- Exfoliation refers to the process of removing the outer layer of dead cells from the surface layer of your skin.
- A buildup of dead skin cells can cause inflammation and skin problems by clogging healthy pores.
- The process of exfoliation can be performed physically, with devices and scrubs, or chemically, with formulas containing acids that remove the dead cells.
Chemical exfoliants tend to penetrate deeper than physical exfoliants, yet because they rely on the use of exfoliating acids to remove dead layers of skin rather than the abrasive contact characteristic of physical exfoliation, they are often less harsh on skin.
Among the most common chemical exfoliants in use are alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs respectively). Hydroxy acids work to loosen the bonds between dead skin cells and new skin cells, allowing dead skin to be removed with ease.
What is Chemical Exfoliation?
Chemical exfoliation speeds up cell turnover and unsticks the cellular glue (or desmosomes) which hold dead cells together on the outer layer of the skin.
Chemical exfoliants come in many forms, including leave-on products, cleansers, toners, and peels, many of them containing AHAs, BHAs, or both, depending on what skin type they’re catered to.
Chemical Exfoliation vs. Physical Exfoliation
The two main types of exfoliation are mechanical (also known as manual or physical), and chemical. The exfoliation process that best suits you will depend upon your unique skin type.
In order to avoid stinging, flaking, or itching post exfoliation, it’s important to consider any skin sensitivities or conditions you might have when choosing an exfoliation method.
Mechanical exfoliation involves the buffing away of dead cells using products such as scrubs containing microbeads or other grainy substances and/or devices like brushes or gloves. Booking a microdermabrasion or dermaplaning session with a dermatologist also qualifies as manual exfoliation.
Physical exfoliation is losing popularity, in part because it only works on the surface of the skin while chemical exfoliation penetrates to the skin’s deeper layers. As well, scrubs tend to be too harsh, particularly for those with dry or sensitive skin.
Chemical exfoliants are typically much gentler than physical ones and are gaining popularity. While it is generally recommended that you do more involved chemical peels under the supervision of a dermatologist, there are many leave-on products that can safely be used at home as well.
Chemical exfoliants containing water soluble AHAs don’t penetrate too deeply into the pores, making products containing them suitable for skin that is dry, sun damaged, uneven, and/or hyperpigmented.
Common AHAs include gentle lactic and glycolic acids, which work to speed cell turnover, allowing your skin to shed and reveal new skin more quickly, while also acting as a moisturizer for drier skin types due to their water-binding properties.
Oil soluble BHAs penetrate deeper into the skin than AHAs, making them appropriate for acne-prone or oily skin. BHAs have the ability to purge excess “gunk,” but can dry the skin, so be sure to follow up with a moisturizer.
Salicylic acid is a common BHA that possess anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It can be very effective for those susceptible to breakouts.
Benefits of Chemical Exfoliation
As we age, the process of cell regeneration slows, making the body slower to shed dead skin cells and generate fresh ones. Proper chemical exfoliation boasts many tangible skin care benefits, including:
- Facilitating effective absorption of other skin care products such as moisturizers, serums, or acne treatments.
- Reducing hyperpigmentation by removing dark spots caused by aging for a more even skin tone.
- Helping boost collagen production, leaving skin firmer and plumper
- Minimizing the visibility of acne scars for a better overall complexion
- Reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, for a more youthful, revitalized appearance
- Unblocking pores by sloughing away dead skin cells for an overall cleaner look and feel
Benefits of Physical or Manual Exfoliation
While it’s important to be careful about the manual exfoliation methods you select, always opting for the gentler approach, depending on your skin type, there are certain benefits:
- Oily skin may benefit from mechanical exfoliation and brushing, since there may be an extra layer of buildup on the skin that this method can remove.
- Even if you opt for a chemical exfoliant for your face, a gentle mechanical scrub can be very beneficial for smoothing dry, peeling lips, as chemical exfoliants are not typically recommended for lips.
Although physical exfoliants are considered safe by many, it may be best to avoid mechanical exfoliation If you have dry or sensitive skin, because the process is drying and can lead to redness and irritation.
If you do choose manual exfoliation, opt for products that contain gentle exfoliants (like sugar), and moisturizing ingredients like natural butters rather than sharp ground shells or plastic microbeads.
Leave-on chemical exfoliant are typically considered safer than manual exfoliants as no abrasion is required, which vastly lessens any chances of injuring your skin. Products labeled one-time-use “peels”, while they do promise speedy results, often have a much higher concentration of acid (20-30%). To avoid risking chemical burns, book these with a dermatologist .
Using chemical exfoliants with lower concentrations of acid, are typically very safe for at-home use when used as directed.
Can you use both at the same time?
It’s possible that some combination skin may require a mix of both mechanical and chemical exfoliation methods. However, in order to avoid irritation, it is best not to use both methods on the same day.
Pros and cons
Both manual and chemical exfoliation offer a number of benefits when integrated properly into your skin care regimen. Each method, however, can also have its downsides, particularly if you are not using a method well-suited to your skin.
When selecting an exfoliant to include in your skin care routine, consider the pros and cons of both.
- Leaves you feeling like you’ve truly scrubbed your face clean
- Mechanical motion stimulates circulation
- Can quickly improve skin texture if you have flaky skin
- Scrubbing too hard can leave skin irritated and cause microtears
- Beads or grains that are too large or rough may cause irritation
- Some scrubs still contain microbeads which are environmentally harmful
- Hydroxy acids are very good for sensitive skin types
- There is no risk of over-scrubbing the skin
- Can penetrate the skin’s layers more deeply than physical exfoliants
- Necessary to research before introducing a new product into your skin care routine to avoid potential bad reactions between different ingredients
How to Pick a Chemical Exfoliant
Chemical exfoliants come in a wide range of concentrations. Always start out using products with lower acid concentrations. For salicylic acid products, look for 1-2% concentrations to start. Glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid are gentler, so opt for a 10% concentration or lower.
It is also important to take your unique skin type into account when selecting a product.
If you have a normal skin type without complications, most types of chemical exfoliation are considered safe. Carefully experiment with different products to find out which ingredients work best for your skin.
If you have dry skin, it’s best to avoid any ingredients that may cause skin to dry out more, such as certain retinoids or benzoyl peroxide. Instead, choose a more gentle approach, such as a brown sugar paste or an AHA combination of lactic and glycolic acid, which also works to moisturize the skin.
If you have oily skin, you may be able to tolerate stronger products, but always exercise caution. A combination of glycolic and salicylic acid (AHAs and BHAs) are recommended, particularly for those with pimples, as they exfoliate and treat blemishes simultaneously.
Lactic acid is very gentle due to its larger molecular size, which doesn’t allow it to penetrate skin quite as deeply as other acids. This makes products containing lactic acids ideal for those with sensitive skin types.
AHAs can help boost collagen production, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, for firmer, more youthful looking skin. In addition to lactic and glycolic acids, mandelic acid has also been shown effective when used on aging skin.
Products containing both glycolic and salicylic acid are recommended for those with acne-prone skin. They act as an acne treatment while exfoliating at the same time. Salicylic acid use can greatly reduces the number and severity of acne breakouts. You may also try a salicylic acid peel at a certified spa or clinic.
Your body can benefit from exfoliation just as much as your face can. If you have dry, crepe-like, or sun-damaged skin, use a daily leave-on AHA body exfoliant containing glycolic or lactic acid to keep your skin hydrated and firm. If prone to blemishes, clogged pores, or roughness, apply a daily BHA body exfoliant containing 2% salicylic acid for best results.
How to Use Chemical Exfoliants Safely
Chemical exfoliants are typically very safe. Nonetheless, it’s important to follow several safety guidelines when using your at-home chemical exfoliant, regardless of skin type.
Before starting any chemical exfoliant regimen, be sure to add sun protection to your routine, as freshly exfoliated skin is more sensitive to sun exposure. Never exfoliate with sunburned skin or other skin injuries.
Always be sure to do a patch test first. Use the product as directed on a small area of skin and wait 12-24 hours to see if you have any unexpected reactions. It’s best to start your usage on the low end of acid percentages. That’s 1-2% for salicylic acid, and 8-10% for glycolic or lactic. Increase your concentrations gradually if needed.
Apply your chemical exfoliant after cleansing and allow it to dry for a few minutes before applying other products. When applying, be gentle, using small, circular motions for approximately 30 seconds, and then rinse off with lukewarm water.
Apply moisturizer after exfoliating to keep your skin healthy and hydrated. It is commonly recommended to exfoliate at bedtime so you can follow with a hydrating night cream and allow your skin to replenish while you rest.
At first, only use your exfoliant two to three times per week with at least a day between each use. As your skin becomes accustomed, you might slowly increase your weekly usage. If you experience any irritation, immediately stop exfoliating until your skin returns to normal. Once it does, wait several more days before trying to exfoliate again.
DIY Chemical Exfoliation
Making a DIY chemical peel at home is a relatively easy and affordable way to customize your product to suit your skincare issues. However, for safety, always be sure to find a recipe with trusted ingredients if you take the DIY approach.
In order to make a chemical exfoliant that benefits your skin, consider the ingredients most commonly added to homemade recipes:
- Glycolic acid gently sloughs away dead skin for skin that feels refreshed and rejuvenated. Glycolic acid is found in yogurt, vinegar, apples, and a variety of citrus fruits.
- You can create chemical peels using antioxidant-rich citrus juice to exfoliate while also providing an antioxidant boost. Lemon additionally has lightening properties, which makes it effective at correcting age spots.
- Natural moisturizers are key to adding hydration to your homemade exfoliant. Avocado, honey, or egg whites are all simple ways to achieve this.
- Aspirin is commonly used in DIY chemical facial peels to provide a boost of salicylic acid, which encourages the shedding of dead skin while providing an effective acne treatment.
- Baking soda’s alkaline nature can act as a neutralizer in your product, ensuring that the acids in your other ingredients don’t dry out or damage your skin.
Including regular exfoliation in your facial skin care regime can vastly improve the quality of your skin’s tone, texture, and feel.
While manual exfoliants have their appropriate uses, chemical exfoliants are considered the safer option, most typically in the form of leave-on hydroxy acids containing AHAs and/or BHAs, dependent on skin type.
For safety purposes, always be sure to take your skin type and condition into account when selecting an exfoliation method that will benefit your skin.
- Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 3, 135–142. doi:10.2147/CCID.S9042
- Algiert-Zielińska B, Mucha P, Rotsztejn H. Lactic and lactobionic acids as typically moisturizing compounds. Int J Dermatol. 2019 Mar;58(3):374-379. doi:10.1111/ijd.14202
- Rendon, M. I., Berson, D. S., Cohen, J. L., Roberts, W. E., Starker, I., & Wang, B. (2010). Evidence and considerations in the application of chemical peels in skin disorders and aesthetic resurfacing. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 3(7), 32–43. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921757/
- Grajqevci-Kotori, M., & Kocinaj, A. (2015). Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical archives (Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina), 69(6), 414–416. doi:10.5455/medarh.2015.69.414-416
- Ditre CM, Griffin TD, Murphy GF, Sueki H, Telegan B, Johnson WC, Yu RJ, Van Scott EJ. Effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on photoaged skin: a pilot clinical, histologic, and ultrastructural study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1996 Feb;34(2 Pt 1) 187-195. doi:10.1016/s0190-9622(96)80110-1
- Kontochristopoulos G, Platsidaki E. Chemical peels in active acne and acne scars. Clin Dermatol. 2017 Mar – Apr;35(2):179-182. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2016.10.011
- Moghimipour E. (2012). Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur journal of natural pharmaceutical products, 7(1), 9–10. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941867/
- Rodan, K., Fields, K., Majewski, G., & Falla, T. (2016). Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Global open, 4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp), e1152. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152
- Briden ME. Alpha-hydroxyacid chemical peeling agents: case studies and rationale for safe and effective use. Cutis. 2004 Feb;73(2 Suppl) 18-24. europepmc.org/abstract/med/15002658
- Stiller MJ, Bartolone J, Stern R, Smith S, Kollias N, Gillies R, Drake LA. Topical 8% glycolic acid and 8% L-lactic acid creams for the treatment of photodamaged skin. A double-blind vehicle-controlled clinical trial. Arch Dermatol. 1996 Jun;132(6):631-6. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8651713
- Sharad J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 6, 281–288. doi:10.2147/CCID.S34029
- Arif T. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 455–461. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765
- Wójcik, A., Kubiak, M., & Rotsztejn, H. (2013). Influence of azelaic and mandelic acid peels on sebum secretion in ageing women. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 30(3), 140–145. doi:10.5114/pdia.2013.35614
- Bhatia AC, Jimenez F. Rapid treatment of mild acne with a novel skin care system containing 1% salicylic acid, 10% buffered glycolic acid, and botanical ingredients. J Drugs Dermatol. 2014 Jun;13(6):678-83. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24918557
- Zander E, Weisman S. Treatment of acne vulgaris with salicylic acid pads. Clin Ther. 1992 Mar-Apr;14(2) 247-253. europepmc.org/abstract/med/1535287
- Tang, S. C., & Yang, J. H. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(4), 863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863
- Kim DB, Shin GH, Kim JM, Kim YH, Lee JH, Lee JS, Song HJ, Choe SY, Park IJ, Cho JH, Lee OH. Antioxidant and anti-ageing activities of citrus-based juice mixture. Food Chem. 2016 Mar 1;194:920-7. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.08.094
- Burlando B, Cornara L. Honey in dermatology and skin care: a review. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2013 Dec;12(4):306-13. doi:10.1111/jocd.12058
- Bubna A. K. (2015). Aspirin in dermatology: Revisited. Indian dermatology online journal, 6(6), 428–435. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.169731