Have you ever used an AHA or BHA product, loved the finished result and glowing skin, and continued to use it only to erupt in redness, burning and sensitivity? Or do you never get that far in the first place, with your skin hating the idea of a chemical (or any) exfoliant? Friend, you're not alone. There *is* a better way to use chemical exfoliants, so that even the most sensitive of skin will feel like they're on to a good thing. But first, let's get past the basics.
What are chemical exfoliants?
Exfoliants are products that help remove dead skin cells from the skin's surface. The benefits are less clogged pores, brighter and smoother skin, as well as improve skin cell regeneration. It can help with acne, blackheads, hyperpigmentation, in-grown hairs and even carry anti-aging benefits. Little wonder that everyone wants some type of exfoliation in their routine!
There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. The physical stuff refers to scrubs, loofahs and the like: products you would have to physically rub on your skin in order to slough the dead skin off. The effects are instant and they're often the best way to exfoliate rough skin or thicker skin of the body, but can be abrasive and irritating on delicate areas such as the face.
Chemical exfoliants on the other hand, require no rubbing. They're a class of acids and there's several different types: AHAs, BHAs and their secondary derivatives, PHAs and LHAs. See the table below for their breakdown. They can be found in toners, serums, creams and every other type of skincare product. Simply applying it on your skin does the trick. The acid will eat away at dead skin, revealing fresh skin underneath.
Common AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids)
Common BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids)
Common PHAs (Poly Hydroxy Acids)
Common LHAs (Lipo Hydroxy Acids)
Water soluble, peel away surface skin cells, considered a top choice for hyperpigmentation and anti-aging
Oil soluble, penetrate below the skin's surface, able to dissolve lipids inside pores, considered a top choice for acne, blackheads and texture. Its pH is very acidic, at around 3.5.
Often referred to as "next gen AHAs", it has similar, surface-polishing characteristics of AHAs, but a larger molecular weight - making it gentler. They're also considered safer for rosacea-prone and atopic skin.
A BHA derivative, LHAs are oil soluble but carry a larger molecular weight AND matches the skin's natural pH at 5.5. This makes it great for sensitive skin.
Salix Alba/ Willow Bark extract
Capryloyl Salicylic Acid
One of the most frequently used AHAs. Also the strongest AHA because of its small molecular weight (i.e. can penetrate skin easily). Not recommended for sensitive skin or for dark skin at high concentrations.
A milk-derived AHA that has a medium-size molecular weight. This makes it gentler than glycolic acid.
An AHA derived from bitter almonds that has the largest molecular weight. This makes it the gentlest and generally best alternative for senstive skin and for dark skin at high concentrations.
The most common and strongest type of BHA. Really does the job at clearing pores and acne, and shouldn't irritate because it has a relatively large molecular weight compared to AHAs. However, it can be drying.
A gentler, and less-drying alternative to Salicylic Acid that is still as effective, albeit usually at a higher concentration or more frequency of usage.
Best for daily or frequent use and for ultra-senstive/dry skin. Also the weakest of the 3, so it may not be enough for strong acne/blackhead/congestion issues.
This PHA has been said to have antimicrobial properties as well as bring an exfoliant, so that would make it a great choice for acne-prone skin that's also dry and sensitive.
This PHA is your go-to if you have especially dry and sensitive skin. It's gentler than gluconolactone, but more hydrating and better at barrier-repair.
While its penetration is slower and shallower than BHA, it's still effective at reducing comedones and is more suitable for sensitive and thinner (aged) skin. Some studies have shown it to be effective at boosting microcirculation and helping stimulate collagen and elastin production, too.
Firstly, make sure your skin barrier is in good shape.
A healthy skin barrier matters. The outer layer of your skin (the epidermis) is like a security guard. It protects against moisture loss, environmental aggressors, and potential skin irritants. Because exfoliation generally works on this outer layer, applying a chemical or physical exfoliant on a damaged skin barrier can lead to inflammation, excessive redness and burning. It can also leave your skin vulnerable to skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea and dryness.
What can compromise your skin barrier? Among other things, sun damage, pustules pushing through the skin, the wrong skincare products and over-exfoliation. If you think your skin barrier might need some work, the first thing to do is drop the exfoliants and active ingredients, and opt for a low-pH cleanser, hydrating toner, barrier-building serums, semi-occlusive creams and a solid SPF to allow your skin to heal. Trust us, it's worth it! This R&R routine can repair damaged skin in as little as a few weeks (but can extend to a few months, depending on the shape of your skin) and will make a skincare routine with active ingredients sing. Check out some of our favourite pro-barrier products here.
Secondly, choose the right chemical exfoliant for your skin type.
Check out the above table to help you find the right exfoliant for you. A good rule of thumb is to choose BHAs and LHAs for acne, congestion and blackheads, while AHAs and PHAs are your go-to for hyperpigmentation. Now remember, less is more when it comes to exfoliants. Be kind to your skin and start off with a low percentage, and building it up to find out what your skin responds to best. The truth is that most of us won't need a 20% strength AHA acid exfoliant, ever! You can see results with products that contain as little as 2% (particularly with BHAs and their derivatives). Starting off too high can damage your skin barrier straight off the bat, which means you'll need to pare back all your active ingredients and start the healing process.
Thirdly, get the frequency right.
Contrary to a lot of popular literature out there, you don't need to use a chemical exfoliant daily or even weekly. Particularly if your skin is on the dry or aging side, you might find that fortnightly or even monthly is enough, depending on the products you use. Some of us respond exceedly well to a daily exfoliation toner while others prefer a strong resurfacing treatment once a month. It's really about you and what your skin likes best.
Always wear a strong SPF.
SPF is truly your BFF! Not only does it protect your skin from cancers, help prevent premature aging and reduce the incidence of hyperpigmentation, but it also protects your skin barrier. Chemical exfoliants can make your skin more vulnerable to UV damage, which is why it is so critical to wear a broadspectrum sunscreen during the day (even if you're indoors).
Lastly, make sure the supporting ingredients in your skincare routine are compatible.
It can be a bit confusing to remember what active ingredients can and can't mix with each other. What we'd suggest is avoiding mixing active ingredients altogether, especially if your skin is sensitive. That means when you're using an exfoliant, avoid vitamin C, retinoids, niacinamide and the like. Save it for the days/nights you're not exfoliating. Instead, exfoliation day should be paired with a low pH cleanser (or toner after cleansing) and plenty of emollients as well as humectants. Think facial oils, ceramides, panthenol, cica, snail mucin and hyaluronic acid.
A chemical exfoliant will suit the majority of skin types, but it isn't a must for absolutely everyone!
Some of us just won't ever take to a chemical exfoliant, and that's okay. Our skin might be too sensitive, we may prefer the satisfaction of a physical scrub, or our skin is already benefitting from the keratolytic properties of the other ingredients in our skin care such as retinol or azelaic acid (yes, retinoids can act as an exfoliant too!).
Your chemical exfoliant checklist
✓ Start off with a strong skin barrier.
✓ Choose the exfoliant and strength that's right for you (it might take some trying and testing).
✓ Settle on the frequency that's right for you, keeping in mind that it can change as your skin's needs evolve.
✓Avoid using other active ingredients on the days your exfoliating, to reduce the risk of skin barrier damage.
✓Always use an SPF during the day.
Find the right chemical exfoliant for you online in Australia at Kanvas Beauty
You can shop all our chemical exfoliants right here on Kanvas Beauty.
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