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What are chemical exfoliants and how to use them? Plus, the best products to buy

If your current skincare regimen doesn’t include a chemical exfoliant then it should? Chemical exfoliants are a saviour for softening, brightening, and clarifying skin to achieve a radiance-boosting glow. Chemical exfoliants, like physical exfoliants help clear dead skin cells in a much more regulated and precise manner.

But here’s the thing: chemical exfoliants can be difficult to use, which is why here’s everything you need to know about them, as well as our top picks for chemical exfoliators to use at home.

What are chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliant
Image: Courtesy Ron Lach/Pexels

AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs are the three types of chemical exfoliants available for use at home. Experts believe that each set of acids dissolves the cellular bonds (aka the “glue”) that keep the dead cells on the surface of your skin together, but there are a few key variances. Here’s a brief rundown:

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs):

AHAs function as follows: According to experts, AHAs are water-soluble acids obtained from fruit. AHAs help brighten your skin tone and smooth the appearance of rough texture by eliminating dead skin cells. Some AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acids, have humectant properties (meaning they draw water into your skin) and can help keep skin moisturised.

AHA Types: Glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and mandelic acid are all acids.

AHAs are best for: Anyone with dry, oily, or normal skin who wants to fade dark spots, lighten hyperpigmentation, and smooth the appearance of fine wrinkles and bumpy texture should use AHAs. Some AHAs (such as low-dose lactic, malic, and mandelic acids) are also beneficial for those who have dry, sensitive skin.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs):

BHAs function as follows: BHAs are similar to AHAs, but they are oil-soluble, which means that in addition to dissolving dead skin cells, these acids may enter your pores and remove excess oil and build-up. Not only that, but BHAs have anti-inflammatory properties as well.

BHA Types: Salicylic acid, as well as its natural substitute, willow bark extract

BHAs are best for: BHAs are ideal for oily and/or acne-prone skin, as well as anybody suffering from clogged pores.

Poly hydroxy acids (PHAs):

PHAs function as follows: Consider PHAs to be AHA’s more laid-back relative. These acids act in the same way, but because their molecules are much larger, they do not enter the skin as deeply. The end result? Exfoliation is very gentle and superficial.

PHAs types: gluconolactone, galactose, and lactobionic acid.

PHAs are best for: PHAs are extremely gentle on the skin, making them a good alternative for those with sensitive skin, such as rosacea, eczema, or keratosis pilaris, according to experts.

How to choose a chemical exfoliant?

Look for a formula that is suitable for your skin type: Most at-home chemical exfoliators, according to experts, are developed with a certain skin type in mind. Save yourself hours of poring through ingredient lists by looking for key terms on the label such as “for oily skin,” “for sensitive skin,” and “for dry skin.”

Stronger does not always imply better: According to experts, just because a chemical exfoliant contains a high concentration of acids does not inevitably make it the ideal choice for you. The higher the amount, the more efficient the formula is in brightening dark spots and smoothing lines—but it may also be harsher on your skin. If you’re new to using acids, start with a low proportion and gradually increase to a greater proportion as your skin tolerates it.

Consider the rest of your skincare routine: Excessive exfoliation is one of the worst things you can do to your skin. Overuse of chemical exfoliants, according to experts, can undermine your skin’s protective barrier, resulting in irritation, breakouts, and even infection. Stick to one exfoliating product at a time and use it as directed—and if you’re using other strong actives, such as retinoids or vitamin C, alternate your chemical exfoliant days/nights to minimise irritation.

Get your hands on the best chemical exfoliators

The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution is a potent treatment that acts as a ten-minute exfoliating facial, helping to revitalise and tone the complexion. The scientifically developed formula delivers a specified blend of 30% Alpha Hydroxyl Acids (Glycolic, Lactic, Tartaric and Citric), as well as 2% Beta Hydroxyl Salicylic Acid. The duo have been carefully pH balanced for optimum efficacy, working to deeply exfoliate the surface layer of skin, unclog pores and visibly re-texturise the complexion. Plant-derived Tasmanian pepperberry offers soothing properties, while a cross-polymer form of Hyaluronic Acid seeks to deeply hydrate the skin. Antioxidant-rich Black Carrot helps to protect the skin against free radical damage.

Rating: 4.5/5

Rs 750

The INKEY List PHA Toner is a gentle exfoliant for sensitive skin that helps remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, giving the appearance of smoother, brighter skin. Larger PHA molecules gently remove dead cells from the surface of the skin to improve texture, whilst PHA’s humectant properties naturally lock in moisture. Aloe Barbadensis Leaf juice and 3% Niacinamide formulation soothes the skin and calms redness, making this toner suitable for AM and PM use.

Rating: 4.3/5

Rs 1,089

Minimalist 25% AHA, 5% PHA and 2% BHA Peeling Solution consists of a powerful peeling trio that provides multi-level exfoliation, both on the surface and inside the pores, giving you healthy, plump, and glowing skin. A whopping 25% AHA, 5% PHA and 2% BHA blend formulated at a pH of 3.4 – 3.8 for maximum effectiveness. AHA and PHA exfoliate while BHA clears congestion of pore, delivering incredible brightening and elastic feel for the baby-soft complexion. PHAs are next-generation AHAs. Not just an exfoliator, PHAs are also humectants and moisturizers. Gluconolactone (PHA used in this formula) provides up to 50% protection against UV radiation. It is a soothing peeling solution formulated with turmeric extract and aloe juice to calm skin irritation commonly associated with peeling.

Rating: 4.4/5

Rs 699

Treat yourself to the luxury of an at-home facial with the Pilgrim 25% AHA, 2% BHA, and 5% PHA Peeling Solution. It gently exfoliates the lining of the pores and surface of the skin to get rid of dead skin cells, debris, and oil. A perfect blend of glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid that comes together to enhance skin texture and tone. It minimizes the appearance of pores, redness, and discolourations. Supported by aloe and hyaluronic acid, it brightens and resurfaces the skin. Glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), is a gentle yet effective exfoliator that gets rid of the surface of dead skin cells. It simultaneously offers soothing hydration to the skin. Salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), is known to penetrate beneath the surface and exfoliate the lining of the pores. Breaks down stubborn blackheads and whiteheads. Refines texture and reduces congestion for a blemish-free complexion. Lactic acid offers visible brightening and improved elasticity. Fades dark spots and reduces discolouration for even-toned, luminous skin.

Rating: 4.6/5

Rs 545

A best seller, e.l.f Cosmetics’s Gentle Peeling Exfoliant looks to a combination of brightening licorice root, exfoliating papaya extract, and antioxidant-enriched tangerine extract to protect skin and reveal a smoother, brighter complexion in seconds.

Rating: 4.4/5

Rs 2,300

A leave-on liquid exfoliant containing 2% BHA (salicylic acid) that dissolves built-up dead skin cells on the skin’s surface and inside the pore, unclogging pores and improving skin cell turnover rate. The result is a dramatic improvement in the skin’s appearance, feel and function which leads to healthier skin, clearer and younger-looking skin.

Rating: 4.4/5

Rs 900

When a mask is this green, you just know it’s going to do good. The newest addition to the brand’s collection of covetable complexion-clearing treatments, Tata Harper’s Clarifying Mask promises to balance sebum (thus controlling excess oiliness), while calming the skin and relieving redness. Its chock full of all the super-natural skin care ingredients we’ve come to expect from Tata Harper – there’s a salicylic acid trio to minimise the appearance of blemishes, plus a superfruit blend to refine pesky pores and quartz sand micro-crystals to gently exfoliate and soften skin. Topped off with chlorella (a blue-green algae similar to its cousin, spirulina), the mask hydrates with essential vitamins and fatty acids to ensure that your skin is cool, calm and collected – whatever comes its way.

Rating: 4.4/5
Rs 6,404 (approx.)

Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid is a much-raved Korean Chemical Exfoliator among the Asian beauty community. It contains 4% Betaine Salicylate, a gentler form of Salicylic Acid which is as effective as 2% Salicylic Acid along with 64% Willow Bark Extract to provide gentle exfoliation. It keeps the pores clean, reduces blackheads, and reveals smoother, brighter skin. This product is much gentler than Paula’s BHA and is suitable for beginners & sensitive skin types.

Rating: 4.3/5


All Images: Courtesy Shutterstock

Rs 1,590

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Question: Is chemical exfoliant good for skin?

Answer: Chemical exfoliants are a saviour for smoothing, brightening, and clarifying skin for a radiance-boosting glow. Chemical exfoliants, like physical exfoliants (such as face scrubs and cleansing brushes), help in the removal of dead skin cells, but in a much more controlled and precise manner.

Question: Who shouldn't use a chemical exfoliant?

Answer: Chemical exfoliants can be used by everyone, however your skin type should be considered. Chemical exfoliation is a simple and efficient approach to achieve that coveted glow as long as you listen to your skin. Remember to begin slowly and with low concentration. If your skin is pleased, gradually increase the frequency and strength until you achieve the desired outcome.

Question: What is difference between chemical & physical exfoliator?

Answer: Chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to dissolve and loosen cells, whereas physical exfoliants—products containing tiny particles or any type of textured surface, such as a washcloth—scrub away dead skin and debris.

Question: How often should I exfoliate my skin?

Answer: Most experts recommend exfoliating two to three times a week, as long as your skin can handle it. Chemical exfoliants are generally safe to use on a frequent basis. Physical methods, on the other hand, may be too abrasive to use on a regular basis.

Question: Do dermatologists recommend chemical exfoliators?

Answer: Dermatologists do recommend chemical exfoliants. It is a simple and efficient approach to achieve that coveted glow as long as you listen to your skin. Remember to begin slowly and with low concentration. If your skin is pleased, gradually increase the frequency and strength until you achieve the desired outcome.

What are chemical exfoliants and how to use them? Plus, the best products to buy

Anushka Narula

Anushka likes to write about fashion, beauty, and other nice things. When not bound to her keyboard, she likes to make her Pinterest boards come to life.


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