The 14 Best Chemical Exfoliants - The Dermatology Review

The 14 Best Chemical Exfoliants

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

03.02.21DISCLAIMER

Every step in your skincare routine plays a vital role in its health. With that said, if you’re skipping out on the exfoliation process, you’re making it more difficult for the other products in your regimen to work efficiently — here’s why. The skin renews itself every 28 days, so dead skin cells shed naturally. However, there are circumstances such as skin type or condition, climate, indoor heating, air conditioning, stress, medication, and health that can slow down the usual desquamation phase. When this happens, dead skin cells harbor on the surface. Not only will your complexion look dull and lackluster, but your serums and moisturizers can’t penetrate the skin, so you may feel as though they’re not working. In reality, it’s the layer of dead skin that’s standing in their way. This is why regular exfoliation is a vital part of your skincare routine.

Interestingly enough, since the pandemic commenced in 2020, research shows that 40% of American women who regularly maintain a skincare routine are using more products in 2020 than in the previous year, especially cleansers exfoliants. Not only is this likely because a trip to the spa wasn’t in the cards, but “maskne” and excessive stress have become the new normal.

There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. While the former is the gritty, scrub-like formula you may be more familiar with, chemical exfoliators are typically more effective. They can also help with additional skin concerns aside from dissolving dead cells. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two, so you’re more confident when choosing the best chemical exfoliant for you.

The List

Best Chemical Exfoliant Overall: Carrot & Stick The Brightening Pads, $40

Best Runner Up: Formulyst Retexturizing and Perfecting Serum, $39

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Everyday Use: REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic, $38

Best Korean Chemical Exfoliant: Mizon AHA 8% Peeling Serum, $16.89

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Blackheads: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $29.50

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Acne: Glytone Rejuvenating Mini Peel, $62

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Acne Scars: Alpha-H Liquid Gold with 5% Glycolic Acid, $59.95

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Oily Skin: Pixi Glow Tonic, $29

Best Chemical Exfoliator for Combination Skin: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel, $88

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Sensitive Skin: Natrium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%, $20

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Dry Skin: SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, $80

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Rosacea: Blue Mercury M-61 PowerGlow Peel, $61

Best Affordable Chemical Exfoliant: The Ordinary Lactic Acid + HA, $6.80

Best Chemical Exfoliant From a Drugstore: Differin Daily Deep Cleanser, $10.49

Benefits of Chemical Exfoliants

As noted, chemical exfoliants have numerous benefits, including:

  • Improving the skin’s texture and tone
  • Softening fine lines and wrinkles
  • Minimizing pore size
  • Treating and preventing acne and rosacea
  • Optimally preparing the skin for other products and treatments
  • Improving sun damage, pigmentation, and scarring
  • Less abrasive than physical exfoliants, making them suitable for all skin types

Chemical Exfoliant VS Physical Exfoliant

In short, chemical exfoliants dissolve dead skin cells, whereas physical exfoliants slough them off. Available as a cream, lotion, mask, gel, pads, or even a cleanser, chemical exfoliants are sometimes labeled as a “peel” because they have a slight chemical peel effect. The active ingredients in a chemical exfoliant include alpha and beta hydroxy acids — we’ll go into details on each in a moment — which are deemed some of the safest and most effective ways to break down intercellular glue and decongest pores. Chemical exfoliants are best used at night because they make the skin more sensitive to the sun during the day, so sun protection with a minimum SPF of 30 is an absolute must. A product can contain a single acid or a blend. As a general rule of thumb, combining more than three different acids could be a bit too aggressive and irritating — especially for those with sensitive skin.

On the other hand, physical exfoliation manually sloughs off dead skin cells and dislodges blackheads using a product formulated with textured, grainy particles. The “scrubs” of yesteryear got a bad wrap because many companies used overly abrasive ingredients such as nut shells or ground fruit pits, which created micro-tears in the skin. Today, you’ll find that there are many physical exfoliants with gentler ingredients such as jojoba beads, poppy seeds, oatmeal, bamboo powder, silica, and rice bran.

The Different Chemical Exfoliants


Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are water-soluble acids derived from fruits with a high sugar content. They produce a peeling action that helps fade pigmentation and scarring, improves texture and tone, softens fine lines and wrinkles, and minimizes pore size. While AHAs are frequently marketed as safe for all skin types, stick to a maximum concentration of 10 and 15% to avoid side effects such as redness, irritation, and excessive peeling. You may want to slowly introduce an AHA product into your routine so your skin can work up a tolerance.

  • Glycolic Acid: Derived from the sugar cane plant, GA is the most common and intense AHA as it can provide a considerable exfoliation. With that said, it can address many skin concerns. It’s also a favorable acne treatment because it boasts antimicrobial properties. Studies indicate that when used in an oil and water emulsion at a ten percent strength, glycolic acid was effective in treating mild acne.
  • Citric Acid: As its name implies, this AHA comes from citrus fruit extracts. Its primary function is to even out rough skin patches while neutralizing the skin’s pH levels. For this reason, it’s better when applied before a moisturizer in the form of a toner or serum.
  • Lactic Acid: Another common AHA with a telling name, lactic acid, comes from the lactose in milk. It’s touted for its significant anti-aging benefits (including stimulating collagen synthesis), thorough exfoliation, and its ability to increase the skin’s natural moisture factor.
  • Malic Acid: Malic acid, made from apple acids, is like the bridge to BHAs. Studies suggest it isn’t as effective as other AHAs, which is why it’s often used in a blend.
  • Mandelic Acid: This AHA possesses larger molecules taken from almond extracts. It’s typically used with other AHAs to increase their efficacy, but it can be used solo to refine pores and improve the skin’s texture.
  • Tartaric Acid: This AHA derived from grape extracts doesn’t get as much time in the spotlight as others, but it’s associated with reducing the signs of acne and sun damage.

Beta Hydroxy Acids
BHA chemical exfoliants are effective treatments for acne and sun damage because they’re oil-soluble and can, therefore, penetrate deeper into the pores to target excess sebum and dead skin cells. While BHAs are best for those with oily and combination skin, those with sensitive skin or rosacea-related redness can benefit from a low percentage.

  • Salicylic Acid: The most prevalent BHA, salicylic acid is best known for its ability to prevent and reduce acne, but it can also address redness and inflammation associated with pimples, rosacea, or sensitive skin. You’ll typically see it in a strength anywhere between 0.5 and 5%, which would be used in more potent acne treatments.
  • Citric Acid: We already mentioned citric acid as an AHA, right? Well, some forms are considered BHAs as well. In this case, their primary function is to deep clean the pores and dry out excess oil (sebum.)

The Best Chemical Exfoliants


Best Chemical Exfoliant Overall: Carrot & Stick The Brightening Pads, $40
Reveal a fresh, smooth, and radiant complexion with these pre-saturated pads. A concentrated blend of salicylic, lactic, and mandelic acids sweeps away the build-up of dead skin cells, gently exfoliating to promote clarity, refine texture, and rid pores of impurities. Herbal extracts fight visible photodamage and help keep the appearance of redness in check. Resurfaced skin is smoother, brighter, and more receptive to products.

Best Runner Up: Formulyst Retexturizing and Perfecting Serum, $39
When it comes to exfoliating and deeply cleansing your skin, soluble acid groups like Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) are more effective than physical exfoliants, which can scratch and irritate your skin. Expertly formulated to gently exfoliate, clean, and refine pores, Retexturing and Perfecting Serum maximizes an active AHA complex, removing dead cells and visibly revealing brighter, healthier skin. Lightweight and non-drying, this refining daily formula delivers perceptible improvement to your skin’s tone and texture while also reducing the appearance of uneven, blotchy skin.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Everyday Use: REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic, $38
Formulated with lactic and azelaic acids, this is the toner that your skincare routine is lacking. As the name suggests, this ingredient-packed formula refines skin texture, softens fine lines, brightens pigmentation, reduces acne and pore size, hydrates, and gives you a from-within glow — it’s no wonder it’s a best-seller.

Best Korean Chemical Exfoliant: Mizon AHA 8% Peeling Serum, $16.89
Dull, dehydrated, and flaky complexion? Pigmentation issues and large pores? This peeling serum addresses all of those issues and then some. While it’s a less intense version of the chemical peels you’d get at a doctor’s office, it still effectively fades age spots and acne scars while refining pores and softening fine lines. Another desirable feature is that it contains a combination of hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, and allantoin to moisturize, soothe, and counteract any dryness or irritation associated with the AHAs.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Blackheads: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $29.50
As mentioned, BHAs are oil-soluble, which makes them an effective blackhead treatment as they can dissolve the “plugs” while brightening and evening out the skin tone. This cult favorite is Paula’s number one selling product worldwide. This liquid miracle treatment (formulated at a strength of 2%) is safe enough to use twice a day after cleansing and toning.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Acne: Glytone Rejuvenating Mini Peel, $62
Thanks to the power of 10.8 free glycolic acids, this bi-weekly at-home peel is perfect for anyone with acne-prone skin, large pores, or hyperpigmentation. It was initially formulated to serve as a booster in-between in-office peels, but it’s effective enough to use on its own, providing your acne is mild to moderate.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Acne Scars: Alpha-H Liquid Gold with 5% Glycolic Acid, $59.95
Along with 5% glycolic acid, a particular low-pH delivery system stimulates the skin on a deep level, resulting in a significant reduction in acne scars and other pigmentation issues. Additionally, you’ll notice a dramatic improvement in brightness and tone, thanks to enhanced collagen production. You only need five drops every other night to see results, and it’s recommended that you don’t follow up with a moisturizer (unless your skin is super dry) as not to distill the results.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Oily Skin: Pixi Glow Tonic, $29
This award-winning cult tonic may have a cheeky name, but there’s nothing playful about this 5% glycolic formula that deeply cleanses, gently exfoliates, and promotes a radiant, glowing complexion. It’s alcohol-free, so you don’t have to worry about dryness. The addition of aloe vera provides soothing hydration while red ginseng naturally energizes your skin.

Best Chemical Exfoliator for Combination Skin: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel, $88
These peel pads are among the most popular on the market — and with good reason. They’re saturated with a compelling blend of seven alpha and beta hydroxy acids, sodium hyaluronate, squalene, saccharide isomerate, and Chinese foxglove to effectively target the skin concerns associated with oily or dry skin — or a person dealing with a combination of both. Skin texture and pores become more refined, fine lines and pores are softened, blemishes are under control, and the skin is balanced and more hydrated for up to 72 hours after use.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Sensitive Skin: Natrium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%, $20
Mandelic acid is a good choice for sensitive skin because it has a larger molecular size than other AHAs, meaning it doesn’t absorb into the skin quite as fast. This formula ups the ante by adding niacinamide to help prevent dryness and irritation while targeting fine lines, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation caused by blemishes and photoaging.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Dry Skin: SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, $80
Glycolic acid has the smallest molecular weight of all AHAs, so it penetrates the deepest, can stimulate collagen production, and vastly improve texture and tone. This potent formula features 10% glycolic acid and 2% phytic acid to improve overall radiance — even if pigmentation issues are present. Along with providing an intense exfoliation, a blend of botanicals work to deeply condition and soothe your skin while you sleep.

Best Chemical Exfoliant for Rosacea: Blue Mercury M-61 PowerGlow Peel, $61
While these peel pads are great for resurfacing the skin and reducing the appearance of fine lines and large pores, vitamin K’s addition helps lessen the formation of a dry, red, couperose complexion associated with rosacea. Bilberry extract, chamomile, and lavender soothe and calm.

Best Affordable Chemical Exfoliant: The Ordinary Lactic Acid + HA, $6.80
You would never believe that a chemical exfoliant with such a small price point could do such big things for your skin. Lactic acid is the most hydrating of all AHAs, so you get all the exfoliating benefits without dryness. As if that wasn’t enough to make this serum appealing, it also contains hyaluronic acid, a powerhouse ingredient capable of holding up to 1,000 times its weight in water. A few drops a night underneath your moisturizer is all you need to wake up to incredibly hydrated and glowing skin.

Best Chemical Exfoliant From a Drugstore: Differin Daily Deep Cleanser, $10.49
What’s appealing about this acne-fighting wash is that 5% benzoyl peroxide effectively targets blemishes, blackheads, and excessive oil. Additionally, a gentle non-comedogenic moisturizer is also released during the cleansing process to ensure the skin remains balanced — not dried out. It’s particularly great for those with sensitive skin who are simultaneously dealing with inflamed acne lesions.

Chemical Exfoliation: The Final Word

There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. While the former is the gritty, scrub-like formula you may be more familiar with, chemical exfoliators are typically more effective and can also help with additional skin concerns. In short, chemical exfoliants dissolve dead skin cells, whereas physical exfoliants slough them off. No matter which one you choose, it’s vital that you’re wearing sun protection with a minimum SPF of 30 each day as the exfoliation process leaves the skin more vulnerable to the sun — especially from a chemical standpoint.

AHAs and BHAs share similar benefits, and while both provide some level of chemical exfoliation, you should choose the right acids if you want to achieve specific skincare goals.

If you’re looking for an all-encompassing anti-aging treatment, then an alpha hydroxy acid may be the best fit. However, if you’re dealing with large pores, blackheads, inflammation, and acne, a beta hydroxy acid may be the better route to take. If you’re still not sure, speak to a dermatologist or esthetician to get a more firm direction, so you don’t exacerbate an existing skin condition.

Sources:
More U.S. Women Are Using Facial Skincare Products Today,” NPD, September 2020.
A 10% Glycolic Acid Containing Oil‐In‐Water Emulsion Improves Mild Acne: a randomized double‐blind placebo‐controlled trial,” Wiley Online Library, September 2011.
Comparative Effectiveness of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on Skin Properties,” National Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information, April 1996.

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