The Best Face Exfoliator is One of The Best Chemical Exfoliants

Of the baseline skincare steps, exfoliation might be the most complicated. Washing your face seems obvious enough, and moisturizer is clearly how you keep skin nourished. But exfoliation is a little less intuitive: You need to buff away dead skin cells, in order to keep skin smooth and bright, and to keep pores unclogged. But you can’t go so hard that you start causing redness and other problems. 

Most people think that the exfoliator needs to be a physical one—a gritty scrub like you might have used before. And while these scrubs certainly work to smooth the skin, it’s hard to find the perfect balance when using them. First of all, scrubs differ vastly in terms of their grittiness. Some you wouldn’t dare using more than twice a week, while others are so gentle you can use them daily. Secondly, not every corner of your face needs the same level of buffing, and it’s usually not something you can tell simply by looking at or touching your skin. Lastly, who’s to say that you only need to remove cells at the surface of your skin? Some of them are already trapped inside your pores, and you need something that removes those, too.

That’s why we suggest making the switch to chemical exfoliants. They also come in varying intensities, from gentle pore unclogging serum to 15-minute mask, to all-out facial peel. Chemical exfoliants are a more clear-cut way to remove dead skin cells uniformly—at the surface, in the pores, or both.

To get more intel on chemical exfoliants, we called on one of NYC’s favorite dermatologists, Michele Green. Here is what Green had to say about these acid-packed serums, masks, and peels—and she even provides expertise on the type of chemical exfoliant that will best suit your skin.

How chemical exfoliants work

“These exfoliators gently penetrate the layers of the skin, breaking down dead skin cells through chemical reactions,” explains Green. “The shedding of dead skin cells can be dramatic or superficial depending on the type of exfoliant used and its strength.”

Acids are the most common chemical exfoliants, Green says, and they vary in strength and purpose. Many of these ingredients are derived from natural sources like fruits, and many of them also occur naturally in our own bodies. So it’s not like you’re applying some toxic sky sludge acid to your face here. Just as hyaluronic acid is a great ingredient for boosting moisture in your skin, other ones like glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid are terrific exfoliators.

Chemical exfoliants typically use one of the following types of ingredients to accomplish this—again, you’ll note many with the word “acid” in them:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs: The most common are lactic acid and glycolic acid. These dissolve cells at the surface of the skin. They help surface brighter and healthier skin cells—exfoliation in the most traditional sense. You can prevent clogged pores down the road, and improve surface texture.
  • Beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs: The most common one is salicylic acid. Unlike AHAs, BHAs are oil soluble and can penetrate the surface of the skin. These are great for acne-prone individuals since they better clear out the pores and dissolve dead skin cells from within; they are often anti-inflammatory too, calming redness and swelling associated with breakouts.
  • Poly hydroxy acids, or PHAs: Most commonly, you’ll find formulas with gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid. These are very similar to AHAs, but are gentler on skin thanks to their larger molecules. They penetrate lass deeply than AHAs so are terrific for sensitive skin—especially people with rosacea or eczema.
  • Trichloroacetic acids, or TCAs: These provide a deeper peel, and are better for reversing hyperpigmentation, signs of aging, melasma, and even scarring. They’re often used in the clinical-grade peels that you can only have professionally done.
  • Fruit enzymes: You will most frequently see enzymes of papaya or pear. People with sensitive skin might have a hard time with AHAs, BHAs, and TCAs, but luckily, fruit enzymes often work better: “Fruit enzymes provide a gentler exfoliation,” notes Green. “The enzymes break down the keratin proteins that are within those upper, old skin cells, revealing fresh, new, and brighter cells from beneath the surface.”

Chemical exfoliants vs. physical scrubs

We don’t mean to suggest that physical face scrubs are bad (nor are body buffers). We just think more people should be using some type of chemical exfoliant, too, be it a once-monthly peel, or a BHA serum alongside a surface-level scrub.

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