When you think of face exfoliators, what springs to mind? Probably something along the lines of a grit-like scrub or buffing sponge, right? Whilst physical exfoliators are great for sloughing away dead skin cells, sometimes they just don’t cut it when it comes to giving you that baby-soft feel (no matter how long and hard you scrub for).
Chemical exfoliators, however, do just the trick.
Whilst ‘chemical peel’ and ‘exfoliating acids’ sound like they belong in a science lab rather than your bathroom cabinet, they’re surprisingly a better – and gentler – option for your skin. Typically powered by AHAs and BHAs, they provide a much less abrasive exfoliation yet penetrate skin at a deeper level. That means they not only dissolve the impurities sitting on top of your skin, but they unclog pores, improve skin texture, boost radiance, fend off fine lines, clear acne and so much more. The result? That pillow-soft skin you've been longing for!
Not sure where to start? Don't fret, as we've rallied together the best chemical exfoliators that deliver on the soft, smooth skin promise.
It’s only right that we kickstart our line-up with The Ordinary’s Peeling Solution. It’s one of the most hyped beauty products of the year, as not only is it packed with skin-perfecting benefits, but its bright red, blood-like appearance makes great for a Tik Tok video.
The AHA and BHA combo delivers a gentle exfoliation that evens skin tone and texture, fades acne scars and boosts radiance in less than 10 minutes.
Another chemical exfoliant that’s making the headlines for all the right reasons is the Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant from Paula’s Choice. Hailed for its ability to reduce the appearance of pores, blackheads, fine lines and uneven texture, it’s a must-have if you’re looking to polish up your complexion.
The PIXI Glow Tonic boasts cult status in the U.K and across the globe. Powered by 5% glycolic acid, it gives an effective exfoliation without causing irritation. Other feel-good ingredients, including aloe vera and ginseng, ensure skin is left feeling soft, soothed and nourished, never tight or dry!
Bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘beauty sleep’ is ELEMIS overnight formulation. This skin care saviour works through the night to resurface skin and stimulate skin renewal so that you can wake up to a brighter, clearer complexion.
The INKEY List is the skin care brand dedicated to giving you simple and effective formulas that are safe to use at home. This face peel is supercharged with apple cider vinegar for a gentle exfoliation that even the most sensitive skin can enjoy. Just a few sweeps with a saturated cotton pad helps to decongest pores, reduce redness, brighten post-blemish marks and reduce breakouts.
Murad fuses together AHAs, BHAs and tranexamic acid in order to create an innovative peel that accelerates cell turnover, all whilst keeping skin soft, supple and luminous. Suitable for daily use, the formula helps to purge pores, brighten dark spots and protect the skin barrier, so that your complexion is kept clean, clear and content.
Dermalogica is a brand you can trust. Bringing the clinic to your bathroom cabinet, the Daily Microfoliant is a pro-grade, chemical exfoliator that resurfaces and rebalances skin for a healthier and more youthful appearance.
La Roche-Posay is here to turn your night-time routine up a notch. The Effaclar Clarifying Lotion is enriched with sebo-regulating active and micro-exfoliant LHA (Lipo-Hydroxy Acid) in order to eliminate remaining excess oil, unblock pores and visibly reduce their size.
Another chemical peel worth investing in comes from Elemental Herbology. With no scrubbing required, this cream exfoliator utilises kombucha and AHA fruit acids to dissolve dead cells that are dulling the skin’s surface. The exfoliating mask results in skin that’s bursting with long-lasting radiance and luminosity.
Here to help you restore your ‘glow-jo’ is REN. The Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic is a brightening, clarifying and clearing solution formulated to tackle signs of dullness. Azelaic acid, AHAs and willow bark work together to gently exfoliate the skin and reignite that lit-from-within look.
Medik8 have found a way to bottle that post-facial glow so that you can flaunt a radiant, dewy complexion, 24/7. The Press & Glow Tonic is pumped with PHAs, prickly pear extract, aloe vera and acai extract in order to provide a chemical exfoliation that plumps, smooths and hydrates skin.
Discover a quick, easy and fuss-free exfoliation with First Aid Beauty’s Facial Radiance Pads. Each pad has been soaked in a blend of lactic and glycolic acid, as well as other good-for-you ingredients, and can be swiped over your face to remove dead skin cells, improve skin tone and reduce the appearance of pores. Arriving in a travel-friendly tub, you can pop this exfoliator in your bag and rest assured that your skin will look its best wherever, whenever.
The SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight Corrective Cream does all of the groundwork for you by working overnight. As you catch those all-important eight hours of sleep, this formula works overtime to unclog pores, encourage skin cell renewal and smooth fine lines. By the time morning rolls around, you’ll have a brighter, smoother and more radiant visage.
Wave bye-bye to congested pores as the Sukari Babyfacial is packed with pro-quality ingredients that resurface and unclog skin. This multi-award-winning peel treatment is the perfect at-home facial and makes a great addition to any Sunday night pamper routine. Plus, the pretty pink packaging doesn’t look too shabby on your top bathroom shelf.
They’re so good we had to include them twice. We end our epic roundup of the best chemical exfoliants with another shoutout to The Ordinary. Their Lactic Acid 10% + HA solution is small but mighty. Just a few drops of this stuff is enough to stimulate cell renewal and tackle skin issues such as texture, scarring and pigmentation. The best part? It has a super affordable price tag.
See, chemical exfoliators aren’t all that scary! And once you incorporate them into your routine and begin to see your skin transformation, you’ll wish you had never overlooked them. Better late than never, hey?! Plus, you're now equipped with the best of the best. Still not convinced? Don't worry, as we answer all of your FAQs below.
Are chemical exfoliants safe?
Yes, chemical exfoliants are completely safe and can be bought over the counter and used at home. In fact, since chemical exfoliants do not need to be manually rubbed into skin, they are considered safer and less abrasive than many physical exfoliants. Instead, they efficiently penetrate deeper layers of skin and break down dead skin cells with less chance of irritation.
Every individual skin type can react different to chemical exfoliants, so we always advise that you start with a low-concentration formula and carry out a patch test on a smaller area of skin before jumping right in. If you follow the directions of your product and refrain from using a chemical exfoliator every day, then they make the perfect addition to your skin care routine and are a safe way to achieve flawless, radiant skin.
How often should you use chemical exfoliants?
How often you use a chemical exfoliator really depends on your skin type and how your complexion handles the treatment. As a general rule, experts advise that a chemical exfoliant is used no more that two to three times per week. Dry, sensitive and mature skin types should stick to using chemical exfoliators once or twice a week as the acids can cause irritation. Oily and acne-prone skin types tend to tolerate chemical exfoliators better, and therefore can be used two to three times a week. Of course, each product has its own directions and guidelines so be sure to double check these before use.
What is the best gentle chemical exfoliant?
PHAs, also known as polyhydroxy acids, are the most gentle type of chemical exfoliant. Unlike AHAs and BHAs, PHA molecules are larger, which means they can help shed away dead skin cells, all whilst drawing water and hydration to the top layers of skin.
Written by Carly Cochrane
As the Senior Content Editor for Cosmetify, Carly is the go-to for all the latest (and greatest) beauty tips, tricks and trends. With over six years of experience in the industry, she knows all the ins-and-outs when it comes to health, beauty and wellbeing.