How Chemical Exfoliants Work and How to Use Them

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells, along with dirt, oil, and sweat, from the surface of the skin. It helps reveal brighter, healthier skin and evens the skin’s texture. While physical exfoliation has been popular for quite some time, people are becoming more interested in chemical exfoliation as an effective and often more gentle way to reveal clear, bright skin. Read on to learn more about chemical exfoliation plus how to use different exfoliators for different types of skin.

How Does Chemical Exfoliation Work?

While physical exfoliation physically sloughs off dead skin, chemical exfoliation involves applying acids to the top layer of the skin. The acids work on the surface, and sometimes under, to physically target problem areas and increase cell turnover to reveal clearer skin. 

Types of Chemical Exfoliators

Alpha hydroxy acid, known as AHA, is a water-soluble acid that can improve skin texture, smooth fine lines, and shed sun-damaged skin cells. Some AHAs are produced synthetically while others come from natural enzymes such as tartaric acid, which is made from grapes, lactic acid, which comes from milk, and citric acid. 

Beta hydroxy acid, also known as BHA, helps remove layers of dead skin. Just like an AHA, it helps improve the texture of the skin; however, it goes a step further by working inside of the pore, removing excess oil and dirt.

Best Exfoliator for Your Skin Type

It’s almost as if a new chemical exfoliator comes out each day. With such a wide range of options with different purported benefits, it can be difficult to navigate the ever-growing industry. You can narrow the search for the perfect product significantly just by knowing the best acid to start with for your skin type.

  • Acne-prone skin:
    Acne appears when dead skin, oil, and dirt clog pores. Research shows BHAs, particularly salicylic acid, are a safe and effective choice for acne. BHAs target acne by working under the surface of the skin, unlike an AHA. They help control oil and shine and also smooth out skin irregularities.
  • Mature skin:
    If you’re looking to even out fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots, AHA is your best bet. AHAs work solely on the surface of the skin. Glycolic acid, derived from sugarcane, has a smaller molecular bond compared to other AHAs. This structure allows it to penetrate the skin deeper, which can help even out texture. While glycolic acid is safe to use for darker skin tones, if overused, it can cause damage. You may choose to stick to gentler options, such as mandelic acid, which may improve skin firmness and elasticity.
  • Hyperpigmented skin:
    Hyperpigmentation is caused from an excess of melanin production within the skin, and research shows AHAs can improve the appearance of hyperpigmented skin. Citric acid, made from citrus fruits, can brighten the skin, and help improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dullness. Lactic acid is also a worthy contender for hyperpigmentation. Derived from milk, it’s considered a gentle acid, so it’s great for sensitive skin, as well.
  • Oily skin:
    Salicylic acid, a BHA, helps control excess oil. The acid, made from willow bark extract, penetrates the pores to get rid of sebum, an oily, waxy substance that can lead to oily skin and acne. Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it may help prevent future breakouts.
  • Dry skin:
    Though it’s not an exfoliator, the best acid for dry skin is hyaluronic acid. It’s a humectant that holds water molecules on the surface of your skin, fixing any dry patches. If you’re looking for an exfoliator that won’t dry out your skin, lactic and tartaric acids are both gentle and effective.

Tips for Using Chemical Exfoliators

If you’re a skincare junkie or simply like to try new things, getting a new product can feel like a shot of serotonin. Yet, it’s important to take a beat to learn about how to apply each product safely. Acids can be very powerful, so it’s safe to be as patient as can be.

  • Patch test:
    Applying an acid to the skin may lead to some irritation. It may be minor and fade within a few minutes or it could last longer. It’s important to test it on a patch of skin, preferably on your forearm, to see if you have any negative reactions.
  • Don’t overdo it:
    Unless the product you’re using specifies it’s for everyday use, it’s important to ease it into your routine, especially if you have sensitive skin. Start by applying once per week, then gradually work up to two or three times a week.
  • Always use sunscreen:
    Even when not using an acid, it’s smart to include sunscreen in your daily routine. Acids increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so if you use a chemical exfoliant during the day, ensure you’re protected with SPF. Apply sunscreen as the last step in your skin care routine.
  • Research before mixing acids:
    You can find acids within multiple products, not just serums. So before you apply a lactic acid night cream over your kojic acid cleanser and papaya enzyme toner, talk to a dermatologist or skincare expert to make sure you’re not mixing up a potentially damaging skincare potion.


Chemical exfoliators can leave your skin looking and feeling smooth, moisturized, and supple. Rather than slough off dead skin cells the way physical exfoliators do, acids do all the work without the scrubbing.

By Elizabeth Okosun

Elizabeth Okosun is a freelancer who writes about beauty, lifestyle, and pop culture.