Chemical Exfoliant for Face: Everything You Need to Know

Chemical exfoliants are commonly used in skincare routines to help remove dead skin cells and promote cell turnover for a smoother complexion. However, with so many options available in the market, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for your skin type. In this article, we’ll dive deep into chemical exfoliants for the face, including its benefits, types, case studies, comparisons, advice, and FAQs.

What are chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliants are a type of skincare product that uses acids or enzymes to break down dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. Unlike manual exfoliators, which physically scrub away dead skin cells, chemical exfoliants work by dissolving the bonds that hold the dead skin cells together. This makes them an excellent option for those with sensitive skin who may find physical exfoliators too harsh.

Types of Chemical Exfoliants 

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): AHAs are water-soluble acids that are commonly found in fruits and vegetables. AHAs are effective at removing dead skin cells and improving skin texture and tone. Some common AHAs used in skincare include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): BHAs are oil-soluble acids that are commonly found in willow bark. BHAs are effective at penetrating deep into pores to remove excess oil and dead skin cells. This makes them ideal for treating acne and blackheads. Some common BHAs used in skincare include salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs): PHAs are a newer type of chemical exfoliant that is similar to AHAs, but they are gentler and more hydrating. PHAs are a good option for people with sensitive skin. Some common PHAs used in skincare include gluconolactone and lactobionic acid.

Benefits of Chemical Exfoliants for Face

Enhanced Skin Texture and Tone

A study published in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology found that a 10% glycolic acid solution significantly improved skin texture and reduced hyperpigmentation after just four weeks of use. In fact, chemical exfoliants excel in refining skin texture by gently buffing away rough patches, resulting in a smoother and more even skin surface. They also have the remarkable ability to minimize the appearance of enlarged pores, making them appear less conspicuous. Furthermore, chemical exfoliants work diligently to harmonize your skin tone, addressing unevenness and delivering a more radiant complexion.

Effective Acne Control

Chemical exfoliants are adept at tackling breakouts and preventing their recurrence. By delving deep into your pores, they dissolve accumulated oils and dislodge dead skin cells that can clog pores and lead to acne. This cleansing action makes them a valuable asset in maintaining clear and blemish-free skin.

Hyperpigmentation Fading

The battle against dark spots and hyperpigmentation often caused by sun damage or past acne can be effectively fought with the use of chemical exfoliants. By encouraging the removal of the uppermost layer of skin, these exfoliants promote the gradual fading of discoloration, leaving your skin with a more even and luminous appearance.

Anti-Aging Effects

Chemical exfoliants are not only warriors against breakouts and blemishes but also allies in the fight against aging. Through their stimulation of collagen production, they work to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. This results in a firmer, more youthful complexion that can leave you looking rejuvenated.

Optimized Hydration

Remarkably, chemical exfoliants contribute to enhancing your skin’s natural barrier function. This improvement helps your skin to better retain moisture, leading to increased hydration. The result is a softer, smoother, and more supple complexion that feels both healthy and nourished.

Chemical Exfoliants vs physical exfoliants

Exfoliation Mechanism

Chemical Exfoliants: These products contain acids (e.g., AHAs, BHAs, enzymes) that dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be shed more easily.

Physical Exfoliants: Physical exfoliants typically contain abrasive particles, such as beads, sugar, or microcrystals, which physically scrub away dead skin cells when massaged onto the skin.

Depth of Exfoliation

Chemical Exfoliants: Chemical exfoliants can penetrate deeper into the skin to target multiple layers of dead skin cells. They can be more effective at addressing concerns like fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and acne.

Physical Exfoliants: Physical exfoliants primarily remove surface-level dead skin cells. They may not be as effective in addressing deeper skin issues.

Suitability for Skin Conditions

Chemical Exfoliants: Chemical exfoliants, particularly BHAs like salicylic acid, are well-suited for acne-prone skin because they can penetrate into pores and dissolve excess oil and debris. AHAs like glycolic acid are effective for addressing fine lines and sun-damaged skin.

Physical Exfoliants: Physical exfoliants can be harsh for individuals with acne-prone or sensitive skin and are generally not recommended for those with conditions like rosacea.

Sun Sensitivity

Chemical Exfoliants: Some chemical exfoliants can make the skin more sensitive to UV radiation. It’s crucial to use sunscreen daily when using these products.

Physical Exfoliants: Physical exfoliants do not typically increase sun sensitivity, but it’s still advisable to use sunscreen as part of your daily skincare routine.

Ultimately, the choice between chemical and physical exfoliants depends on your skin type, specific concerns, and personal preferences. Many people find success in using both types of exfoliants in their skincare routines, but it’s important to do so carefully and avoid over-exfoliation. Consulting with a dermatologist can provide tailored advice for your unique skin care needs.

How to incorporate chemical exfoliants to your skincare routine

  • Choose the right type of chemical exfoliant for your skin type: If you have sensitive skin, start with a gentle chemical exfoliant, such as a PHA or AHA with a low concentration. If you have oily skin or stubborn dead skin cells, you may want to try a BHA.
  • Start slowly: If you’re new to chemical exfoliants, begin with a product that has a lower concentration (usually around 5-10%). Use your chemical exfoliant no more than once or twice per week. You can gradually increase the frequency of use as your skin tolerates it.
  • Apply your chemical exfoliant to clean, dry skin: You can use a cotton pad or your fingers to apply the exfoliant. Be sure to avoid the eye area.
  • Leave the chemical exfoliant on your skin for the amount of time recommended on the product label. This will typically be between 3 and 10 minutes.
  • Rinse the chemical exfoliant off thoroughly with water.
  • Apply a moisturizer after using a chemical exfoliant to soothe and hydrate the skin.

tips for exfoliating safely

  • Start Slowly: If you’re new to chemical exfoliants, start with a lower concentration and gradually increase it as your skin gets used to it.
  • Use Sunscreen: Chemical exfoliants can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it’s important to wear sunscreen every day to protect your skin.
  • Don’t Overdo It: Overusing chemical exfoliants can lead to irritation and dryness. Limit use to once or twice a week, depending on your skin type.
  • Patch Test: Before using a new chemical exfoliant, patch test it on a small area of your skin to make sure you don’t have an adverse reaction.


  1. What is the best time to use a chemical exfoliant? It’s best to use a chemical exfoliant at night, after cleansing and before applying moisturizer. This allows the product to work its magic overnight without interference from other skincare products.
  2. Can I use a physical exfoliant in addition to a chemical exfoliant? It’s not recommended to use both types of exfoliators in the same routine, as this can be too harsh on the skin. Stick to one type of exfoliator and use it once or twice a week.
  3. Can chemical exfoliants cause purging? Yes, it’s possible for chemical exfoliants to cause purging, which is when your skin temporarily breaks out as it adjusts to the new product. This should subside after a few weeks of use.
  4. Can I use a chemical exfoliant if I have sensitive skin? Yes, but it’s important to choose a gentler formula and start with a lower concentration. Lactic acid is a great option for those with sensitive skin.
  5. How often should I use a chemical exfoliant? This depends on your skin type and the specific product you’re using. As a general rule, limit use to once or twice a week.

Final Takeaway

Chemical exfoliants can be a game-changer for your skincare routine, helping to reveal smoother, brighter-looking skin. However, it’s important to choose the right product for your skin type and use it correctly to avoid irritation and other adverse reactions. By following the tips and advice in this article, you can incorporate chemical exfoliants into your skincare routine and enjoy all the benefits they have to offer.