Chemical exfoliants

What do they do?
Gently lift dead skin cells from the surface of the skin

Key benefits
Skin brightening and smoothing
Fade hyperpigmentation
Unclog pores, improve the appearance of blackheads and whiteheads

How do I use them?
Apply two to three times per week at night, followed by moisturiser
Alternatively, use in a chemical peel less frequently

Potential drawbacks
Skin irritation: redness, stinging, dryness

Evidence rating

Chemical exfoliation is one of the two main ways to exfoliate the skin, and it isn’t as scary as it sounds! 

What is exfoliation?

As we get older, cell turnover slows down and dead cells can build up on the top of the skin, leading to a dull complexion. Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.  

What are the benefits of exfoliating?

By removing dead cells from the surface of the skin, exfoliating can lead to a brighter, more even complexion. In addition, exfoliation can help to unclog pores and improve the appearance of blackheads and whiteheads, fade uneven pigmentation, and can help your other skincare products work more effectively. 

How do chemical exfoliants work?

Chemical exfoliants remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin using chemicals, such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids. These chemicals dissolve the ‘glue’ which holds the dead skin cells together, allowing them to be shed more quickly, and increasing the turnover of new skin cells. 

Which exfoliant should I choose?

Beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid are best for those with oily, acne-prone skin. For normal to dry, mature skin, alpha hydroxy acids are a good choice. There are several alpha hydroxy acids to choose from: glycolic acid is the most powerful but also has the most potential to irritate the skin, lactic acid is slightly less powerful but less irritating, and mandelic acid is the most gentle. If you tend to have sensitive skin, it may be best to start with mandelic acid. 

How do I exfoliate?

Most people incorporate exfoliation into their skincare routine up to two to three times per week, using either an alpha or beta hydroxy acid in a toner or serum form, generally at night. Given that chemical exfoliants can cause irritation, it’s best to start just once per week and slowly increase how often you use them. There’s also the option of having a chemical peel, which is when a higher concentration of an exfoliant is applied to the skin and left on for 10-20 minutes, before being removed. Chemical peels are performed less frequently, for example every one to four weeks, and are generally done in clinics, although at-home peels are available. Cleansers are available that contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids: because these products are washed off, they are likely to be less effective than leave-on products.

What are the drawbacks?

All kinds of chemical exfoliants have the potential to cause skin irritation, which may present as dryness, redness or sensitivity. Starting gradually and moisturising regularly are good ways to help prevent irritation from happening.

Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152.

Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. Published 2018 Apr 10.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…