How to Choose a Chemical Exfoliant For Every Skin Type

12 November, 2021 / words by user

Written and Image by Evie

Chemical exfoliants seem to be everywhere these days. It feels like a new one is released every week, alongside claims that it will transform your skin and upgrade your entire life. Whilst some of these claims can definitely be way over the top, chemical exfoliants are completely deserving of the hype. Incorporating the right chemical exfoliant can be the perfect way to upgrade your skincare routine and tackle many common issues people face.

That said, using the wrong type of chemical exfoliant can spell disaster for your skin. We have all cringed at the viral TikTok’s where people have exfoliated their skin red and raw, skin barrier screaming for help. It can be really tempting to overdo it with chemical exfoliation whilst trying to achieve the ever-illusive goal of ‘perfect skin’, but this is never a good idea. When it comes to chemical exfoliants ‘less is more’ is definitely the approach you want to take if you want the best results for your skin.

What are chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliants are usually acids that help to break down dead skin cells. They are great for tackling acne, brightening skin, evening tone and texture, and even reversing some signs of sun damage. Unlike physical exfoliants which can cause damage to the skin if they are formulated and used incorrectly, chemical exfoliants tend to be a lot more gentle.

The common chemical exfoliants we see are Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs – think glycolic & lactic acid). Beta-hydroxy acids (BHA – Think Salicylic Acid) and now we are also seeing the rise of Poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid). There are so many chemical exfoliants on the market that have different benefits, so how can we choose the right one?

Best chemical exfoliants for your skin type

Oily or Acne-Prone

For skin that is oily and/or acne-prone, you can really benefit from including a product with Salicylic Acid (BHA) into your routine. It is oil soluble so able to get deep down into the pores to clear out any excess oil or debris. Salicylic acid also has amazing anti-inflammatory benefits which help if you suffer from breakouts and inflamed acne as it helps take down the inflammation and speed up the healing process.

You can opt for a leave-on treatment such as Paulas Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. If you want something more gentle, the Superdrug Me+ Salicylic Acid Cleanser with Ceramides is a great option.


Dry Skin

Glycolic and Lactic Acid are your best friends if you suffer from dry skin. Glycolic Acid penetrates the top layers of skin to get rid of any flakiness and reveal smoother healthier-looking skin. Over time it can ‘teach’ skin to get better at retaining its natural moisture.

Lactic Acid acts in a similar way but is better for those who may be sensitive to Glycolic Acid. It has a larger molecular size so does not penetrate the skin as deeply as Glycolic which can make it less irritating. Lactic acid is also wonderful at hydrating skin as well as evening out its texture and tone, so is perfect for those that suffer from dryness or dehydration.

Sensitive Skin

For sensitive skin, Mandelic Acid is a great AHA to choose. It gently exfoliates to reveal smoother, more radiant skin but is also great if you suffer from hyperpigmentation (melasma or dark spots) as it works to gently brighten the skin in a way that won’t cause further inflammation (which can lead to even more hyperpigmentation). Try products like The Ordinary, Mandelic Acid 10% + HA or Allies of skin, Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum.

PHAs are also a really good option for those with sensitive skin. They have a larger molecular size so don’t penetrate the skin as deeply. This means less irritation but the same amazing skincare benefits. Opt for an exfoliating toner such as the Glow Recipe, Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight toner for some gentle exfoliation.

How often should you be using chemical exfoliants?

As with all skincare, it is always best to use as directed by your Dermatologist, Esthetician, or Doctor. In reality, we don’t all have access to professional advice, so stick with the instructions on the product you are using. 

When it comes to getting the best results from exfoliation, start slowly 1-2 times a week, then increase the frequency if you really need to. As a rule, 2-3 times a week is enough for most people. Cleansers containing chemical exfoliants are usually gentle enough to use daily and stronger exfoliants such as exfoliating masks (often advertised as ‘peels’) should only be used once a week.





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