Best Chemical Exfoliants for Every Skin Type

Dermatologists explain the benefits of chemical exfoliation and how to find the best chemical exfoliant for your needs.

Woman with dewy skin and freshly washed face on a background
Photo: Pexels / Angela Roma

When it comes to skin care, sun protection and moisturization are key. But there's a third element you don't want to skip if you're after healthy, glowing skin: exfoliation. "Exfoliation removes the outermost layers of the epidermis to reveal the newer skin beneath," explains Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores and helps reduce breakouts. It also smooths and polishes the skin, decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and evening out the texture. And over time, regular exfoliation can increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production."

If that all sounds appealing, you have your pick of two methods for exfoliation: physical or chemical. Physical, aka mechanical, exfoliation involves scrubbing off dead skin cells with an abrasive, such as a washcloth, cleansing brush, crushed shells, microbeads, or sugar or salt crystals within a scrub, says Dr. King. Conversely, chemical exfoliants are acids that dissolve the bonds, or 'glue' that hold the dead skin cells together so that they more easily shed off, she explains.

Choosing an exfoliant is largely a matter of personal preference, but chemical exfoliants do offer a few unique advantages over their physical counterparts. "The potential risk with physical exfoliation is that if you use a product that has particles that are large and rough with sharp edges, you can create micro-tears in the skin that can lead to irritation, inflammation, and possibly even infection," says Dr. King. If you use too much pressure and scrub too hard, the likelihood of these effects increases, she adds. If you exfoliate gently, with the right type of product, you should be fine, but if you have very sensitive skin that's easily inflamed and/or irritated, then sticking to chemical exfoliation is likely the right move, she explains. When it comes to choosing which of the three types of chemical exfoliant is right for you, it's most important to consider your skin type, rather than your skin tone.

Even if you've narrowed down your options to chemical exfoliants, you'll find that there are a lot of different types to choose from. Chemical exfoliants fall into one of three categories, each of which has its own nuances. Keep reading for more info on each type, plus details on some of the best chemical exfoliants.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Normal to Dry Skin: Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

First up, alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs. These are all water-soluble (i.e. able to dissolve in water) formulas that are naturally derived from foods such as milk, sugarcane, and almonds, explains Elyse Love, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and Ulta Beauty dermatology partner. Common examples of AHAs include lactic, glycolic, and mandelic acids. They're ideal for targeting uneven texture and hyperpigmentation, leaving your skin smoother, more even, and glowy, says Dr. Love. It bears mentioning that, some AHAs are gentler than others; namely, lactic and mandelic tend to be slightly less irritating than glycolic, she notes. Overall, however, AHAs are a great option for those with normal to dry skin.

While AHAs are great at evening out discoloration for all skin tones, it bears mentioning that those with darker skin who are combating hyperpigmentation may find them especially useful for this reason. (Darker skin tones are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, dark marks that can linger after a pimple or scarring.) Though again, all of the chemical exfoliants work well across all skin colors; considering your skin type and complexion concerns is the best way to choose the right one for you.

Interested in trying an AHA product? Two of Dr. Love's favorites include Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One AHA Lactic Acid Treatment (Buy It, $85,, which can be used as a leave-on or rinse-off mask, or Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum (Buy It, $82,, an anti-aging serum. One of Dr. King's picks, Mele Skincare Even Tone Post Cleanse Tonic (Buy It, $20, is a great choice for those with melanin-rich skin who are concerned about dark spots since it contains a combo of exfoliating lactic acid and skin-brightening vitamin C.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Acne: Beta-Hydroxy Acids

Along with AHAs, you have beta hydroxy acids or BHAs. The difference? "AHAs are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin, whereas BHAs are oil-soluble and can penetrate into pores," explains Dr. King. Salicylic acid, the most common beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA, is derived from the bark of willow trees. Since salicylic acid can penetrate your pores and can sometimes be a bit drying, it's a good choice if you have normal to oily skin, says Dr. King. It's ideal if you're prone to acne and/or clogged pores since it can help reduce blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and milia, she says. "It both can prevent pores from becoming clogged and remove clogs that have already formed," she says. Tl;dr salicylic acid is the best chemical exfoliant for acne.

If you want to try a salicylic acid cleanser, Dr. King suggests St. Ive's Acne Control Tea Tree Daily Cleanser (Buy It, $6,, since it combines the ingredient with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory tea tree oil, a plus for acne-prone skin. As far as toners, Dr. Love recommends First Aid Beauty Oil-Minimizing Toner with Salicylic Acid(Buy It, $24,, an alcohol-free option that helps to combat excess oil and shine, but won't over-strip the skin of all oils so the skin barrier remains protected.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Sensitive Skin: Poly-Hydroxy Acids

Polyhydroxy acids aka PHAs are the new kid on the block, only recently starting to attract attention compared to AHAs and BHAs. What sets them apart from the others? "PHAs win the award for acids that don't cause irritation, even for those with very sensitive skin," says Dr. Love. They're similar to AHAs, helping to treat dullness and discoloration, but, because the molecules are larger they can't penetrate as deeply as AHAs or BHAs, greatly minimizing the risk of irritation, says Dr. King. Even people with rosacea and eczema can generally tolerate them, she says.

If you want in on PHAs, look out for gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acids, the most common options, on ingredient lists. Dr. Love suggests Neutrogena Skin Balancing Gel Cleanser ($8,, an exfoliating cleanser that's gentle enough for daily use, even if you have sensitive skin.

Chemical Exfoliants Don't Always Act Alone

All of the aforementioned categories can play nicely together, which is why many products combine two or even all three types of acids in one formula. For example, InnBeauty Project Down to Tone Resurfacing Toner (Buy It, $22, combines six different acids across all three categories to help exfoliate, clarify, and brighten skin, says Dr. King. However, combining them can up the likelihood of irritation, which is something to keep in mind, she notes.

Any time you incorporate a new product, it's always a good idea to start slowly and see how your skin reacts, advises Dr. Love. If you haven't been exfoliating regularly, Dr. King recommends starting twice per week and gradually increasing the frequency as tolerated, as long as your skin isn't becoming dried out or irritated. But above all, it's important to follow the directions on the particular product you're using. Some formulas (think: those that should be washed off, such as exfoliating cleansers) can be used daily, whereas leave-on peels or serums often need to be used more sparingly.

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