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How Chemical Exfoliants Work

One of the best ways to look after your skin and promote a radiant and healthy glow is to exfoliate regularly. 

You can’t see them with the naked eye but that top layer of your skin is made up of millions of dead skin cells that can dull complexion and even contribute to breakouts and patches of dryness. Regularly exfoliating whisks away these dead skin cells to let your skin breath, for healthier, plumper, and younger-looking skin. It can also help to brighten, help with acne, and reduce pigmentation or light scarring over time. And if that doesn't give you enough reasons to exfoliate, ridding your skin of dead cells can also help your skincare products absorb better, making these ingredients more efficient and effective. 

In this article, we're going to take a closer look at chemical exfoliation for the face, how chemical exfoliants work, and some of the best over-the-counter drugstore chemical exfoliants out there right now. 

What Are Chemical Exfoliants?

You've probably used traditional facial exfoliators that contain grains or microbeads to abrade and remove dead skin cells. Maybe you've used dry brushes, gloves, or washing cloths to exfoliate your skin. 

While effective, some people note that these techniques and products––if too aggressive––can make microscopic cuts or abrasions on your face, which can lead to sensitivity and redness. 

A chemical exfoliant for the face, on the other hand, can be gentler than many scrubs. 

There are two types of acids that are often used in chemical exfoliant beauty products: AHA (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHA (beta hydroxy acids), although PHAs also feature in some products (we'll come back to those later). Most of these acid-based products come in a lotion or toner form and generally aren't rinsed away once applied to the face. They can be used more frequently than traditional scrubs and can even be used daily in place of a regular toner. If you have sensitive skin, there are many mild-strength chemical exfoliants that can offer great results without causing irritation or redness. 

How Do Chemical Exfoliants Work?

Chemical exfoliation may sound a bit scary. Pictures of hollywood acid baths and sizzling skin come to mind. 

But chemical exfoliation is easy, and for most users, nothing to be worried about. 

While liquid exfoliants do contain acids, these acids were selected and specifically designed to work gently, removing dead skin cells and leaving the skin smooth and soft. 

The FDA has determined both AHAs and BHAs to be safe in cosmetics for “smoothing fine lines and surface wrinkles, improving skin texture and tone, unblocking and cleansing pores, and improving skin condition in general.”

Once the chemical exfoliant is applied to the skin, it works its way through the layers of dead skin cells to reveal fresh skin cells beneath. 

You see, your skin is constantly creating new cells that rise to the surface before dying and being brushed away over time. This process takes 30 to 60 days depending on your age.

Chemical exfoliants that contain Alpha Hydroxy Acids work on the outer layer of your skin, removing dead skin cells that can cause breakouts, dry patches, fine lines, and wrinkles. Exfoliators that contain Beta Hydroxy Acids, or BHAs, are intended to work further down into the lower layers of the skin and remove dead skin cells, rid the skin of bacteria, and remove excess sebum from blocked pores. 

Which Exfoliating Acids Are Right For Your Skin?

When it comes to finding the perfect chemical exfoliant for the face, it's all about choosing your acids wisely. Get that right and you'll have a smooth operator that leaves your skin balanced and healthy. Here's a little more about the three acid families that you should get acquainted with before choosing a chemical exfoliant:

AHAs: Alpha-hydroxy acids include a number of substances, including glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, mandelic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid. 

BHA: Beta-hydroxy acids are able to go places where AHAs can't. It means they can penetrate the pore lining to both exfoliate and hydrate the skin deeper down. They can help to minimize the appearance of pores and banish pimples and are also suitable for most skin types. BHAs include tropic acid, trethocanic acid, salicylic acid, beta hydroxybutanoic acid, salicylate, sodium salicylate, and willow extract.

PHAs: Poly-hydroxy acids include gluconolactone and lactobionic acids. Their larger particle size gives them the power to penetrate the skin slower than AHAs and BHAs. As a result, they provide a gentler approach to exfoliating the skin and may be good for sensitive skin types and those prone to breakouts. 

Chemical Exfoliants For Sensitive Skin

When it comes to chemical exfoliation for the face and sensitive skin, it's wise to take baby steps. Start with the lowest strength product you can find and introduce the product slowly. Start with a small patch of less visible skin to test a product for a few days to look for sensitivities.

As mentioned above, chemical exfoliants containing PHAs may offer a more gentle exfoliation and will be better tolerated by reactive skin types. Products containing azelaic acid have also been shown to exfoliate without causing much dryness and redness. 

How to Use Chemical Exfoliants

Before you get started with your chemical exfoliation journey, make sure you have a good moisturizer and sun protection for your face. Chemical exfoliants leave the skin dry, and you'll need to hydrate with a good moisturizer afterward. Acids can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so apply a good SPF as well. If you're planning on spending a day out in the sun, it's a good idea to use your chemical exfoliant the night before. 

When it comes to using a chemical exfoliant, all products are different. Always read the instructions before use and check out YouTube videos and reviews for tips on usage and application.

Some of the Best Drugstore Chemical Exfoliant Products

The best thing about chemical exfoliants is that they're available for everybody easily. If you're looking for a good drugstore chemical exfoliant, there are many to choose from. We've tracked down some of the highest-rated over-the-counter chemical exfoliants below. 

CeraVe Salicylic Acid Cleanser

Salicylic acids are great at scooping out grime and dirt from clogged pores, and this offering from CereVe has them in abundance. It's fragrance-free, gentle, and has almost 3,000 five-star Amazon reviews. It can also be used on the body. 

REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic

Packed with lactic and azelaic acid, REN's Ready Steady Glow tonic is a great way to introduce acids to your beauty routine. The blend of exfoliating acids works slowly but surely to gently slough off dead skin and leave it feeling polished and smooth. 

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

Despite its rather scary-sounding name, this chemical exfoliant doesn't peel away the skin, but it's effective at gently dissolving dead skin cells. The results are rapid, which is why this product has developed somewhat of a cult status. The reviews all praise it for delivering soft and smooth skin quickly.. 

The Bottom Line on Chemical Exfoliants

If you’re looking for a chemical exfoliant for the face, you've got options. These dead skin-busting formulas are in high demand and known for their smoothing and refining properties. With so many options available, you’re sure to find a formula that suits your skin. Just remember to take it slowly if you have sensitive skin. 

Want more? Nava MD helps men and women get custom prescription formulas for common conditions like acne and the signs of aging, all done from the comfort of your home with a virtual dermatologist visit. The consultation is free, and your prescription is delivered to your door, if approved. Click here to get started.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice.
Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency