How to Exfoliate Skin and When To Use Chemical Exfoliants

Three different acid exfoliant products

When it comes to exfoliating skin, many people think of abrasive facial scrubs that claim to polish skin when in fact, they’re filled with irritating textures and ingredients. On the other hand, chemical exfoliants are non-abrasive, fast-absorbing, leave-on substances that actively penetrate, deep clean and refine the pores, revealing the skin’s glow otherwise trapped underneath. Exfoliants also help reduce blemishes, blackheads and enlarged pores and increase the skin’s ability to retrain hydration (yes, they even help hydrate skin!). Read on to find out what chemical exfoliation really is, which chemical exfoliant is best, what are the three types of exfoliation and more.

What is chemical exfoliation?

Well-formulated exfoliants with AHA or BHA have so much to offer your skin. These products help fight signs of ageing and helps against break-outs, and so much more.

AHA is the abbreviation of alpha hydroxy acid. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are two types of AHA. BHA is short for beta hydroxy acid, commonly known as salicylic acid. Products containing these ingredients are available in different concentrations to target the exfoliation needs of different skin types and concerns.

How does exfoliation work?

Your skin naturally sheds dead skin cells, a process that’s imperceptible but can become faulty. The skin's natural exfoliation process can become obstructed due to sun damage, dry or oily skin, genetics or various skin concerns. The consequences can be dull-looking or dry, rough textured skin, clogged pores, breakouts, milia, blackheads and uneven skin tone.

A non-abrasive exfoliant helps to restore and optimise this process. If you remove dead skin cells gently then you can minimise clogged pores, help control breakouts, plump deep wrinkles and even rehydrate dry skin. Another bonus of chemical exfoliation is that you can expect to see results quite quickly!

What are the three types of exfoliation?


A chemical exfoliator unglues the bonds holding dead skin to the surface, letting it slough off and promote healthier skin cell turnover. Everyone’s skin needs help exfoliating because its natural shedding process is hampered by environmental stressors, skin concerns, and age-related factors. Letting dead skin build up can lead to dull skin, clogged pores, rough texture and more pronounced wrinkles.


Physical exfoliation is a hands-on approach that makes use of products and tools (think extraction facial) that literally scrub, polish or extract dead cells from the skin.


Whereas salicylic acid (BHA) or glycolic acid (AHA) exfoliators penetrate the pores, enzyme exfoliation makes targeted use of enzymes to break down the skin's upper layer of keratin and eat away at dead skin cells.

What does an exfoliant do?

  • minimise the appearance of wrinkles
  • bring clarity to a dull/uneven skin tone
  • smooth rough, bumpy skin
  • unclog pores
  • increase hydration (yes, even increase hydration!)

What exfoliant should I use: Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid?

Both AHAs (amongst which glycolic acid) and BHA (salicylic acid) help to reduce wrinkles. They stimulate the production of collagen and strengthen the skin. The products’ specific properties will determine the best choice for you.

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

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

When to use BHA and AHA exfoliants

The order of the products from left to right:

AHA (glycolic acid/ lactic acid) BHA (salicylic acid)

Recommended for:
+ Dry skin
+ Sun damaged skin

Recommended for:
+ Oily skin
+ Sensitive skin
+ Breakouts and blackheads
+ Rosacea-prone skin

+ Removes dead skin cells on the skin’s surface
+ Anti-ageing properties
+ Hydrates and brightens skin

+ Removes dead skin cells on the surface and in the pores
+ Combats breakouts, enlarged pores and blackheads
+ Anti-inflammatory properties

- Less suitable for extra sensitive skin which is prone to break-outs and blackheads

  • AHAs are recommended for dry skin or skin that has been damaged by the sun because they exfoliate the skin surface and improve the skin’s moisture levels. They can also improve minor breakouts and clogged pores but for moderate to stubborn spots BHA is far better.
  • BHA is recommended for an oily skin and for skin suffering from spots, blackheads or milia. This is because BHA can penetrate blocked pores and prevent spots and acne from forming.
  • BHA has an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial effect. These are two more reasons to use a BHA exfoliant if you have spots, acne, or a red, sensitive skin.
  • BHA is recommended for people suffering from rosacea-prone skin. Not everyone suffering from rosacea-prone skin can tolerate an exfoliant, but it is worth trying a BHA exfoliant to see if your skin reacts positively to it.

Our Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Lotion is an outstanding option that will give you hydrated, supple skin and an ultra-smooth healthy glow. It also includes anti-ageing properties to smooth wrinkles and fine lines. We have other options to check out in our Resist Collection for normal to dry skin as well!

Our Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is an all-around fan favourite for addressing multiple concerns, while our Clear Regular Strength Exfoliating Solution with 2% Salicylic Acid is a great place to start if you have acne. For those with rosacea-prone skin or extra sensitive skin our Calm 1% BHA Exfoliant.

How to use BHA and AHA exfoliants

  • Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant after the cleanser and toner steps in your routine. If it’s a liquid, apply it with a cotton pad; if a lotion or gel, apply it with your fingers.
  • Apply an occasional-use rinse-off exfoliant peel to cleansed skin, and rinse after several minutes. An at-home chemical peel is suitable for weekly usage. Please note that you should not use your at-home chemical peel on the same day as your regular AHA or BHA exfoliant.
  • You can use it around the eye area, but not on the eyelid or directly under the eye (along the lower lash line).
  • You don’t need to wait for the BHA or AHA to absorb or dry; you can apply any other product in your skincare routine - moisturiser, serum, eye cream, or sunscreen - immediately afterwards.
  • Experiment with different strengths of glycolic acid or salicylic acid to see which concentration gives you the best results. That might mean weekly use of an at-home chemical peel.
  • How often you should exfoliate depends on your skin type and skin concerns. Some people do well exfoliating with AHA or BHA twice a day, whereas others find that once a day or every other day is a perfect balance. Test to see what works best for your skin.
  • Exfoliating with AHA or BHA from the neck down has great benefits as well. In particular, our 2% BHA Body Spot Exfoliant smooths the appearance of rough, red, hard, bumps on the arms and legs, and is even suitable for those with skin prone to keratosis pilaris.

Using a chemical exfoliant vs a scrub or cleansing brush

Most scrubs have a rough, coarse, uneven texture, which can be too harsh and abrasive, causing micro-tears in skin. Many cleansing brushes are also a problem because they have stiff bristles and have the same negative impact on skin’s vulnerable surface.

Gentle scrubs, soft cleansing brushes, or a soft washcloth are the exception because they don’t damage skin, but even those are best used as an extra cleansing step, not as a replacement for what a well-formulated exfoliant with glycolic acid or salicylic acid can do.

Scrubs simply work on the very surface of skin and can’t reach the multiple layers of built up dead skin cells and into the pore to really change skin for the better in so many ways.

Finding the best exfoliant: salicylic acid exfoliant or another chemical exfoliant?

Regular exfoliation gives your skin a healthy, youthful radiance.

If you’re still a bit confused about which AHA or BHA exfoliant to choose, contact our Customer Care experts for a personalised skincare consultation to help you find the perfect solution for your skin!


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