Everyone who ever struggled with skin impurities or dry patches on the skin probably knows the importance of exfoliation. Exfoliants help the shedding of the skin, leaving it more even and glowy. Unlike physical exfoliants, for example scrubs, chemical exfoliants do that more gently, in a kind of indirect way. 

Chemical exfoliants are products that usually contain hydroxy acids: AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids). There is small but important difference between those two. First difference is in the chemical structure. AHAs contain carboxylic acid functional group and hydroxy functional group that are separated by one carbon atom, while in BHAs those two functional groups are two carbon atoms away. 

From different chemical structure arise differences in properties of two types of compounds. AHAs are water soluble molecules that tend to moisturize while gently exfoliating the surface of the skin. That’s why they are a great choice for those who have dry or sun-damaged skin. On the other hand, BHAs are oil soluble and are able to penetrate deeper into the skin and therefore exfoliate not only the surface of the skin but also inside pores – perfect solution for those with oily, acne-prone skin. 

Main Qualities of Chemical Exfoliants

AHAs – Alpha Hydroxy Acids

BHAs – Beta Hydroxy Acids

Glycolic, malic, lactic, mandelic acid…

 Salicylic acid

Exfoliate the surface of the skin

Exfoliate the surface of the skin and inside pores

Water soluble

Fat/oil soluble

Tend to moisturize skin

Tend to dry out skin

Humectant qualities

Antibacterial qualities

Build collagen

Reduce inflammation

Preferred for sun-damaged and dry skin

Preferred for oily, acne-prone skin

Probably the best known chemical exfoliator from the family of BHAs is salicylic acid. Some time ago I wrote a post about salicylic acid (and you can read it here). My skin didn’t really like it back then. Salicylic acid aggravated my struggle with facial redness so I decided to put it away for some time. During that period, while I was not using any salicylic acid on my skin, I couldn’t stop wondering: What was wrong with it? I mean, if you just try to google it, even wikipedia will tell you that salicylic acid works as a keratolytic, comedolytic and bacteriostatic agent, it causes opening of clogged pores and neutralizes bacteria. It is recommended to use products with salicylic acid even on skin with rosacea. So I really couldn’t understand why it doesn’t work for me??

DERMASENCE products that contain salicylic acid: Mousse Cleanser and Phytosabal gel cream

Finally, I decided to give it another try. 

I was brave enough to apply it again and, believe it or not, I liked the result! There was no redness on my skin. After only one week of using cleanser and gel cream with salicylic acid each evening, my skin significantly cleared out. That was simply amazing!

Unfortunately, I realized that using salicylic acid just doesn’t work for me. My redness appeared again so I was forced to use these products only 3-4 times a week instead of each day. And so far, it works. Woohoo!


Another really important thing is: use a good moisturizer if you use products with salicylic acid. I know it is a well-known fact, but many people just forget it – salicylic acid really does dry out the skin. And the only way to prevent this is to moisturize your skin properly. I use gel cream that also contains salicylic acid and is supposed to help with clearing out the skin even more; but I also use some other moisturizer that will hydrate my skin and keep it from drying out. 

However, if you have dry skin and really cannot tolerate even more drying out, go for AHAs. Alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic, lactic, malic or mandelic acid tend to additionally moisturize the skin. Glycolic acid is the smallest of all AHAs I mentioned, so it penetrates the skin more easily and it’s definitely the most commonly used AHA. 

Finally, another thing that matters a lot if we talk about acids in skincare is pH value. As I wrote in one of my first posts (here), pH is a value which, on the scale from 0 to 14, shows how acidic or alkaline a solution is; and that value is responsible for efficiency of the product with AHAs and BHAs you use. So, if you use AHAs, you should look up for products that have pH below 4, while for BHAs it should be even a bit lower, preferably below 3.5. In those cases, optimal amount of acid will be absorbed into your skin, and do the job much better than a product with higher pH would do. On the other hand, if pH of a product is too low it may lead to irritations, keep that in mind. 

What do you think about AHAs and BHAs, do you use any products that contain chemical exfoliants? How do you like them? Let me know in comments, I am looking forward to find out what is your opinion about chemical exfoliation. And see you soon!