How to Choose the Best Chemical Exfoliant for Your Skin

How to Choose the Best Chemical Exfoliant for Your Skin

9 minute read

Using the wrong chemical exfoliant, or using it improperly, can really damage your skin. In my 5+ years of clinical experience treating acne-prone skin, I’ve discovered the do's and don’ts of exfoliation.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The difference between alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids and retinol
  • How to choose the best chemical exfoliant for your skin
  • When and how often to exfoliate your face

If you’re noticing increased acne breakouts, hyperpigmentation and fine lines this fall, you’re not alone.

Your skin is likely still producing oil from the summer but now, the cooler air is allowing moisture to evaporate more easily from your skin. This creates dehydrated skin, more visible fine lines and a layer of dead cell buildup on the surface of your skin.

You guessed it - this can lead to increased acne breakouts as well.

On top of that, many of us are noticing the build up of pigment on our skin from the summer months known as hyperpigmentation or sun spots.


Although physical exfoliants can be excellent at removing flakes on the skin, remember that physical exfoliants should never be used on inflamed acne breakouts, such as papules and pustules. Read more about physical exfoliants here.

Treating inflamed acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation and prematurely aging skin is possible with the right chemical exfoliants.

Thing is, there are various types of chemical exfoliants and it’s easy to choose the wrong one and use it improperly. Let me help you with that.


Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are water soluble chemical exfoliants that are most effective for normal to dry skin types. There are 3 primary types of AHAs: Mandelic acid, lactic acid and glycolic acid. Each of these penetrate the skin at different levels to target different concerns.

Mandelic acid has the largest molecular structure and therefore functions similarly to salicylic acid without the irritation. It’s effective at treating acne, hyperpigmentation and fine lines. It's also a better choice for dark skin tones compared to glycolic and salicylic acids.

Although lactic acid also has a large molecular structure, it penetrates a bit deeper than mandelic acid. It’s effective at treating dry skin and uneven skin tone by increasing the skin’s natural moisture and brightening dull complexions.

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecular structure, allowing it to smooth uneven texture, target acne scars and deeper lines and wrinkles. Since it penetrates more deeply than the other AHAs, it can be more irritating so it’s important to increase your usage slowly. 

Poly Hydroxy Acids (PHAs)

PHAs are considered cousins of AHA exfoliants in that they have similar functions. They also work to refine the skin’s tone and texture, allow your products to penetrate your skin more effectively as well as fight against glycation - the process where excess sugar binds to collagen fibers and weakens them over time. 

You’ll find gluconolactone, galactose, lactobionic and gluconic acid on the ingredient list. The primary difference between AHAs and PHAs is their molecular structure; PHAs don’t penetrate as deep and are therefore less irritating on the skin. If you have sensitive skin, rosacea or eczema, PHAs would be a great choice for you.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs are oil soluble chemical exfoliants that are most effective for normal to oily skin types. The most common types of BHAs include salicylic acid, lipohydroxy acid and trethocanic acid. Note that willow bark extract does not have the same exfoliating benefits that salicylic acid does.

Since they have a larger molecular structure, they only penetrate as deep as the follicle, or pore lining, to liquify trapped oil and decongest the skin. If you have oily, acne prone skin on your face and or body, BHAs would be a great choice for you.


Retinol is an “over-the-counter” vitamin A derivative that works to unclog pores, stimulate collagen production and brighten photo damaged skin. 

Tretinoin are prescription retinoids that are effective at treating deeper lines and wrinkles. Due to their strength however, they tend to irritate the skin and should be used carefully.


First, start by identifying your skin type. 

Oily skin

Looking back on your teenage years, did you always have oily skin? If so, you likely have an oily skin type.

Whereas having oily skin in your teens may have made you self-conscious of your shiny appearance and frustrating breakouts, the good news is that your skin will age more gracefully than other skin types (as long as you wear sunscreen 365 days a year).

Oily skin types are thicker and often more resilient than other skin types, so you can safely try salicylic acid if you’re looking to improve acne, retinoids if you’re looking to improve hyperpigmentation or glycolic acid if you want to improve skin texture.

The Consonant Meta Glycolic Serum is a great one to try.

Combination skin

If you look back on your teenage years and don’t remember being very oily, but remember that your skin would change quite considerably with the seasons, you likely have a combination skin type.

You may notice that your pores are larger in the center of your face, where your skin can become more oily (especially in the summer) and more dry (in the cooler months). You may experience breakouts in your t-zone if your skin is acne-prone.

If this sounds like you, your skin may be prone to dehydration and sensitivity. You’ll want to approach chemical exfoliants slowly and choose AHAs and PHAs, especially if you have rosacea or eczema.

If you’re looking to treat acne and or hyperpigmentation, mandelic acid would be a great choice for you. If you have visible redness and want to refine your skin’s texture, give lactic acid a try.

My all time favourite chemical exfoliant for treating acne and hyperpigmentation is the Glo Skin Beauty Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant. It has a 10% blend of mandelic acid, lactic acid and gluconic acid.

Dry skin

If your skin does not produce much oil and your skin tends to feel tight, dry and or flaky, you likely have a dry skin type. 

You’ll want to stick to AHAs like lactic acid to treat dryness and brighten your complexion or choose glycolic acid if you want to improve your skin’s texture. 

Your skin may also benefit from retinol, especially if you have sun damaged skin. The ClearChoice Antiwrinkle Retinox is a great choice for dry skin types who need retinol with a bit of extra moisture.

Watch for signs when using chemical exfoliants


Cleansers and toners

Although some people swear by their exfoliating cleanser and toner, it’s so easy to overuse these products. When exfoliating with a cleanser, you must leave the cleanser on for up to 5 minutes to really benefit from the exfoliating acids.

Further, exfoliating toners evaporate quickly and tend to dry out the skin. It’s far more effective, in my professional opinion, to choose an exfoliating serum or moisturizer that is left on the skin overnight.

Exfoliating serums

Exfoliating serums are applied after cleansing on dry skin, before your moisturizer. Since they are left on the skin overnight, they have time to decongest, brighten and soften your skin.

Using an exfoliating serum under your moisturizer will allow your acids to work longer on your skin and better target concerns of hyperpigmentation and acne.  


Moisturizers that contain exfoliating acids can also be a great choice as they are left on the skin. Note that the more acidic the product, the better the acids will be able to penetrate and work on your skin.

Moisturizers tend to be higher on the pH scale, so choosing a moisturizer with retinol (rather than AHAs, PHAs or BHAs) is a superior choice. 

One of my favourite exfoliating moisturizers for refining skin tone and texture is the TIZO PM Restore Retinol Complex


Focus on using chemical exfoliants in the evening. This is because your skin is fighting environmental aggressors during the day so your morning skin care routine should focus on protection. 

While you sleep, your skin is rejuvenating and will benefit a lot more from exfoliating. Note that most chemical exfoliants make your skin photosensitive to the sun so this is another reason to avoid exfoliating in the morning.

Further, cycle syncing your exfoliating practice is a great way to prevent and treat hormonal acne. Avoid exfoliating during menstruation, while your skin is most inflamed. Start exfoliating during your follicular phase, and ramp up leading into ovulation for best results. 


As a general rule, no one should ever exfoliate more than five times per week. Doing so will damage your skin barrier and dry you out which can lead to more acne, redness and dry skin.

This is why increasing slowly and watching for signs of tightness, dryness and redness is so key. Always pair back the number of times you exfoliate per week if you notice any of these signs.

If you’re new to exfoliating, start with once a week. If your skin doesn’t produce much oil, you can build up to three times per week maximum. If your skin does produce oil, pause before increasing to four or five times to find your sweet spot. 

Your skin will always tell you if it’s too much - so be intuitive with your skin care to get the best results from your exfoliating practice.

Want to take it a step further? Book yourself a peel package!

Chemical Peel

Chemical Peel


Brighten, smooth and hydrate your skin with glow-getting chemical peels. Powered by lactic acid, plus ferulic and kojic acid, the Glo Hydra Bright Peel targets uneven tone and texture. Looking to improve hormonal acne, hyperpigmentation or rosacea? Build to the ClearChoice 25%… Read more

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