Acid Exfoliants: What You Need To Know

Exfoliating is essential in keeping any skin type looking it’s best! The reason is because an accumulation of dead skin cells contribute to buildup on the skin, causing it to look dull and become congested. By exfoliating regularly, you keep your skin in a constant state of rapid movement, encouraging cells to turn over at a faster rate and not allowing time for buildup to collect in the pores. Not only is it beneficial in helping the skin look more bright and youthful, but it can also help your moisturizer work better. Ever wondered why it seems like your moisturizer doesn’t do the trick anymore? It’s possible you could be continuously hydrating a thick layer of dead skin cells sitting on the surface, and this blocks the moisturizer from reaching healthy living tissue underneath. By removing that dead cell layer, it allows the skin to soak up what it needs.

How often you exfoliate is dependent on your skin type. Someone who is oily/acneic can take much more than someone who has mature/dry skin. If exfoliating is new in your routine, start slow by using it 1-2 days per week, and then you can increase each week. Gauge where the happy place is for your skin, so that you don’t become overly dry or irritated. Some people can only take exfoliating 1 day per week, while others need to exfoliate 3 times a day. Do what works for your skin – it will take some paying attention to at first.

It’s also important to note that over-exfoliating isn’t healthy either. Our skin is meant to serve as a protective barrier. The more we break down that barrier by over-stripping the skin with chemicals, the less efficient it’s able to perform and you put yourself at risk for being more vulnerable to pathogens.

There are many different types of exfoliation that work best for addressing specific skin concerns. In this blog I’m going to solely focus on chemical exfoliation, and the differences between each.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) – water soluble

[Note: the smaller the size, the more “work” ie. shedding, will be done]


Smallest AHA molecule – can penetrate skin deep and do it’s work quickly

Source: sugar cane

Best for: decreasing oil production, stimulating collagen, reduces the depth of fine lines and wrinkles

Lactic Acid:

Source: milk, yogurt, fermented fruit

Best for: smoothes the skin and improves texture, antimicrobial, keeps skin hydrated

Malic Acid:

Source: apples, cherries, pears

Best for: hydration, increases oxygen supply to cells

Tartaric Acid:

Souce: grapes, berries, red wine

Best for: aging skin – contains powerful antioxidant properties!

Citric Acid:

Source: orange, tomato, lemon, lime

Best for: brightening dull skin, anti-aging, neutralizes free radicals

Mandelic Acid:

Source: almonds

Best for: age spots, discoloration

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) – lipid soluble

Salicylic Acid:

Source: white willow bark

Best for: oily, acne-prone skin – helps to unclog congestion

Note: if you’re allergic to Asprin, do NOT use this!

*If you’re working on discoloration or scarring, glycolic, lactic and salicylic are best due to their small molecular size and ability to shed fast!


Polyhydroxy Acids

Ok, this category is new in skincare and not used much yet, at least in the US. But of course, Korean skincare is one step ahead of the game and already using these.

PHA’s are ingredients such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid. They are chemically and functionally similar to glycol and lactic acids, except their molecular structure is large. This means it takes time for the acid to do it’s work of shedding skin, and is more preferably used on skin that’s main concern is aging or is too sensitive to use regular AHA’s/BHA’s. These are packed with antioxidants which make them a great anti-aging exfoliant.

Vitamin A

There are many derivatives out there – Tretinoin, Retin-A, Retinol, and Retinoids to name a few.

Vitamin A has a large molecular weight, so it takes much longer to do it’s shedding work, compared to the performance of AHA’s/BHA’s. Many clients I see with acne were put on a Vitamin A topical by a doctor and I rarely see results, because it’s primary function isn’t so much to shed quickly but to thicken the skin by increasing cell metabolism. Vitamin A is a great choice for agin/dry skin as it tends to be thin, but not so great for acne/oily skin. Acne-prone skin is typically thick, which creates a sound environment for dead cells, bacteria, and oil to collect. My goal in clinic and for home care is to essentially ‘thin out’ the skin by using AHA’s/BHA’s. These acids are more preferable since their only job is to break apart dead cells and slough them off.

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