Chemical Exfoliation for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

Home / Clean MakeUp / Chemical Exfoliation for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide
Chemical Exfoliation for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

Chemical Exfoliation for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

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 regular exfoliation. 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 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.

Daily Cleanser

Alpyn Beauty
PlantGenius Creamy Bubbling Cleanser
goop, $36
SHOP NOW

Daily Toner

Vintner’s Daughter
Active Treatment Essence
goop, $225
SHOP NOW

Nightly Serum

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW Dark Spot Exfoliating Sleep Milk
goop, $98/$89 with subscription
SHOP NOW

Once-a-Week Chemical Peel

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid
Overnight Glow Peel

goop, $125/$112 with subscription
SHOP NOW

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.

AHAs

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).

Glycolic and Lactic Acid Serum

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW Dark Spot Exfoliating Sleep Milk
goop, $98/$89 with subscription
SHOP NOW

Glycolic and Phytic Acid Toner

goop Beauty
G.Tox Malachite + AHA Pore Refining Tonic
goop, $75/$68 with subscription
SHOP NOW

Lactic Acid Mask

Tata Harper
Radiance Mask
goop, $68
SHOP NOW

BHAs

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.

Gel-to-Milk Face Wash
(Doubles as a Mask)

Okoko
Beauté Majestique Cleanser
goop, $116
SHOP NOW

Turmeric Face Wash

Plantkos
Phyto Exfoliating Cleanser
goop, $37
SHOP NOW

Face Wash for the Breakout-Prone

True Botanicals
Clear Nourishing Cleanser
goop, $48
SHOP NOW

PHAs

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.

Gentle (but Effective) Toner

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW Flower Acids
Resurfacing Toner

goop, $45/$40 with subscription
SHOP NOW

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.

Whipped Balm Cleanser with Fruit Acids

Skin Design London
Face Bath
goop, $105
SHOP NOW

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.

Face Polish

Glycolic Acid and
Microexfoliating Minerals

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator
goop, $125/$112 with subscription
SHOP NOW

Cleanser for Sensitive Skin

Cranberry Enzymes and Rice Powder

Tata Harper
Refining Cleanser
goop, $88
SHOP NOW

Cleanser for Normal and All Skin Types

Pomegranate Enzymes and Bamboo

Fath
The Resurfacing Botanical Cleanser
goop, $82
SHOP NOW

Mask

Glycolic Acid and Rice Particles

Humanrace
Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator
goop, $46
SHOP NOW

Body Polish

Hibiscus Flower Acid and
Microexfoliating Minerals

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant
Glow Body Polish

goop, $48/$43 with subscription
SHOP NOW

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

Hydrating Toner with Citric Acid

MAKANAI
Pure Botanical Charge Lotion Toner
goop, $45
SHOP NOW

For Sensitive Skin

Moisturizing Cleanser with Lactic Acid

Tata Harper
Softening Cleanser
goop, $88
SHOP NOW

What about 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.

Blemish-Fighting Cleanser with
Glycolic Acid

goop Beauty
G.Tox Malachite + Fruit Acid Pore
Purifying Cleanser

goop, $48/$44 with subscription
SHOP NOW

Detoxifying Charcoal Face Scrub

Clark’s Botanicals
Dual Charcoal Detox
goop, $45
SHOP NOW

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.

What types of products should be used in a skin-care routine with exfoliation?

Exfoliants have the potential to leave skin feeling dry, so moisturize immediately afterward if your skin needs it.

Rich Cream

Augustinus Bader
The Rich Cream
goop, $290
SHOP NOW

Lightweight Lotion

Alpyn Beauty
Triple Vitamin-C Brightening Bounce Cream
goop, $49
SHOP NOW

Firming Face Oil

goop Beauty
GOOPGENES All-in-One Super
Nutrient Face Oil

goop, $98/$89 with subscription
SHOP NOW

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.

Grown Alchemist
Natural Hydrating Sunscreen SPF 30
goop, $39
SHOP NOW

goop Beauty
GOOPGLOW 20% Vitamin C +
Hyaluronic Acid Glow Serum

goop, $125/$112 with subscription
SHOP NOW

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.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.