Don’t Let The ‘Chemical’ In Chemical Exfoliants Scare You


It’s time to upgrade your St. Ives Apricot Scrub (the exfoliating weapon of choice since puberty). Meet chemical exfoliants: the Bad Gal RiRi of exfoliators. Not only do they work (work, work) but they’re a game changer when it comes to better-looking skin.

Before you freak out, chemical exfoliators aren’t to be feared. Chemical exfoliants, or acid-based exfoliants, are skincare products that contain active ingredients like beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) or other enzymes, though most contain BHA, AHA or some combination of both. If you’ve ever used an acne product, then you’ve used a product with these ingredients.

According to Dr. Strachan of Aglow Dermatology, “Chemical exfoliators dissolve the connection between skin cells, resulting in faster shedding of skin,” which is important because, “exfoliation removes build up on the skin, resulting in a smoother, more luminous and even complexion and can help with some skin conditions such as acne.”

Because most chemical exfoliators have a watery consistency, they penetrate deep inside of pores to clean them and get rid of (exfoliate!) the dead skin cells trapped inside. That’s something manual exfoliators can’t do. Most products even have time-release exfoliation, which means they keep working long after the product has evaporated into the skin. Surprisingly, chemical exfoliators are often times less irritating than manual ones since they’re less abrasive.

Chemical exfoliators come in a variety of forms including creams, toners and even pre-soaked pads, giving you lots of ways to get your exfoliation on. But heed this warning: if you see cleansers claiming to include the above active ingredients, you’ll want to stay clear. Acids can only work their magic when they are absorbed into the skin and shouldn’t be washed away in a cleanser. The best way to introduce a chemical exfoliator into your skin care routine is by using an exfoliating toner after cleansing. This toner can replace the one you’re currently using.

(Currently toner-free? Add the step. It’s quick and worth it.)

When you first start to use a chemical exfoliator, you can expect a few seconds of tingling when you apply the product. What you’re feeling is healthy skin being born. You’ll probably want to start off using them just 1-3 times a week and slowly increase the frequency.

Dr. Strachan advised that no one with an underlying skin condition such as eczema or seborrheic dermatitis should try chemical exfoliants, as they may exacerbate things. Check with your doctor if you’re on any medications as well to avoid any negative reactions. Finally, regularly using a chemical exfoliator can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so make sure you pile on the SPF before heading out to keep your glowing face protected.

(But you already do that either way, right?)

Below are three products to help jump-start your newest obsession, chemical exfoliators:

Biologique Lotion Recherche P50


This is the Holy Grail of all things exfoliating and it’s better than baby unicorn tears. P50 is an acid toner that not only exfoliates the skin but also balances your skin’s pH and hydrates it. This product can be used both morning and night. However, start off by using it just once a day then work your way up to twice.

How to apply: soak a wet cotton pad and swipe over your face and neck. Since this product acts as a toner,  use it between your cleanser and moisturizer.

The only (slight) downside to the product is that it doesn’t exactly smell like roses – you can thank ingredients like sulfur and vinegar for that. But trading 30 seconds of an unpleasant smell for the best skin of your life seems like a fair tradeoff. At $60 a bottle, it’s certainly not cheap, either, but it’s lasts a while. Plus, your skin will thank you.

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid


COSRX is a Korean brand that uses consumer feedback to create new products – so you know this one is gooood. The BHA Blackhead power liquid is thicker than a toner but not slimy or gross and can be applied right after you wash your face.

How to apply: Tap a few pumps of the product onto your skin with either your fingers or a cotton pad. The name says it all; this is a power liquid that will make your skin softer, smoother and fade any dark spots you might have. It will also help clear up any lingering breakouts and prevent future ones. The best part is that at $21 a bottle, this product won’t put a major dent in your wallet.

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Daily Peel


Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare has created individually packaged exfoliating pads for the laziest among us – or for those who want to exfoliate on the go. These pre-soaked pads help to restore radiance and combat the most common signs of aging.

How to apply: Wipe your face down with the Step 1 pad, wait two minutes, and then do the same thing with the Step 2 pad.  So easy!

You can pick up a pack of five treatments for $16 at Sephora.

Dare I say it? You glow, girl.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.


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