Whenever I recommend a chemical peel to my friends, the first question they ask is: “Will this burn my face off?” Umm no. Chemical exfoliants with glycolic and salicylic acid are my favorite way to get an instant glow, and you can pick one up from the drugstore (which means they’re totally safe for at-home use). They also come in many different forms including cleansers, moisturizers, and peel pads. But here’s the lowdown if you’re a chemical newbie.
There are two ways to exfoliate your skin: physical scrubs and chemical exfoliants. You’re likely familiar with the physical type. These are the classic scrubs containing small particles that buff away the top layer of dead skin cells. These particles could be anything from sugar or walnut shells to microbeads (which were recently banned due to their negative effect on the environment). And the results are immediate, but often minimal.
One alternative to a mechanical scrub is chemical exfoliation. And before images of peeling, burning, red skin flash through your mind, know that “chemical” doesn’t necessarily mean extra strength. “Chemical exfoliants remove the top layers of the skin by weakening the lipids that bond them together, thus removing dull and dead skin cells and revealing healthy skin cells,” says Dendy Engelman, M.D. But before you go putting acid on your face, there are a few things you need to know first.
There are two main categories of chemical exfoliants: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
AHAs: “AHAs are geared toward skin rejuvenation (like anti-aging and evening skin tone) due to their exfoliation properties,” says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. Some of the most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. And on natural products you might also see the term “fruit acids” on the jar. Wilson explains that’s code for AHAs: “Fruit acids contain blends of AHAs like glycolic, lactic, and malic.”
Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane (but it can also be made synthetically in the lab). “Glycolic acid is the smallest acid in size, meaning the molecule can get deep into the skin. In the long run, [it] can increase the overall thickness of the skin by boosting collagen and elastin production,” says Engelman. If you have sensitive skin, glycolic can cause dryness and redness, so reach for lactic acid instead.
Lactic acid’s chemical structure is a bit more complex, but it is better for sensitive skin. “Lactic acid improves discoloration and age spots,” says Engelman. “This acid is more gentle on the skin. And because it is derived from dairy, it aids in correcting pH imbalances.”
BHAs: Salicylic acid is the most common BHA. In its raw form, it’s a white crystalline powder that dissolves in oil. “Salicylic acid is best for oily, acne-prone skin types because it is compatible with oils. Therefore it can get into the pores to help reduce acne,” says Wilson. That’s why salicylic acid is one of the most popular options for acne washes and spot treatments.
Note: Not every acid is an exfoliant. Take kojic acid, for example. It’s actually a skin brightening agent, not an exfoliating ingredient.
Chemical exfoliants come in many different forms.
You can find AHAs and BHAs in many different products: cleansers, wash-off peels, serums, peel pads, and even moisturizers. “I think the cleanser is the least-effective way to use [chemical exfoliants],” says RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D.. “They have to be on the skin for a certain amount of time to penetrate. So if you’re using it in a cleanser and a leave-on treatment, a leave-on is a lot more effective.”
You’ll likely notice a few different types of chemical peels in the beauty aisle—some that you can leave on and some that are meant to be rinsed off after a few minutes. This all depends on the amount of acid and the pH of the product. “The lower the pH, the more effective they are at exfoliating,” says Wilson. “But it is also far more irritating, therefore rinsing is highly recommended. In order to remain on the skin, either the level [of AHAs/BHAs] is lower and/or the pH is higher.” So don’t get overzealous with your rinse-off products. It’s important to neutralize the active ingredient to avoid skin irritation.
And you want to make sure you’re using the right chemical cocktail.
You have to be careful about how you’re layering products. AHAs and BHAs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. “Studies show that these ingredients can make skin more sensitive to the sun therefore the use of sunscreen is a must,” says Wilson. And in general, it’s better to use these products at night.
Wilson also warns that using acids and retinol together can cause irritation. So you might want to consider an alternating skin schedule. Try using your retinoid product four nights a week, and use your chemical exfoliant the other three evenings (or vice versa).
Also be cautious about the number of exfoliating products you use in your routine. “Less is more. One acid product is sufficient. You don’t have to use a cleanser and a leave-on and pads and acne medication,” says Shah. “These products are extremely safe to use as long as they are used correctly, and as long as you don’t overdo it.”
But overall the exfoliation that AHAs and BHAs provide makes your other skincare products more effective. “Chemical exfoliants are loosening up the cells that come in between skincare products and the rest of the skin. Therefore use of AHAs and BHA can enhance penetration of ingredients. This tends to help with efficacy,” says Wilson.
OK, so now you’re getting an awesome glow with your chemical exfoliant. But there is such a thing as over-exfoliation.
All of our experts warned against using these products too much. “The biggest mistake with exfoliants is over-using them,” says Engelman. “I have patients who start using exfoliating pads and the results after the first use is so amazing that they use it every day. By day four, they come to me with dry, irritated skin.”
If your skin starts to burn or turn red while using an at-home product, immediately rinse with a gentle cleanser and apply a soothing moisturizer. Discontinue use for a full week. And then you can start back up again, but use the chemical exfoliant a lot less frequently (maybe just once a week).
And a final note about chemical peels in the dermatologist’s office.
You can buy chemical exfoliants at the drugstore, online, and in beauty stores. But there is a stronger option available in the dermatologist office. “At-home peels target the very top layers of the skin,” says Engelman. “In-office procedures are used with stronger concentrations and penetrate deeper into the skin, thus revealing greater results.” And Wilson agrees. “According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, consumer products should not have a pH below 3.5 with an acid level no higher than 10 percent. Therefore that is what is most commonly used,” she says. “Professional peels tend to have pHs below 3 and can have acid levels up to 70 percent.”
You can ask your dermatologist about an in-office peel to help with acne, dark spots, and much more. “People have misconception that it’s going to be so scary,” says Shah. “For most [in-office] peels, you have a little redness and peeling over the next few days, but not sheets of skin. Just a little bit of exfoliating for a few days, then you’re back to normal with brand new skin.” You can get in-office chemical peels every four to six weeks, or more frequently if there is a specific issue you want to remedy.
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