Wtf is a Chemical Exfoliant?

Acids, walnut scrubs, warm towels, fruit extracts. Each of these items contribute to the exfoliation of our skin, though certainly not created equal. The launch of several acid exfoliants this year has prompted us to make this preliminary guide, one we hope will make you a more literate, informed and dewy beauty buyer.



Your potential Solution to dull, dry Skin.

How does your face feel right now? Skin in the winter is at an increased risk of dryness, and the reason for this isn’t as understood as I once thought. Though circulated air and constant indoor-heat are culprits, another contributing factor exists in the slowing of cellular regeneration. As skin cells die faster in cooler months, an excess buildup of dead skin can sit on the face's layer of protective dead cells, known as the stratum corneum. This “protective layer” is good to have around; it keeps the world out, and moisture in. This layer will naturally shed over time in a process called desquamation; but in the winter the process takes longer to complete, resulting in a stratum corneum that is thicker than necessary. Though our suddenly dull, rough skin may feel like a never-ending curse, a massive aid could exist in the continued use of chemical exfoliants. Here’s why:

The Better Bet?

Chemical exfoliation has often been touted as the “easier” option over physical exfoliants, simply due to it being less likely that (as long as you’re buying the correct product), you’ll over-exfoliate, or over-strip the skin. The magic of chemical exfoliants lies in the normalization of cell turnover, or the “un-sticking” of cellular glue that holds the dead section together. This allows for new skin to come to the surface and for follow-up products to carry out their functions with a much higher efficiency. It’s sort of like trying to make coffee with a new coffee filter versus an already-been-used one. With the latter, you’ll still get a beverage that resembles coffee, but you won’t have used the beans to their fullest potential. A fresh filter (and in our case, fresh skin!) ensures that everything is being maximized. 


Second, Chemical exfoliants come in a varying array of types. Today, and thanks to the release of Glossier’s Solution (an exfoliant using a vast array of these acids), we will be focusing on leave-on Hydroxy acids, which you might also know as AHAs and BHAs. 

AHAs, BHAs and Wait - There's More?

The term AHA plays house to ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid and mandelic acid. Glycolic and lactic acids are the ingredients you’ll most likely find in skincare, and the majority of scientific studies done on AHAs revolve around the results of glycolic acid. Glycolic acid has the smallest molecular structure, so though it can reveal the most dramatic results, it may also increase your risk of side effects; particularly if you have darker skin. If you’re prone to side-effects with glycolic acid, it may be beneficial to try mandelic acid, which has the largest molecular structure and will therefore penetrate through fewer layers of the skin. However, it’s always great to consult a dermatologist to gather specific data and understand what will work for you. 

BHAs are almost always salicylic acid, which have probably been marketed to us endlessly during our teenage years. 

While AHAs make the skin sensitive to sunlight, BHAs, with their fancy UV-protective effect, do not. Regardless, it’s important to be using an SPF with any kind of chemical exfoliant - sunscreen is KEY. 

Most cutting-edge chemical exfoliants also makes use of something called PHAs, or Polyhydroxy Acids. According to scientific studies, these acids seem to be less irritating than AHAs, and don’t cause as much sun sensitivity. Biologique Recherche’s cult favourite P50, for instance, includes gluconolactone; a PHA present in honey and fruit juices. 

Glycolic and lactic acids are the ingredients you’ll most likely find in skincare, and the majority of scientific studies done on AHAs revolve around the results of glycolic acid.

PH, Please

It’s important to understand that acids are not the only thing to watch out for when selecting a chemical exfoliant that works for you. PH, too, can make or break a product. If it is too low, than you run the risk of inflicting serious damage to the skin. If the PH is too high, than the product will not penetrate the skin with enough potency to work. Another way to measure an acid is with its acid strength, or PKA. If the PKA and PH are closely related, this means that there is a balance between the two products which will maximize effectiveness and reduce irritation. Generally, the PH of a product will be listed on the bottle, and if not, a customer service associate should be able to help you find it. AHA products should have a PH of less than 4, and BHAs should have a PH of less than 5, generally.

Sound like a lot? Below, a few products we believe have done the job well: 

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toning Solution

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting BHA Liquid

Biologique Recherche P50