Exfoliation is key to a radiant complexion. In fact, many dermatologists believe that exfoliation is the most important part of a skincare routine. If you’re not already exfoliating, you should start – especially if you’re looking for smoother texture, fewer breakouts and wrinkles and more radiance.
If you’re confused about the types of chemical exfoliants out there, particularly when it comes to AHAs and BHAs, you’ve definitely come to the right place. We break down why chemical exfoliation (and exfoliation in general) is so important, while also educating on the many benefits of both alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids.
The Importance of Exfoliation
Our skin sheds cells every single day. As the dermis generates new cells, sending them to the epidermis, they replace the dead cells, essentially renewing skin. This natural process of exfoliation keeps skin looking youthful and bright.
But exfoliation is not always a straightforward process. It slows down with age, and if it’s not efficient, cells can clog up pores. Clogged pores lead to those dreaded blackheads and pimples that afflict millions of people around the world. Moreover, as the natural exfoliation process slows down, skin can begin to look dull and dry. Eventually, as the process slows even further, wrinkles and fine lines will begin to appear.
By exfoliating ourselves, whether physically (or manually) or chemically, we can help remove stubborn dead skin cells, speed up the exfoliation process and ensure our skin stays looking fresh. Physical exfoliation involves using a product that contains small beads and other physical types of exfoliants that manually remove dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliation involves the use of AHA (alpha hydroxy acids) or BHA (beta hydroxy acids) products.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Alpha hydroxy acids include water-soluble acids like glycolic, citric and lactic acids. Though “acid” can be an intimidating term, these are safe to use on the skin to help unclog pores, fight acne, restore radiance, fade away dark spots and acne scars to even out skin tone and improve overall texture, making skin feel and look smoother and less dull.
Glycolic acid is typically derived from sugar cane. It has the smallest molecular size of all the acids (meaning it can penetrate skin very efficiently), and it has a reputation for working really well. For this reason, it is also the AHA most often found in anti-aging beauty products. It’s even the most studied of the acids.
Chemical peels done at dermatologist’s offices usually feature glycolic acid.
It works by basically removing the “glue” that holds skin cells together. This “glue” is essentially just built-up sebum (oil) and other lipids that attach dead skin cells to each other and cause clogging. By removing these dead skin cells, glycolic acid helps the products that you’ll layer on later absorb better. On top of that, glycolic acid has been shown to stimulate collagen production.
In dermatologists’ offices, glycolic acid peels can be used in concentrations as high as 70 percent. In over-the-counter products, you can expect to find concentrations between eight and 30 percent. Thirty percent is considered pretty high but still safe to use. However, it can be rather irritating.
Now as to who can or should use glycolic acid, sensitive skin types and those with rosacea are cautioned against it. Moreover, it’s best to avoid sun exposure, or at least be generous with sunscreen, if you are using glycolic acid regularly. Glycolic acid can further dry out skin, so follow up with a moisturizing to counteract this. Finally, you should note that it’s okay if you feel a tingling sensation when you use products with glycolic acid, but if you’re feeling a burning sensation rather than a tingling, you should stop using the product.
Citric acid is naturally found in citrus fruits. It is mainly used to adjust the pH in certain products to keep them from being too alkaline. It’s not as well studied or nearly as popular as glycolic acid, though it can be combined with glycolic acid and other acids to promote a deeper exfoliation. Like glycolic acid, it also works by removing the binding between dead skin cells to help to loosen them.
Citric acid can help fade discoloration to even out skin tone. It can help fight blemishes by unclogging pores, and it can help smooth away fine lines. Deeper wrinkles, however, would need more serious treatment like injections or laser treatment.
Citric acid is also used for its ability to lighten skin (thanks to its vitamin C content) and work as an astringent. It can cause mild side effects like redness and peeling, with a tingling sensation being common upon application.
Lactic acid is naturally found in milk. It is also rather popular as a skincare ingredient in exfoliating masks, lotions, creams, toners and cleansers. Unlike glycolic acid, it is more moisturizing and therefore less irritating for those with sensitive skin. However, higher concentrations of this acid can still be irritating. If you’re unsure if it’s right for you, do a patch test on the inside of your arm first.
It sloughs away dead skin cells to reveal brighter, more radiant skin, and like the preceding acids, it can also have a positive effect on acne, discoloration, texture, dullness and fine lines.
Other Types of Acids in Skin Care
Other AHAs include mandelic acid (made from almond extracts), malic acid (made from apple acids) and tartaric acid (derived from grape extracts). These are less well-known, but can improve the effectiveness of the more powerful, better known acids when combined with them.
Beta Hydroxy Acids
Beta hydroxy acids include salicylic acid, an acid commonly found in many acne products. Sometimes citric acid can also be classified as a BHA, though it is less common.
This acid may definitely ring a bell if you’ve ever used an over-the-counter acne product. It is often found at concentrations between 0.5 and 5 percent. It is most commonly found at 2 percent in over-the-counter formulations for acne products.
Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, making it perfect for oily and combination skin. It works on the skin’s surface to exfoliate, but also moves deeper into the pore to break up sebum and help unclog it. In addition to helping unclog pores to fight acne, salicylic acid can help calm redness and inflammation. This ability to calm inflammation also allows it to fight against inflamed pimples and lesions that have become infected.
AHAs and BHAs have much in common. Both work as exfoliants to help unclog pores and slough away dead skin cells to promote smoother, more beautiful skin.
AHAs are generally more often used for anti-aging benefits, despite the fact that they can effectively treat acne as well. AHAs are recommended for normal to dry skin types, because they have more moisturizing ability than BHAs.
If you happen to have acne and signs of aging, you can alternate between AHAs and BHAs for best results. Layering them on top of one another may lead to too much irritation.
How To Exfoliate Properly
To get the most out of your exfoliation process, it’s best to know how to do it properly. First, if you use prescription or over-the-counter retinoids or benzoyl peroxide, you might want to avoid too much exfoliation. You can start with only exfoliating once a week to avoid irritation or other adverse effects. In some cases, using these products in conjunction can lead to very dry skin or even make you break out. Keep that in mind before starting an exfoliation regimen.
Before exfoliation, cleanse your skin to prep it for the acids you will be using afterward. Cleansing helps remove the initial layer of dirt, oil and other debris. Well-cleansed skin is also better at absorbing the active ingredients you put on it. Obviously, make sure you remove all makeup beforehand as well.
When applying the chemical exfoliant, proper application will depend on the type of product you’re using. If you’re using a mask, for example, apply a thin layer all over your face and neck. Masks typically need to be left on for a few minutes (sometimes three, sometimes 10) before being rinsed off with lukewarm water. If you’re using a cleanser, apply the product in gentle, circular motions all over. You can also leave on cleansers for a minute or two before rinsing off.
Follow up with moisturizer. Unless your skin is very oily and you don’t use moisturizer at all, it will help to follow up an exfoliating routine with a moisturizer to prevent excessive dryness. Most dermatologists recommend exfoliating chemically about twice or three times a week. If you have a darker skin tone, beware of using chemical exfoliants in very high concentrations. They can cause discoloration.
Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum
If you’re looking for a great chemical exfoliant, you can try Formulyst’s Retexturing and Perfecting Serum. This liquid serum was specially formulated with an AHA/BHA plant extract complex to gently but efficiently remove dead skin cells for a more refined complexion.
Sources: “Glycolic acid treatment increases type I collagen mRNA and hyaluronic acid content of human skin.” Dermatologic Surgery; “Here’s Exactly What Salicylic Acid Does to Your Skin” Allure.com