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Dermatologists Swear by Chemical Exfoliants for Keeping Skin Looking Smooth, Youthful and Radiant

You likely already know that exfoliating — removing the top layer of dead cells that sit on the very top of your skin — is an important component of any skincare routine. But, if you’ve always equated exfoliating with harsh, grainy scrubs, think again. Chemical exfoliants offer a welcoming alternative to their physical counterparts — coarse scrubs, cleansing brushes, and the like. They too help get rid of those dead cells (which can leave your complexion looking dull and feeling bumpy) but do so in a different way. Not to mention that there are a variety of different types of chemical exfoliants, all of which have their own subtle nuances that make them better suited for certain skin types and situations. Keep reading for more on how chemical exfoliants work and details on the different kinds to choose from.

What are chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliants are typically acids or enzymes that dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, allowing them to more easily shed, explains Tina Alster, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Washington D.C. and co-founder of The A Method. “Unlike physical exfoliants, which use small particles to manually slough off dead cells, chemical ones work on a molecular level, providing a more uniform and controlled exfoliation,” she adds.

Swatches of chemical exfoliants

It’s also worth mentioning that you can find chemical exfoliants both in over-the-counter products as well as in-office treatments, think chemical peels. The latter contain much higher concentrations of chemical exfoliants, notes Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

The benefits of chemical exfoliants

There are some universal benefits that apply, no matter whether you’re talking about physical or chemical exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliants make skin look smoother

Removing the outermost layers of dead cells helps unclog pores and smooths the skin, decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and evening out the texture, Dr. King points out. These are beneficial attributes for anyone and everyone, but, if you’re over 50, regular exfoliation can be especially helpful.

Chemical exfoliants brighten skin

Woman applying a chemical exfoliant
Goodboy Picture Company

The rate at which your cells naturally turnover, or exfoliate on their own, slows down as you age, contributing to a dull appearance, says Diane Madfes, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Enter chemical exfoliants, which help make your skin appear brighter, she says.

Chemical exfoliants are multi-tasking

And, unlike physical exfoliants, there are many chemical exfoliants that do more than their intended duty. According to Dr. King, some are also hydrating (a win for more mature skin, which is innately drier), while others can help stimulate collagen production with continued use. As a reminder, collagen is one of the skin’s proteins that’s imperative for healthy, smooth, youthful skin, so more collagen is always a good thing. But, to that point, not all chemical exfoliants are created equal…

What are the different types of chemical exfoliants?

1. Alpha-hydroxy acids

Alpha-hydroxy acids are arguably one of the most common categories; glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid are a few of the more popular ones. They’re water-soluble, meaning they work on the surface of the skin, leaving it smoother and brighter, says Dr. King. Even among this grouping there is some nuance among the different types. For example, lactic acid is a larger molecule than the others. As such, it doesn’t penetrate quite as deeply and tends to be more gentle, a better choice for those with sensitive or easily-irritated skin, says Dr. King.

Glycolic acid can be a bit more intense, although it has the added benefit of helping to stimulate collagen-production with continued use, making it a great pick for those who want to target wrinkles. And malic acid (which is derived from apples, fun fact) also has hydrating properties, explains Dr. King.

2. Beta-hydroxy acids

Then there are beta-hydroxy acids, specifically salicylic acid. “Beta-hydroxy acids, such as salicylic, are oil-soluble. They can penetrate deeper into the pores, making them effective for those with oily and blemish-prone skin,” explains Dr. Alster.

Dr. King adds that salicylic acid is unique in that it can both clear out pores that are already clogged and prevent them from getting blocked up in the first place. In general, beta-hydroxy acids can help reduce blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and milia; they’re also anti-inflammatory, helping to combat redness, adds Dr. King.

3. Poly-hydroxy acids

The latest category of chemical exfoliants gaining popularity in the skincare world? Poly-hydroxy acids, or PHAs. “They’re like alpha-hydroxy acids in that they work in a similar way, but differ because they’re even larger molecules that can’t penetrate as deeply, making them less irritating. They’re a particularly good for for those with sensitive skin who can’t tolerate AHAs or BHAs,” says Dr. King. She adds that studies have shown that even those with eczema can usually handle PHAs.

See more expert-backed skin care tricks:

IPL Facial Before and After Photos: See How the Treatment Quickly Reduces Redness, Discoloration and More

How To Treat Inflammaging and Skin: The Sneaky Culprit That Can Make You Look Older

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