs and BHAs, and each has a different property. AHAs, like lactic or glycolic acid, exfoliate the skin's surface, so that's great if you have dry skin or sun-damaged skin. On the other hand, BHAs like salicylic acid have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, so if you're prone to breakouts and blackheads, these are great for you.
Chemical exfoliants can also vary in intensity, from mild, medium, and intense exfoliation, all depending on the strength of their main ingredients. Mild exfoliants include the cult favorite Pixi skintreats Glow Tonic, which uses a combination of aloe vera, ginseng, botanical extract, and 5% glycolic acid to exfoliate, brighten, and smooth skin; or the Cosrx One Step Pimple Clear Pads, which are BHA-soaked acne pads that will attack breakouts without drying out the skin. The gold standard of medium-strength exfoliation? Vargas (and every beauty editor ever) is obsessed with all of the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta peels, which slough away dead skin cells with kid-glove-tenderness for a natural-looking glow. If you're looking for a serum, Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Treatment also has a cult following not unlike that of the Pixi Glow Tonic, but that's because of the lactic acid in the treatment. It's less irritating than glycolic acid, but just as moisturizing.
The most intense exfoliants involve both AHAs and BHAs, and you'll find that both Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial™ and The Ordinary's AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution are some of the most deeply exfoliating products on the market. At two vastly different price points, both Babyfacial and the Peeling Solution combine free acids to brighten and exfoliate the skin. Babyfacial touts a 25 percent AHA/two percent BHA blend of glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic acids as well as chickpea flour, pumpkin ferment, and a soothing antioxidant blend to give you skin that's–you guessed it!–baby soft. On the opposite end, for less than eight dollars, The Ordinary's Peeling Solution has 30% Alpha Hydroxy Acids (Glycolic/Lactic/Tartaric/Citric), 2% Beta Hydroxy Acid (Salicylic Acid), Hyaluronic Acid Crosspolymer, Vitamin B5, Black Carrot and Tasmanian Pepperberry on its ingredient list, and promises with continued use to change the appearance of skin texture and reduce fine lines. But these are definitely not for beginners, start with a more mild exfoliant and move upwards—what's mild to me, might be intense for you.
In addition to wrapping your head around all the intimidating "chemical" nature of these exfoliants, the other things you have to recognize is that it can be a costly investment. While there are drugstore buys for nearly every kind of beauty offering, this is not the kind of product where you want to cut corners.Do your research (sensitive-skin prone formulas are always a safe bet), consult your dermatologist, and try samples to see if a chemical exfoliant you're considering is agreeable with your skin type.
The gold standard? Vargas (and every beauty editor ever) is obsessed with all of the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta peels, which slough away dead skin cells with kid-glove-tenderness for a natural-looking glow.
Here's some of our recommendations for chemical exfoliants for all skin types.