How to Pick the Right Chemical Exfoliant for Your Skin

Beauty | Skincare

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Today I’m sharing all about what a chemical exfoliant is and why you need them in your routine. Now, there’s a lot of different types of chemical exfoliants, so today I’m only going to talk about the three main ones: AHA, BHA and retinoid.

I’ve already talked a little bit about chemical exfoliants and how they can help your skin glow. You can read that posts here.

Everyone wants glowing skin, right?

I thought so.

Disclaimer: if you have never used a chemical exfoliant before (especially retinoids) START OFF SLOWLY. DO NOT GO ALL IN AND APPLY THESE 2x A DAY EVERYDAY. Although they are great products, they can be used wrong and can cause chemical burns!

Start using them once a week, then move up to twice a week, then every other day etc. You might not even have to use them every day. Be sure to se how your skin reacts and go from there. If it’s dry and flaky, back off the exfoliants for a few days.

It’s also important to note, although chemical exfoliants work wonders, you need o give them time to work. At least 4-6 weeks for full results. Don’t expect better skin overnight. They can also cause some purging (breakouts) in the beginning. But, they should get better in a few weeks and you will be left with glowing skin!

What are chemical exfoliants?

Essentially, chemical exfoliants work by shedding dead skin. Built up dead skin cells can cause your skin to appear dull and feel rough. They can also lead to clogged pores and acne. So, it’s important to keep your skin exfoliated.

Chemical exfoliants can unclog pores and “unglue” the dead skin cells, to reveal new, beautiful, glowing skin.

Do I need A Chemical Exfoliant?

YES! Yes you do. Everyone can benefit from a little chemical exfoliation. No matter your skin type, or concerns, there’s one for you!

So, you’re probably wondering what a chemical exfoliant can do for you skin. Well, I’m here to tell you that they can do a lot!

But, as a mentioned earlier, there are different types of chemical exfoliants. And, each one has a different function. I will get into the details of each one below. But for now, here’s a little idea about what chemical exfoliants can do:

  • Anti-aging
  • Treat and prevent acne
  • Unclog pores and blackheads
  • Eliminate fine lines and wrinkles
  • Remove hyperpigmentation
  • Improve skintone and texture
  • Fade sun spots, age spots and acne scars

Sounds amazing, right?

Different Types of Chemical Exfoliants

alpha hydroxy acids

Alpha Hydroxy Acid, or AHA, can treat a wide range of skin concerns and are usually more gentle. Therefore, they are a great “beginner” exfoliant to try if you’ve never used one before.

Skin Type – Any, especially dry or sensitive skin

Skin Concerns – fine lines and wrinkles, anti-aging, acne, hyperpigmentation, sun spots, acne scars, dullness and texture

Types – Lactic acid, glycolic acid, mandelic acid

Product Recommendations:

CosRX AHA Power Liquid

Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Pads

The Ordinary Lactic Acid Serum

Beta Hydroxy Acids

Beta Hydroxy Acid, or BHA, is a great exfoliant choice for those with oilier skin. However, everyone can use a BHA, but they can be a little more drying. So, if you have dry or sensitive skin, just be prepared.

Skin Type – any, especially oily or acne-prone

Skin Concerns – acne, large pores, oily skin, clogged pores, blackheads

Types – Salicylic Acid

Product Recommendations:

CosRX BHA Power Liquid

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting BHA Liquid

Stridex Acne Control Pads


The best for last. The gold standard. Retinoids are the perfect, all-around chemical exfoliant. I really do think that everyone should use a retinoid. They are powerful. They are well researched. They do it all.

Some retinoids (tretinoin, tazorac) are prescription only, but they are the best way to go. They are more potent, and therefore, more effective than what you get over the counter. I highly recommend going this route! There are a ton of easily-accessible, and cost effective ways to get a prescription for a retinoid. I can do a separate post on this too, if you all are interested. Just let me know down in the comments.

But, retinols, are available over the counter. They are a derivative of retinoids. They work the same way, they are just weaker. And less effective.

Skin Type – Any

Skin Concerns – acne, large pores, oily skin, clogged pores, blackheads, fine lines and wrinkles, anti-aging, acne, hyperpigmentation, sun spots, acne scars, dullness and texture

Types – retinol, adapalene, tretinoin, tazorac

Product Recommendations:

The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 0.5%

Differin Gel .1%

Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion

Curology – customized prescription formula (this is how I get my tretinoin)

Well, that’s all! Questions? Drop them in the comments below! I hope this was helpful and I hope you go pick up a new chemical exfoliant and get some glowing skin!


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  1. I have heard about these chemical exfoliants before but I have never tried any. It is nice that you wrote about them and what kind to use based on skin type and/or issues. If I would decide to use one, I think I will go for the retinoids.

    1. Thanks Kristine! I definitely recommend retinoids! They really do it all. Just be sure to start off slowly because they can be drying in the beginning.

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