The Best Chemical Exfoliant – 2018 Reviews & Top Picks
In order to help you clean and clear your skin deeply, we’re rounding up the best chemical exfoliant products in this list. These products made our list because of their effectiveness in unclogging the pores of impurities and contributing to a youthful appearance. We believe these products will be your skin’s new best friends.
Chemical exfoliants can give the skin an instant and long-lasting glow, as compared to bead-using physical scrubs. The last ones are undeniably gentler, yet they could be less effective. Sometimes the mere thought of a chemical exfoliant can scare potential users off.
Before images of ugly flaking and red skin flash through your mind, note that "chemical" doesn't equate to harshness.
Chemical exfoliants use mild synthetic acids that weaken the glue between the top and bottom layers of the skin. As a result, they can reveal underlying healthy skin cells. But we will discuss more on this later.
Once and for all: using chemical exfoliants doesn’t mean burning your faces, nor doing anything to aggravate your condition. That is if you choose the correct product accordingly to your needs.
On that note, here are our picks for the Best Chemical Exfoliants.
Quick Overview: Our Top Picks for the Best Chemical Exfoliants
OUR TOP #1 PICK - Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant features a bevy of mild exfoliants and anti-aging ingredients. This is our top choice the best chemical exfoliant. It can address many skin type’s issues while providing gentle yet effective exfoliation.
OUR TOP #2 PICK - Combining physical and chemical exfoliants to bring about a beautiful skin, Dermatologica’s Multivitamin Thermafoliant is the runner-up in our list. It can enhance the skin in various aspects through the action of chemicals, antioxidants, and cleansers.
OUR TOP #3 PICK - The Cosrx BHA Power Liquid is specifically made for targeting oily T-zones and blackheads. It contains BHAs, herbs extracts, and moisturizers. This compound can help dissolve away impurities for a flawless-looking skin.
OUR TOP #4 PICK - Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment 10% AHA Exfoliant is number four in our list. It boasts a strong AHA concentration. It is specifically geared towards improving multiple signs of aging and sun damage.
OUR TOP #5 PICK - Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant uniquely comes in the form of a weightless gel that sits really well on the skin. This exfoliant can shed away the outer layer, revealing a brighter and healthier complexion. Furthermore, it can provide us with long-lasting hydration.
What are Chemical Exfoliants?
Chemical exfoliants are divided into two categories: alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
Common AHAs are used in a wide array of skincare products include glycolic and lactic acids. Their exfoliating properties are geared towards skin rejuvenation (e.g. anti-aging and evening skin tone).
Glycolic acid has the smallest particles, meaning it can penetrate the skin layers easily. This acid seemed to tackle just about every skin issue – from treating acne and combating skin aging to minimizing pores.
However, glycolic acid can cause dryness and redness if used frequently. Hence, those with sensitive skin should be wary of this ingredient and reach for lactic acid instead.
Lactic acid’s molecular structure is larger than that of glycolic acid. It’s generally recommended for sensitive skin types, particularly those with rosacea and psoriasis.
Being a humectant or moisture-locker, exfoliants with lactic acids are a top choice for those who struggle with dry skin.
The compound has also been shown to treat hyperpigmentation and age spots, especially sun-damaged complexions.
So, How Do AHAs Transform The Skin?
From the moment skin cells reach the outer layer of the epidermis, they’re no longer capable of dividing and are held together by protein bonds. This forms a protective barrier from the external environment.
These cells naturally shed away every two to three weeks to pave the way for new cells. However, as aging slows down the cell regeneration process, it lengthens the turnover from six to eight weeks.
If your skin is not shed, you may look dry and dull. Additionally, the accumulated dead skin cells can lead to clogged pores and blemishes. AHAs work by loosening protein bonds which allow the cells to fall easily, revealing the brighter, healthier skin beneath.
On the other hand, BHAs’ primary role is to de-gunk pores. This unique ability makes it a popular option for exfoliating oily skin, acne washes, and spot treatments.
In terms of skincare, salicylic acid is the most common BHA. It is oil-soluble, making it compatible for combatting excess sebum production because it can bind and dissolve oil.
Likewise, it has anti-inflammatory properties and can get into the pores to dissolve oils and gunk, resulting to reduced acne.
Benefits of Using Chemical Exfoliants
AHA-fueled exfoliators commonly cause photosensitivity because it removes the upper layers of the skin. Thus, it’s best to use exfoliants of this type at night when you won’t be exposed to the sun.
Follow with a sunscreen that's SPF 15 or higher in the morning. Getting sunburn after using AHA or glycolic acid increases your chance of permanent sun damage.
Conversely, BHAs doesn’t make your skin more sensitive to the sun, meaning it can be used both day and night, once you’ve built up a tolerance.
Possible Side Effects of Chemical Exfoliants
Chemical exfoliants are not all about roses and butterflies. Some fear using it because of its side effects.
Yes, it has some very mild side effects that debunk tolerable and not uncommon.
Over-the-counter products, such as the best chemical exfoliants, containing 12% or less AHAs or BHAs. They are gentle enough for daily or weekly use.
Everyone's skin is different, and some have stronger reactions to AHAs and BHAs, particularly glycolic acid.
It’ worth doing a patch test first before applying the product directly on the face. Put a small amount on your inner elbow and observe for any irritations. Do not use it if there are any signs of irritation.
A mild stinging sensation is a common side effect of chemical exfoliants. Usually, it’s temporary and fades away after a few minutes or so.
To combat the sensation, try using the product less frequently until your skin gets used to it.
Itching is a less common side effect that accompanies peeling. If this happens, apply cold compress and moisturizer on the skin.
AHAs usually increase photosensitivity. You may get sunburned easily from very little sun exposure or from using a tanning bed.
Bear in mind to always apply sunscreen and moisturizer after exfoliating to guard your skin and maximize the exfoliant’s effects.
Product Reviews: Our Top Picks for The Best Chemical Exfoliants
Highly regarded for its gentle yet effective exfoliating ability and suitability for all skin types, this is our top pick for the best chemical exfoliant.
We loved how this leave-on exfoliant absorbs quickly into the skin and addresses common issues such as oiliness, redness, blemishes, and acne, aside from simply sloughing away dead skin cells.
It imparts these effects through the combined power of 2% BHA fortified with salicylic acid. It can renew the skin and minimize pores. Together with green tea extract’s anti-aging properties, and sodium hydroxide’s pH-balancing ability, this can lead to a rejuvenated appearance.
The acid penetrates deep to unclog pores and shrink its shape, resulting in reduced sebum production and acne. What we can get is visibly smaller pores, helping us to achieve a flawless-looking complexion.
Furthermore, green tea extract teams up with salicylic acid to increase cell turnover. Our skin might look renewed and radiant with a more even tone.
The extract also has antioxidant properties that help in increasing collagen production to boost elasticity, thereby firming up the skin, so wrinkles and fine lines get plumped up.
We recommend this exfoliant for those who are not fans of scrubbing and exfoliating with texturized products.
It has improved every single one of our problems regarding oiliness, blackheads, blemishes, and uneven skin tone. And all of that without causing sensitivity.
What We Like
What We Don't Like
Dermatologica’s Thermafoliant is a self-heating skin polisher that combines physical and chemical exfoliants to refine the skin and enhance the penetration of succeeding products in your regimen.
It features a potent combination of salicylic and lactic acids that can gently remove dead skin cells and reveal healthy cells. This team-up may visibly refine pores, brighten skin tone, smooth the skin, and may even reduce acne occurrence due to the unclogging of deep-seated dirt.
Retinol as an active ingredient here is the animal form of Vitamin A. It has an extremely small molecular structure which can let it penetrate deep into the skin. It has the ability to improve the elasticity and smooth wrinkles.
The Prickly pear extract has exceptional anti-aging and hydrating properties. It contains the most Vitamin E and compared to Argan oil it has 150 percent more.
Antioxidants such as lemon extract and soybean seed oil also help suppress the formation of collagen-degrading agents, brighten skin tone, defend against free radicals, and help promote skin firmness.
Curious about the “self-heating” feature of this exfoliant, we naturally rushed to try this out. We loved how soft and smooth our faces were after applying this exfoliant thrice in a week.
However, your skin may still be prone to burning if not followed up by sunscreen as this product uses two powerful exfoliants.
What We Like
What We Don't Like
Are you struggling constantly with your annoying blackheads and forever oily T-zones? Then the Cosrx BHA Power Liquid is a must-try.
This liquid can dissolve impurities and debris from the pores using 4% BHA and betaine salicylate, especially on the cheeks and the T-zone. Interestingly, this exfoliant is formulated with betaine salicylate rather than the common salicylic acid.
Betaine salicylate is milder, gentler, and a more sensitive skin-suitable BHA – 4% betaine salicylate concentration is enough to do the job without going overboard.
Willow bark extract and Niacinamide also help brighten the skin tone with gentle exfoliation while sodium hyaluronate boosts lasting hydration to keep the skin supple during the peeling process.
We highly recommend this product for people with oily and acne-prone skin. It can curb oil production and unclog the pores of dirt and grime that is very conducive for bacterial growth.
However, people with extreme cases of blackheads plaguing a large part of the face may not experience drastic results with this product.
We dislike the burning tendencies of this exfoliant. Some people can’t tolerate that feeling.
What We Like
What We Don't Like
Our 4th placer, Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant, also uses glycolic acid similar to our runner-up, but at a relatively lower concentration.
What we loved most about this product is its gel form which is basically weightless and sits on the skin really well.
The gel formula can provide long-lasting hydration and improve the smoothness of skin.
You can use apply this exfoliant twice a day; just make sure to apply sunscreen every morning to prevent burning and redness.
And since glycolic acid is this exfoliant’s star ingredient, you can expect this product to give you younger-looking, even-toned, smooth, and clean skin all over.
Additionally, this exfoliant uses skin-soothing plant extracts like chamomile flower. The powerful antioxidants such as green tea, can help minimize discolorations and age spots, prevent irritation threats, and firm the skin up.
We tried this product and we’ve seen positive results.
For once, our skins had been the clearest in our entire adult life, and our scars and blemishes were slowly becoming less noticeable, though it's still too early to say that it can improve wrinkly skin.
What We Like
What We Don't Like
Paula’s Choice 10% AHA Exfoliant features a strong formulation of 10% glycolic acid specifically geared towards improving multiple signs of aging and sun damage. This all-in-one ingredient may solve many of the skin-related concerns you have.
According to Dr. Oz, this wrinkle-fighting acid can remove the outer layer of dead skin cells. Then plump new cells can rise to the surface. It can also help stimulate the growth of collagen, smooth out fine lines, and diminish the appearance of wrinkles.
This exfoliant also contains Vitamin C to brighten skin tone and hyperpigmentation, as well as several antioxidants. These include Borage extract and Boerhavia diffusa root extract, along with anti-irritants.
Note that you can only apply this exfoliant once weekly, only during night time. We advise you to leave it on overnight or rinse after 10 minutes (if you have sensitive skin).
We’re thrilled after waking up to a dramatically fairer and firmer skin with this exfoliant that seemed to erase imperfections overnight. Our skins were visibly radiant and felt smooth like a baby’s butt.
Bear in mind to always follow this up with a heavy moisturizer after rinsing because it really is drying and may burn your skin when exposed to the sun – a common side effect of AHAs.
What We Like
What We Don't Like
The Bottom Line
Many fear using chemical exfoliants due to its honestly off-putting side effects like burning, irritation, redness, and itching. If you think it’s time to debunk that idea we suggest Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. This is our top choice for the Best Chemical Exfoliant.
Featuring 2% BHA fortified with salicylic acid, this product seemed gentle enough for all skin types. Moreover, unlike stronger chemical exfoliants, this one won’t increase photosensitivity, thereby eliminating any chances of burning and redness.
It’s also infused with green tea extract and sodium hydroxide to delay skin aging and balance the skin’s pH levels, respectively.
Above all, we loved how this leave-on exfoliant absorbs quickly into the skin and addresses issues such as oiliness, redness, blemishes, wrinkles, and acne, aside from simply sloughing away dead skin cells.
However, all the products have gone under our testing process. Through our list we hope to be of assistance for you to choose the best exfoliant to support your beauty.