How to choose chemical exfoliants

Like cleansing your face and applying sunscreen regularly, exfoliating your skin is a pretty important step in any skin care routine. After all, exfoliation is what removes dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin, promoting new cell turnover and helping to prevent breakouts from rearing their ugly head. (Or heads!)

There are two methods of exfoliation that are important to know about. The first method is mechanical exfoliation, which is done with the help of a tool such as a brush or sponge. Thicker skin and oily skin types usually handle mechanical exfoliation well. The second method of exfoliation is a chemical exfoliation which employs chemicals such as alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA) to help shed the outer layer of the skin. Dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin usually can tolerate a mild chemical exfoliator.

To give you a closer look into what chemical exfoliants do for the skin and how to choose one for your skin type, ahead we take a deep dive into the topic, examining AHA, BHA, and how each type of acid differs from one another.

Let’s start at the beginning with AHA, shall we?

What is AHA

Alpha hydroxy acids are a type of acid that are used in cosmetic products to aid exfoliation. (They work by promoting exfoliation and helping to shed the outer layer of the skin.)

Common alpha hydroxy acids you’ll encounter in the skincare space include glycolic acid and lactic acid. These acids all have a peeling effect on the skin and must be washed off after using.

What is BHA

Like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids are another type of chemical exfoliant used in skincare products to promote exfoliation. The most common types that you’ll encounter are salicylic acid, trethocanic acid, and tropic acid.

What are the benefits of chemical exfoliants

AHAs and BHAs can be helpful in unclogging pores and promoting exfoliation. These exfoliants are equally effective in helping your skin appear more even toned and radiant.

Because AHAs and BHAs are chemicals, they generally work quickly. However, like any new product you started using, you’ll still want to give both AHA and BHA products time to work. Some products require weeks and months of use before they start yielding results.

Can you combine AHA and BHA

While AHA and BHA can be used together, keep in mind that both acids are exfoliating agents, which can over-exfoliate the skin. Too much exfoliation can cause dryness and irritation to the skin.

Something else important to remember is that because BHA and AHA can make the skin sun sensitive, it may not be the best idea to use them together. Instead, try using only one at a time and always wear sunscreen if you go outdoors.

Which chemical exfoliant is best for my skin type?

Not sure what kind of chemical exfoliant to choose? Thankfully, a visit with a board-certified dermatologist can steer you in the right direction.

Not only can these brilliant professionals advise you on what chemical exfoliant you should be using, but they can also help you tailor your usage habits so you won’t over-exfoliate.


Exfoliating your skin, without a doubt, is an important step in any skincare routine as it removes dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin, promoting new cell turnover and helping unclog pores in the process. Want to try find a personalized routine? Check out this skincare quiz.

While mechanical exfoliation can be performed with a brush or sponge, chemical exfoliation uses chemicals such as alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA) to help rid the skin of dead skin cells. AHAs and BHAs have been incorporated into many popular skincare products.

If you remain unsure as to what chemical exfoliant is best suited for your skin, consulting with a dermatologist can make all the difference. Happy exfoliating!