Chemical Exfoliation: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners
Written by: Jean Godfrey-June
Published on: January 11, 2023
If you’re in the market for noticeably smoother, glowier, clearer skin, the secret—no matter your skin type—is to regularly exfoliate your face. There are two types of exfoliation, chemical and physical (also called mechanical exfoliation). Both types have their advantages, but chemical exfoliators—usually combinations of acids or enzymes—dissolve debris, dead skin cells, and other impurities in a uniform manner that leaves skin exceptionally even. Whether they’re infused into resurfacing cleansers, overnight exfoliating serums, masks, or peels, chemical exfoliants can vary in strength dramatically, and they help with everything from extreme dryness to blackheads, improving cell turnover, uneven skin texture, dullness, and hyperpigmentation.
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Physical exfoliants include anything from a washcloth to a scrub containing beads or small granules that slough off dead cells manually. They’re easiest to use while showering; you’ll feel an instant softness the second you get out of the shower. Too much intense exfoliation—whether chemical or physical—can be irritating, and physical exfoliants have the potential to cause microtears in the skin. As your skin acclimates to either type of exfoliation, you may be able to increase the frequency (depending on your skin type and level of sensitivity).
What are the different types of chemical exfoliators?
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), poly hydroxy acids (PHAs), fruit and flower acids, and enzymes are among the most common types of chemical exfoliators.
Water-soluble with small molecular sizes, AHAs are the strongest among the chemical exfoliants. Glycolic, lactic, malic, citric, tartaric, and mandelic acids are AHAs commonly used in skin care. AHAs exfoliate the top layers of skin and are best for dark spots, surface wrinkles, fine lines, uneven skin tone, and even dry skin (glycolic acid was actually initially developed to treat an extreme dry skin condition called ichthyosis).
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BHAs are slightly larger molecules that are oil-soluble. They penetrate the skin through oil glands, helping unclog pores. The most common BHA in skin care is salicylic acid—it’s in every formula below—which is best for blemish-prone skin where oil production is an issue.
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PHAs are larger molecules that are water-soluble and the least irritating of the acids. Ideal for sensitive skin, PHAs exfoliate on the surface of the skin and are best for locking in moisture.
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Fruit and Flower Acids and Enzymes
These exfoliants work by eating away at dead skin and debris. At moderate concentrations, they’re gentle and well tolerated by many skin types.
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What are combination exfoliants?
Some of the most effective skin-boosting formulas contain both chemical and physical exfoliants, which are a great complement to each other. The chemical exfoliants dissolve and loosen debris, while the physical exfoliants scrub it away. Combined, the two approaches optimize cellular turnover and leave skin brighter and smoother.
Glycolic Acid and
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Cleanser for Sensitive Skin
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Cleanser for Normal and All Skin Types
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What skin types are chemical exfoliants best for?
Most skin types and most skin concerns can benefit from gentle regular chemical exfoliation. Not only will your skin look smoother and feel softer, but any skin treatments you use afterward will sink into your skin more evenly and penetrate more deeply; dead skin cells and debris can act as barriers between your skin and skin care.
For Normal and Dry Skin
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Which exfoliants are best for oily skin?
Oily skin types can typically handle either chemical or purely physical exfoliation. If you get breakouts often, use chemical exfoliants to fight oil and blemishes from a deeper level in the skin; AHAs and salicylic acid are most effective. If using a physical exfoliant, choose one with super fine particles as opposed to big, abrasive granules.
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How often should you exfoliate your skin?
Overexfoliating (exfoliating too often or too intensely for your skin type) can strip away the skin’s protective barrier, leaving it vulnerable to sun damage, dryness, and even infection. So take it slow at first. Never use a product more often than recommended, and never layer intense exfoliants in the same session. If an exfoliant ever feels uncomfortable, rinse it off immediately. If you have sensitive skin, really err on the side of caution and patch-test any exfoliating product before applying it to your face.
To put it simply, those with less-sensitive skin can exfoliate more frequently, while those who are more sensitive need less-powerful formulas and less frequency overall.
How to fit chemical exfoliation into your skin care routine
Exfoliants have the potential to leave skin feeling dry, so moisturize immediately afterward if your skin needs it.
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SPF is very important post-exfoliation, especially since AHAs and BHAs can make skin more sensitive to the sun.
Vitamin C is one of the most beneficial and researched-for-skin antioxidants for boosting glow, refining texture, and offering protection against environmental aggressors. It’s well tolerated by most skin types, but if you’re sensitive, use it cautiously after exfoliating, since vitamin C itself is a mild exfoliant.
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What’s the best time of day to exfoliate your face?
Does your skin need time to recover?
Because chemical exfoliants can make skin more sensitive to the sun, they’re best applied at night. Physical exfoliants can be used morning or night (as long as you’re wearing sunscreen in the day). When exfoliating, be sure to apply the formula to clean skin to prevent makeup or dirt from being pushed deeper, as well as to allow the product to really penetrate.
Ask Jean: What’s Your Exfoliation Routine?
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How do we test clean beauty products at goop? First they have to pass our standards for clean (goop has some of the toughest standards in the industry). Only then do they make it to our editors’ showers, bathroom counters, and makeup bags, where they are rigorously hand-tested (and road-tested, if we happen to be going on a trip). The goop beauty department is made up of women of varied ages, races, and tastes—if we really love something, we’re pretty confident you’re going to love it, too.