What is chemical exfoliation?

Two different acid exfoliant products

If you haven't started exfoliating yet, it's time to learn how you can unlock real transformational results from your skincare. You have the choice between AHA (which stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid).

These non-abrasive, leave-on chemical exfoliants work more effectively than scrubs and offer many benefits:

  • minimise the appearance of wrinkles
  • clarify dull, uneven skin tone
  • smooth rough, bumpy skin
  • unclog pores
  • increase hydration

When we’re young & healthy, our skin does a great job of shedding its own dead cells without any extra help. But over time, with age & unprotected sun exposure, the skin’s natural ability to shed these dead cells slows down.

Exfoliation is all about restoring & optimising this natural process by ungluing the bonds that hold dead cells to the skin. Without this added help, the dead cells accumulate on the surface and inside pores which can lead to dull-looking, dry, rough textured skin, clogged pores, breakouts, milia, blackheads and uneven skin tone.

Physical vs. chemical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation means scrubs & cleansing brushes, while chemical exfoliation refers to AHA or BHA acid exfoliants. Good to remember that acid exfoliation is the same as chemical exfoliation.

Why should you avoid face scrubs? Firstly, because chemical exfoliants are preferred by dermatologists as the gentler, more effective option. The reason being that most facial scrubs have rough, coarse textures which can be harsh, abrasive and cause micro-tears in the skin.

This is also the case with many cleansing brushes, as their stiff bristles have the same negative impact on the skin’s vulnerable surface. Gentle physical exfoliants such as The UnScrub are the exception, but even those are best used as an extra cleansing step, not as a replacement for a well-formulated AHA or BHA exfoliant. Physical scrubs simply don’t work as deeply or as effectively as AHA and BHA chemical exfoliants, nor do they offer the same skin-transforming benefits.

Dr. McLellan notes: “many of my patients don’t realise that a good exfoliating product can work as well as manually scrubbing the skin and cause less irritation.”

Why should you choose chemical exfoliation?

Removing the build-up of dead skin in a safe & efficient way helps to minimise the several skin concerns mentioned previously, like rough & flaky texture, dull tone and clogged pores. It can also help wrinkles appear less prominent and soften the appearance of other signs of ageing. Essentially, chemical exfoliants for the face reveal a healthier-looking, smoother-feeling version of your skin.

How to use a chemical exfoliant

  • Cleanse & tone, then apply your exfoliant
  • You can apply around the eye area, but not the eyelid or directly under the eye along the lower lash line
  • No need to wait for your exfoliant to absorb or dry, so follow straight away with your serum, eye cream, SPF or moisturiser
  • Experiment with different strengths to see which concentration gives you the best results (potentially include weekly use of an exfoliant peel)
  • Note how your skin responds and adjust usage accordingly
  • Skincare doesn't stop at your face, so be sure to apply a body exfoliant from the neck down

When to use chemical exfoliation

How often you exfoliate depends on the needs & tolerability of your skin. Those with stubborn concerns (like bumps, clogs or advanced signs of sun damage) may do well exfoliating 2x daily. Others will find that 1x daily or even 1x every other day is their sweet spot. It can take some experimenting to find the right cadence, so best to start slow.

Paula's Choice AHA and BHA exfoliants for different skin concerns

Paula's Choice AHA and BHA exfoliants for different skin concerns.

Which chemical exfoliant is the best?

Each have their own benefits, so the best exfoliant for you really depends on your skin type and concern. AHA exfoliants are most helpful for dry skin with advanced signs of ageing. They smooth wrinkles & fine lines, help with rough, crepey texture and minimise visible signs of sun damage. Our 6% Mandelic + 2% Lactic Acid AHA Liquid Exfoliant has a highly effective formula that will leave you with smoother, softer, brighter skin.

BHA exfoliants are ideal for clogged or enlarged pores, blackheads & blemishes, as well as unwanted signs of ageing. Our formulas are specifically made for easily aggravated & acne-prone skin, though they're also suitable for more general concerns. Our BHA exfoliants can reduce the appearance of small white bumps and are even tolerable to those with skin prone to milia and/or rosacea. Dr. Beth McLellan points out that BHA-containing formulas can be safely used on all skin types, including those with more pigmented skin.

Chemical exfoliants for sensitive skin

To exfoliate sensitive skin, opt for a BHA in a 1% concentration. BHA has inherent skin-calming and soothing properties so it is the ideal choice for those with temperamental skin. If your skin responds well and you want to see the results of a higher concentration, slowly incorporate a 2% BHA.

References for this information:

  • Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, ePublication
  • Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, July 2012, pages 488-491
  • The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, May 2012, pages 32-40
  • Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135-142
  • Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651-663
  • Clinics in Dermatology, July 2001, pages 460-466
  • Archives of Dermatologic Research, July 1997, pages 404-409
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