Chemical exfoliation is everywhere. It is present in any skincare product for every step in your routine. It’s true that they are very helpful ingredients but how do you know if it’s too much for your skin? 

Fear not, because we will provide you some tips and ways to tell if you’re over-exfoliating. 

What are Chemical Exfoliants?

Let’s do a quick refresh on what chemical exfoliants are. They are substances derived from fruit or plant extracts. There are many types of exfoliants out there today, but we’ll be focusing on three main ones that you’re likely going to see in a lot of products. 

Chemical exfoliants are widely chosen over physical exfoliants due to their long list of benefits. They help increase cell turnover, regulate sebum production, unclog pores, even out skin texture, and melt away blackheads and whiteheads. Others provide benefits in killing off acne-causing bacteria, stimulating collagen production, and smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles. All in all, they seem like a magical ingredient to have in your routine. For the most part, this is definitely the case. However, it’s worth noting that everyone’s skin type is different and can react in different ways.  

What kinds of Chemical Exfoliants are there?

AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acid)

There are currently six main types of AHAs: glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, mandelic acid, and citric acid. AHAs are water soluble and derived from fruit, milk, or plant extracts. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the six types:

1. Glycolic Acid

Also known as the “holy grail” of chemical exfoliants, Glycolic acid is seen in many products today. The acid is derived from sugar canes and is considered one of the most potent due to its small molecular size. This means that glycolic acid can seep into the deeper layers of the skin to work its magic. For sensitive types, it’s possible that glycolic acid is too potent and can cause irritation to the skin. 

2. Lactic Acid

Lactic Acid is known as one of the more gentler forms of AHAs. It is found in sour milk or when the lactose within the milk ferments. Because lactic acid has anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties,  it’s a preferred alternative for sensitive skin and dry skin types. It is also non-irritating due to its large molecular size. 

3. Citric Acid

Citric acid is one of the most potent ingredients out there — and one of the most widely used. It is naturally derived from citrus fruits and play a part in anti-aging and protecting the skin against the sun’s UV rays. 

4. Malic Acid

If you’re familiar with DIY toners that uses apple cider vinegar, we bet you didn’t know that malic acid is behind the glowing skin! It is derived from apples and has antibacterial properties that kill acne-causing bacteria on the skin. 

5. Tartaric Acid

Tartaric Acid isn’t as common as its other AHA peers but it does exist in some of the well known brands. It is derived from grapes and is rich in antioxidants. Tartaric acid also has anti-inflammatory properties and mainly functions to regulate pH levels in the skin.  

6. Mandelic Acid

Like Tartartic acid, mandelic acid is also not commonly used like its AHA peers. It is derived from bitter almonds and holds the largest molecular size. This greatly reduces the risk of irritating the skin as it can slowly penetrate into the skin. Mandelic acid might work great for dry and sensitive skin types, but not so much for oily skin types. The reason? It could stimulate and increase sebum production from the pores, which could potentially create more opportunities for breakouts.

Product Recommendations

Derma E Radiance Toner (Glycolic Acid)

REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic (Lactic Acid & Willow Bark Extract)

Tatcha Violet-C Brightening Serum (Citric acids & Lactic acid)

BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acid)

If you have acne, you’ve probably seen salicylic acid included in a lot of products. Salicylic acid is a BHA and an extract often sourced from the bark of the white willow plant. Unlike AHAs, BHAs are oil soluble, which can reach down into our pores. Since oil attracts oil, the BHA helps to remove excess sebum, dirt, and dead skin cells that could otherwise clog our pores and lead to breakouts. A potent BHA treatment can offer concentrations ranging anywhere between 1.5 to 2%. But it’s possible to see concentrations less than 1.5 and over 2% in others.

Product Recommendations

Paula’s Choice 9% BHA Treatment

Kiehl’s Blue Herbal Acne Cleanser Treatment

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

PHAs (Poly Hydroxy Acid)

Here’s the thing, PHAs aren’t super new to the skincare game. Instead, PHAs are making a mark as many major skincare brands are starting to incorporate them in their products. There’s not much research done for PHAs but it’s still an exfoliant you can consider, especially if you have sensitive skin. You can think of PHAs as the cousins of AHAs. They have the largest molecular size out of the three exfoliant categories. This means that they won’t reach into the deeper layers of the skin and potentially cause irritation. Although there’s not many studies done on PHAs, they are gaining a reputation for gently exfoliating the surface layer without harming the skin.

Product Recommendations

Then I Met You Soothing Tea Cleansing Gel

COSRX PHA Moisture Renewal Power cream 

Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask

Do’s and Don’ts of Exfoliating

❌ DON’T: Over Exfoliate

For those of you who enjoy using physical exfoliating brushes, it’s best to skip using them when you take up chemical exfoliation. The reason? Physically exfoliating and chemical exfoliating work to take off the top ayer of dead skin cells. When you use them together at the same time, it’s possible to damage your skin barrier, which can then lead to unpleasant reactions in your skin. When you over exfoliate, you can experience redness, dryness, broken blood vessels and extra sensitivity to your skin. To make matters worse, the usual products you apply on your face might not work on you anymore. 

❌ DON’T: Use on sensitive skin

You can view applying chemical exfoliants onto cracked skin as rubbing salt into an open wound. Damaged skin means a damaged skin barrier, which is something you don’t want! Therefore, at this time, focus on rebuilding your skin barrier by using simple products to restore moisture back into the skin. You can pick up on your chemical exfoliants when your skin is no longer feeling uncomfortable and irritated. 

✅ DO: Hydrate and Moisturize

With any chemical exfoliators you apply on your skin, there is a possibility of drying out your skin. This is due to the rapid resurfacing of your skin cells. Instead of going to bed straight after applying your exfoliant, don’t forget to apply moisturizers containing hydrating and soothing ingredients to maintain moisture in your skin barrier. This not only helps protect your skin against potential irritants but it also keeps your skin looking youthful.

✅ DO: Check the concentration

With so many skincare products containing different concentrations and types of exfoliants, it’s easy to think that more AHA & BHAs are better for the skin. However, constant layering of products containing chemical exfoliants can risk irritation and damage to the skin barrier. The rule of thumb is to always start at low percentages and work your way towards higher concentrations.

✅ DO: Be consistent with SPF

Your skin just worked overnight to help shed itself of dead skin cells. When this happens, you can leave your skin sensitive. Therefore, it’s important to apply SPF in the morning after to make sure your skin is protected. The sun’s UV rays can bring further damage to your already sensitive skin (it’s also known as photo-sensitivity), so it’s best to be safe than sorry!

Keep in mind that patience is key to achieving clean and glowing skin. While it might take as little as a day to a week for some people to see results,  others might see in a few months. Every person has unique skin types that require different products and ingredients. Feel free to give chemical exfoliating a try and see what works for you!

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