Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the skin’s surface. It’s important because as we get older, the natural process slows down. This means that our skin is left looking dull and lifeless unless we take action. In addition, dead skin cells can clog pores which lead to breakouts and prevent products from working as effectively. You can think of it like trying to marinate your tofu with a layer of parchment paper around it. It just doesn’t work, does it?
There are two ways to exfoliate the skin: physically or chemically. A physical exfoliant uses gritty ingredients, massaged into the skin to slough away the dead and allow the new to shine through. Chemical exfoliants are acid-based and dislodge and dissolve the skin cells without abrasion.
Today we’re looking specifically at chemical exfoliants. You may be completely in love with your scrub and by all means, stick with it if it works for you. Every now and then I reach for a physical scrub because it feels so damn satisfying! But if you’re finding your skin looks red and sore (because you can’t help scrubbing too hard), or you’re looking for something more effective, I’ve got you covered.
Chemical exfoliants can be split into two categories: alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs). AHAs work on the surface whereas BHAs can penetrate deeper and are great for combatting oily, clogged pores and tackling acne. Both will improve the skin’s appearance, add back radiance, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, but there are some key differences:
AHAs are water-soluble, thus great for parched skin in need of retaining more moisture.
BHAs are oil-soluble, so they can enter pores and work to heal from the inside out.
If you have normal to dry skin, rarely suffer from blemishes and simply want to get some glow and reduce any signs of aging, AHAs are a great choice. If you might describe your skin as acne-prone, oily, or angry, BHAs are your friend. I remember it with: Ah, I don’t want to age (AHAs) and Blocked pores (BHAs). You can also alternate between the two if, say, you suffer from adult acne and also want to dimish the effects of aging. I say alternate, though, because using both at the same time – particularly if strong treatments – can end up causing irritation, redness, and dryness. It’s also essential that a suitable SPF be used in conjunction with any kind of chemical exfoliant to protect fresh, new skin from sun damage.
So now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at 5 of the most common acids used in exfoliating toners.
- Glycolic – AHA – derived from plants or vegetables with a high sugar content and relatively gentle. This is probably the most popular acid toning ingredient you’ll see on the market.
- Salicylic – BHA – this is the enemy of breakouts. Salicylic penetrates into pores to reduce inflammation, combat bacteria and exfoliate dead skin cells blocking the way.
- Citric Acid – AHA – Derived from citrus – as the name might suggest – this is another great surface exfoliant for stimulating radiance in the skin.
- Azelaic Acid – BHA – while azelaic acid is mildly water-soluble, this ingredient really shines in the treatment of acne, hyperpigmentation, and rosacea by doing such a good job at reducing inflammation.
- Lactic Acid – AHA – often derived from plants, rather than animals, this one is great for sensitive skin needing a good exfoliation. Consider for any skin type.
- Mandelic Acid – AHA – Mandelic is a great one to use if you’ve found that even low concentrations of glycolic are too much for your sensitive skin. It’s really gentle, while still getting to work dislodging dead skin cells. It’s also oil-soluble, meaning it can get to work inside your pores as well!
There are acids on the market at all price points. Here are some that I have tried and love:
First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads: These contain lactic and glycolic for gentle, surface exfoliation. Pre-soaked pads, they’re very convenient and easy to use. I use one side of the pad swept across my face, then flip over and swipe the other side on my neck and décolleté.
Pixi Glow Tonic: Formulated with 5% glycolic and soothing aloe, this one is great for young skin used as a treatment a few times a week and for more mature skin as a daily or every-other-day toner.
Alpha H Liquid Gold: I picked this up about three years ago when it was all the rage. This is more of an intense treatment that, in all honestly, I felt was unnecessary for a girl with normal skin in her early-twenties. But hey, with a combination of glycolic acid and licorice, designed to be applied without anything on top three nights a week before bed, it sure gave me a glow! I must say though, I couldn’t bare not applying a thick layer of oil on top, so eventually decided to move on to other things. But if you think something a little more intense is up your ally, definitely go for it! This seems to do amazingly well on more mature skin.
Ren Clarifying Toning Lotion: Salicylin, glycolic, lactic, citric, and tartaric acids make this an award-winning formula in my opinion. Designed to reduce inflammation and boost radiance, this is an affordable, well-designed option for anyone with dull, congested skin. It clears up breakouts quicker than you can reach for your concealer.
Are you all about the acids yet? If so, which one are you using?
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