The Best Exfoliating Acids For Each Skin Type
The skin regenerates itself approximately every 30 days. This renewal process starts to slow down with age and things like sun exposure or poor diet. Slower cellular turnover leads to skin looking dull, dry, flaky, and can clog or enlarge pores, and create an uneven skin tone. Lucky for us, we live in a time where science has given us many useful products that can help with this.
by Kate Grant
A year ago
Exfoliating the skin is a quick way to break up dead skin cells and get your healthy glow back. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical.
Physical exfoliators involve a rough ingredient that physically scrubs the top layer of skin, buffing away dead skin cells for instantly brighter and smoother skin.
Chemical exfoliators (or exfoliating acids) are acids that work by breaking the bonds between skin cells and loosening up the dead cells so they can easily sluff off to reveal brighter, healthier-looking skin. However, if you don't use the right formula for your skin type or needs, or if misused, they can do more harm than good.
We're going to take a deeper dive into chemical exfoliation below.
What Are The Main Types Of Chemical Exfoliators?
AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids)
Think of this group at the top of the class. AHAs are the most popular acids in skincare and include glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, mandelic acid, and malic acid. AHAs are water-soluble (they dissolve in water) and work mostly on the skin's surface layers to improve texture.
Check out our Flash Forward Thermal Enzymatic Exfoliation Treatment with 10% Lactic Acid and multi-fruit enzymes for intense exfoliation.
BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids)
The hero of this group is Salicylic Acid. BHAs are oil-soluble, meaning they can penetrate to the deeper layers of the skin. They can improve surface texture, unclog pores and get rid of acne-causing sebum.
PHAs (Poly Hydroxy Acids)
PHAs are similar to AHAs in that they are water-soluble. However, they have a larger molecule size, meaning they don't penetrate as deeply and are less prone to irritation than AHAs. They also carry additional hydrating and antioxidant benefits.
Retinoid is a term used to describe a group of topical compounds derived from Vitamin A, and has many different forms including: Retin-A, retinoic acid, retinol, retinyl palmitate, retinol propionate (a.k.a. pro-retinol), retinaldehyde, adapalene, isotretinoin, tretinoin and tazarotene, among others. A true anti-aging powerhouse, retinoids have been researched for years and are clinically proven to increase cell turnover, boost collagen production, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, minimize discoloration and sun spots, reduces acne, and improve overall texture and tone.
Which Chemical Exfoliant Is Best For My Skin Type?
You get the pick of the bunch. You might find that salicylic acid is best for your t-zone, while lactic acid is preferred for the rest of your face and neck. Experiment and see which option(s) work best for you.
Dry or Sensitive Skin:
When you have dry or sensitive skin, it is best to start slow and low with acids. That means pick a product with a low percentage of acids and begin by applying it every other day until your skin adjusts.
Lactic acid and mandelic acid are a great place to start for dry, sensitive types. These molecules are larger and therefore don't penetrate the skin as deeply as some other acids, which means less risk of irritation or peeling.
If you have reactive skin or are prone to redness, we suggest azelaic acid. It is the least irritating of all the acids and boasts multiple benefits, including reducing redness and dryness. Azelaic acid is reported to help reduce redness associated with rosacea.
Oily or Acne-Prone Skin:
Salicylic acid is the way to go if you have oily or acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is renowned for its ability to unclog pores and eliminating blackheads and congestion. This acid works quickly as a spot treatment and can reduce sebum and shine.
Hyperpigmentation, Sun Damage, and Scarring:
To help reduce the look of dark spots or scarring, reach for salicylic acid or a combination of lactic and glycolic acids. Be sure to start slow and low to prevent irritation or peeling.
Retinoids are the ultimate anti-aging powerhouse. Not only do they increase cell turnover and collagen production, retinoids are also renowned for their ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, improve texture, and even skin tone. Available in both over-the-counter and prescription strengths.
Be sure to layer on the spf as retinoids increase photosensitivity. You will also want to have a rich moisturizer at the ready to help prevent dryness or peeling.
Darker, melanin-rich skin has more reactive melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that make pigment. Any pimple, breakouts, or other irritation, can activate those melanocytes and produces a dark spot.
When someone with darker skin overuses chemical exfoliators like AHAs, it can actually cause irritation that leads to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (dark spots), which is why we recommend sticking with gentle exfoliating acids like Lactic or Mandelic Acid.
How To Use Exfoliating Acids:
Acids can make your skin hypersensitive to UV rays, so it's best to stick to using exfoliating acids at night.
It is essential to follow the instructions provided with the product you are using. You do not want to over-use any exfoliating products (depending on the type of exfoliating acid, every other day should be plenty). Do not experiment with chemical exfoliants, or you could run the risk of damaging the protective lipid barrier, leading to sensitivity and dryness.
You also want to be mindful of any other actives you are using (retinol, vitamin c), as too many actives can cause irritation, breakouts, and sensitivity. It's best to skip actives like retinol or antioxidants immediately after using an exfoliating acid. We advise caution when it comes to acids if you are already using retinol. You can easily strip the skin of its protective barrier and cause damage.
There are many types of exfoliating acids: cleansers, toners, serums, and creams. You should look at your current skincare line up to determine which would work best with your routine.
Check out Flash Forward Thermal Exfoliation Treatmentith Lactic Acid and Fruit Enzymes for the ultimate 3x a week treatment.
Exfoliating Acids Explained:
When it comes to chemical exfoliation, it seems like there is a new buzz-worthy exfoliating acid out each year—below, we breakdown the most popular facial exfoliating acids.
What it is: A dicarboxylic acid (derived from grains) that is a gentle leave-on exfoliant with antibacterial and brightening properties.
What it does: Removes dead skin cells, helps lighten the appearance of hyperpigmentation, fights acne, and aids in the treatment of rosacea.
What it's good for: Acne-prone, rosacea-prone, or hyperpigmented skin. Great for sensitive skin and pregnant women.
Usage frequency: Gentle enough to use every day.
What to use it with: Can be used with other AHAs or BHAs, and retinol.
What to avoid: Safe to use with nearly all ingredients.
Azelaic Acid Overview: This is one of the lesser-known acids, but one that should be on your radar if you have sensitive skin. Not only does this little-known wonder gently exfoliate your skin and unclog pores, but it also fights inflammation and redness, delivers antioxidants, and even lessens skin sensitivity. Azelaic acid is also reported to help prevent rosacea flare-ups. Look for over the counter formulas with 10% or more, and for tougher skin conditions, you might want to talk to your dermatologist about prescription-strength formulas.
What it is: An Alpha Hydroxy Acid derived from citrus fruits.
What it does: Exfoliates the top layers of skin, used mostly as a pH balancer in formulations.
What it's good for: We do not recommend using citric acid as your primary exfoliating acid.
Usage frequency: If you are going to use it as your primary exfoliating acid, don't use it more than 3x a week. If it is in a formulation with other ingredients, follow the directions stated on that product.
What to use it with: You will often find this in formulations that feature other AHAs as the main ingredient.
What to avoid: Use caution if using this at high percentages, as it can cause irritation on its own. Be sure to follow directions if used in a formulation that contains other AHAs or BHAs, and don't over-use.
Citric Acid Overview: Traditionally, this acid is used in skincare formulas to adjust the pH, so a formula is not too alkaline. As an AHA, it technically exfoliates the skin; however, it requires higher concentrations to be effective, leading to irritation and burning. In our opinion, there are much better alternatives that are readily available, affordable, and less likely to irritate the skin.
What it is: A Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) that is one of the gentlest exfoliators on the market.
What it does: Removes dead skin cells, smooths texture and brightens tone, contains hydrating and antioxidant properties.
What it's good for: All skin types, particularly dry, sensitive or mature skin that cannot tolerate AHAs or BHAs.
Usage frequency: Gentle enough to use every evening, depending on the other products in your routine. If combining with other exfoliating actives or retinoids, then stick to 3x a week.
What to use it with: Works well when you use antioxidants in the AM and gluconolactone in the evening. Pairs well with AHAs / BHAs and retinoids.
What to avoid: Can be used with most other ingredients, but be cautious not to over-exfoliate when combining products with potent actives.
Gluconolactone Overview: If you have dry, sensitive, or reactive skin, this an acid you should try. Gluconolactone not only sluffs off dead skin cells without causing redness or sensitivity, but it is also an excellent hydrator, which makes it a great option for those with dry skin. The larger molecule cannot penetrate very deeply, which is why it's perfect for those with sensitive skin. This PHA also has antioxidant properties and is reported to neutralize free radicals.
What it is: One of the beauty industries' favorite alpha hydroxy acids.
What it does: Exfoliates dead skin, lessens hyperpigmentation, boosts collagen, improves wrinkles, smooths texture, and evens skin tone.
What it's good for: Normal, combination, or oily skin types. It is not recommended for dry, sensitive, or reactive skin.
Usage frequency: Once a month for professional in-office treatment or twice a week with at-home products.
What to use it with: Great when used in a routine that combines hydration, moisture, and antioxidants. Can be used with other gentle exfoliating acid products but proceed with caution.
What to avoid: Don't use in combination with physical exfoliators, retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, or other highly active exfoliation products.
Glycolic Acid Overview: Derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is the simplest and smallest AHA from a molecular standpoint, and therefore can penetrate deeper than other AHAs. Not only does this powerhouse exfoliate the top layers of skin (stratum corneum), but it penetrates deeper to stimulate collagen production, and helps to reduce the look of discoloration or dark spots, and diminishes fine lines and wrinkles. Because of its deeper penetration, glycolic acid can irritate the skin, so it's best to ease this acid into your routine slowly. If you have sensitive or reactive skin, we suggest skipping this one.
What it is: Another iconic alpha hydroxy acid and our preferred choice for all skin types.
What it does: Removes dead skin cells, smooths texture, boosts collagen production (at percentages of 10%), reduces fine lines and wrinkles, provides added hydration.
What it's good for: All skin types.
Usage frequency: It is gentle enough to use every evening, depending on the other products in your routine. However, we recommend 3x a week max.
What to use it with: Plays nicely with hydrating and moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid or glycerin. Works well with antioxidants as long as they are used at separate times of the day.
What to avoid: We do not suggest using this in combination with other strong exfoliants or highly active ingredients like glycolic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinoids.
Lactic Acid Overview: Lactic acid has a larger molecule, so it is less likely to cause irritation or sensitivity, but that doesn't mean it's any less effective. Research shows that 10% lactic acid concentrations penetrate both the dermis and epidermis, which means that in addition to gentle exfoliation, it can stimulate collagen production and smooth out the surface of the skin, reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Unlike glycolic acid, lactic acid has the ability to hold on to moisture better, so your skin doesn't get dried out after using it. We prefer lactic acid because it is less likely to disrupt the pH of your skin barrier – that doesn't mean it can't still be over-used. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to exfoliating acids.
We selected lactic acid combined with fruit enzymes for our Flash Forward Thermal Enzymatic Exfoliation Treatment. The intensive formula has zero alcohol and is packed with moisturizing ingredients like almond and avocado oils to restore fatty acids and prevent over-drying. Great for all skin types.
What it is: A large molecule AHA that is derived from fruit (apples and pears).
What it does: Exfoliates dead skin cells, increases cell turnover, and helps correct discoloration and brighten skin tone.
What it's good for: Sensitive or dry skin types, or those that can’t use lactic acid or glycolic acid.
Usage frequency: It is gentle enough to use every day, depending on the other products in your routine.
What to use it with: Works well with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin and can be combined with other AHA or BHA products at lower doses.
What to avoid: Use caution when combining with other AHAs, BHAs, or retinoids.
Malic Acid Overview: Malic acid lacks the exfoliating power compared to glycolic or lactic acid. However, if you have had a bad reaction to lactic acid, you may want to give it a shot. You will often see this combined in formulas with other AHAs as it isn't strong enough to be the hero ingredient. Malic acid is a nice addition to brightening exfoliation products, so if skin tone is a concern, then this is one to check out.
What it is: Another non-irritating, large molecule AHA.
What it does: Exfoliates and resurfaces the skin, improves the look of fine lines and wrinkles, and evens skin tone.
What it's good for: Sensitive or acne-prone skin that does not respond well to other exfoliating acids.
Usage frequency: It is best to stick to 2-3 times per week if you have sensitive skin.
What to use it with: Plays nicely with hydrators and moisturizers.
What to avoid: We don't recommend combining this with other exfoliating acids or retinoids.
Mandelic Acid Overview: Derived from Almonds, this exfoliating acid usually shows up in concentrations of 25%+, but not to worry – it's another gentle AHA. This particular acid has been known to help people suffering from skin conditions like rosacea, and its antibacterial properties are ideal for acne-prone skin. Battling stubborn melasma but can't tolerate glycolic or lactic acids? You might want to give mandelic acid a shot.
What it is: Retinoid is a term used to describe a group of topical compounds derived from Vitamin A (Retin-A, retinoic acid, retinol, retinyl palmitate, retinol propionate (a.k.a. pro-retinol), retinaldehyde, adapalene, isotretinoin, tretinoin and tazarotene, among others).
What it does: Increased cell turnover and collagen production, helps prevent acne breakouts, reduces lines and wrinkles, improves texture, evens skin tone, and reduces pore size. Ultimately helps delay the signs of aging.
What it's good for: Acne-prone or aging skin.
Usage frequency: Once a day maximum. Keep in mind that you need to start slow and increase the frequency. For example, 2x a week for the first couple weeks, 3x a week for a couple of weeks, etc., or you run the risk of getting irritation or peeling.
What to use it with: Works well with moisturizing or hydrating products.
What to avoid: Don't use with any other exfoliating acids or benzoyl peroxide. Use caution when using vitamin C products, and be sure to use them at separate times of the day.
Retinoic Acid Overview: Retinoic acid is the most active form of vitamin A, and therefore the most potent (which is why it requires a prescription). Retinol and other retinoids need to be converted to retinoic acid on the skin and thus work slower. The weaker the retinoid, the easier it is tolerated on the skin. Retinoids are renowned for their ability to get rid of fine lines, acne, sun damage, uneven skin tone, etc. (more on this in a future blog post). However, there are some downsides; retinoids can cause dryness, irritation, and peeling. Because this is such an active ingredient, we recommend consulting your dermatologist before using any exfoliating acids while using retinoid products.
What it is: A Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) derived from willow bark.
What it does: Exfoliates the skin, removes excess oil, and prevents superficial breakouts (blackheads/whiteheads).
What it's good for: Oily or breakout-prone skin.
Usage frequency: Once or twice a day as tolerated. Build up frequency slowly to avoid irritation or peeling.
What to use it with: Can be combined with other exfoliating ingredients like PHA or AHAs that are on the gentle side. Pairs best with other skin calming, hydrating and moisturizing ingredients such as allantoin, willow herb, colloidal oatmeal, calendula, and hyaluronic acid.
What to avoid: We don't recommend combining this with other exfoliating acids, but if you do, you should proceed with caution to not over-exfoliate. Can damage the skin's protective barrier when combined with retinoids.
Salicylic Acid Overview: You might remember this as a lifesaver during your awkward teen years. Salicylic acid / BHAs are oil-soluble and can therefore penetrate down into pores and the deeper layers of the skin, which is why salicylic acid is ideal for tackling oily or acne-prone skin. You can find salicylic acid in both over-the-counter and prescription strength depending on your needs. One of the most researched acids, salicylic acid, is ideal for people with oily skin looking to clear up or prevent breakouts (works best of blackheads or whiteheads) and want a more even tone and texture. It is not recommended for dry/sensitive skin.
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