by Elizabeth Nguyen
Graphics by My Vu
What’s the budget-friendly solution (I’m talking under $10) that simultaneously targets blackheads, acne, wrinkles, dark spots, dull skin, hyperpigmentation and helps absorb all your other skincare products better? Chemical exfoliators.
At some point, most people have tried those popular physical exfoliants like scrubs. My advice: don’t do it. These types of exfoliants don’t effectively permeate the inner layers of the skin to target the problems. Essentially, they are a waste of time, money and long-term effort for flawless skin (on top of physically scrubbing off your skin… yikes).
My Advice for Happier and Healthier Skin:
Identify your skin → Identify what your skin issues are → Understand what ingredients combat those issues → Read the product label for ingredient concentrations (or ask the company) → Happy skin
Being able to read products’ ingredients and immediately identify that they are at safe and effective concentration levels is an empowering practice. Don’t worry — I’ve done the nitty-gritty research on chemical exfoliators and succinctly organized it so you can reach your dream skin, stress-free! Yay!
The Big Three Acids in the World of Chemical Exfoliators:
1. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) usually containing Glycolic and Lactic acids
What do AHAs do? They essentially detach dead skin cells, unclog and shrink pores, reduce blackheads, and increase skin thickness to improve collagen density and prevent fine lines and wrinkles.
What to look for in the product: The pH should be less than 4, with a concentration of 4-10%.
TIP: Since AHAs are better at holding moisture close to the skin, they’re preferred for dry skins.
TIP: AHA products make your skin sun sensitive, so don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
TIP: To allow your skin to get used to AHAs, gradually introduce them into your skincare routine by applying AHA products every other day.
2. Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) — the same thing as Salicylic acid
What do BHAs do? They are a major ingredient in many acne treatment solutions. BHAs minimize breakouts, break down oil and sebum buildup (which stirs up acne on clean skin), reduce blackheads and unclog pores.
What to look for in the product: pH should be less than 3.5 and a concentration of 1-2% is required for effectiveness.
TIP: Salicylic acid is oil soluble, so it’s preferred for oily skin.
3. Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) usually contain Gluconolactone and Lactobionic acids
What do PHAs do? PHAs prevent matrix metalloproteinases, which disrupts collagen’s ability to prevent fine lines and sagging.
TIP: It takes about a month or so to see these age-reversing results.
TIP: PHAs are the least irritating in comparison to AHAs and BHAs.
Common Skin Problems and What to Look for in Your Skin Care Products:
Acne or blackheads? Look for:
- Salicylic Acid (BHA)
Warning: If you’re allergic to salicin (an anti-inflammatory agent also included in aspirin), avoid Salicylic acid.
Warning for dry skins: Salicylic acid can make your skin drier than the Sahara desert. Look for an exfoliator that has a Salicylic acid concentration on the lower spectrum towards 1%. If dryness still occurs, use heavy moisturizer afterward!
- Glycolic Acid (AHA)
Warning for sensitive skins: Glycolic acid creates the most noticeable results because its small size can easily enter the skin. Thus, start slow when using products with Glycolic acid (aim for a beginning concentration of 8-10% until your skin gets used to it).
- Lactic Acid (AHA) — especially for super sensitive skins
TIP: Lactic is the most gentle ingredient for sensitive skins and is preferred for dry skins (it’s super moisture-preserving).
Dark spots, fine lines or wrinkles? Look for:
- Lactic and Glycolic Acid (AHAs)
Dull skin, bad texture or dark spots? Look for:
- Lactic and Glycolic Acid (AHAs)
Additional roles: Lactic and Glycolic acid improve brightness and fade acne scars.
Hyperpigmentation or blemishes? Look for:
Additional roles: Niacinamide prevents melanin from transferring to the outer layer of the skin, which helps against skin darkening.
Final Advice on Chemical Exfoliators:
- Don’t use retinol and acids together. Use retinoid for 4 nights a week and the exfoliator the other 3 days (or vice versa).
- If you have sensitive or dry skin, gradually work exfoliation into your routine (you’re unfortunately more prone to dryness, irritation and/or peeling).
- Always moisturize after your exfoliator and use SPF afterward if you’re going outside.
- Don’t trust any fragrance ingredient; using products with this label can cause irritated skin and pimples. Just don’t.
Now that you know your stuff, you can avoid being victims of chemical exfoliators that have mediocre and/or skin triggering ingredients. An unfortunately popular chemical exfoliator has been Glossier Solution, which claims to transform your skin by combining disappointing concentrations of AHAs, BHAs, PHAs and certain ingredients that can trigger reactions.
Don’t be fooled by the before and after photos, or the hype from Instagram and blogging figureheads. After researching the ingredients of Glossier Solution and reaching out to the Glossier team, I’ve concluded the biggest red flags for buying this product:
- It only includes 0.5% BHA. Remember that a 1-2% concentration is required for effectiveness.
- I asked the Glossier team what the vague ingredient “fragrance” is made up of, and was only told it was “all-natural ingredients.” If consumers can’t know what these ingredients are, they can be vulnerable to allergic reactions and skin irritation.
- Sodium Hydroxide is alarmingly second on the list of ingredients after water (the greater the concentration amount of an ingredient, the earlier it is listed in the ingredient list). Sodium Hydroxide should only be used in small amounts, as it can disrupt the acid mantle: the skin’s barrier that fends off fungi and bacteria.
There are plenty of high quality (and cheaper) exfoliators that work just as expected without any surprises. My favorite (I have dryish-regular skin) is Paula’s Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid.
Chemical exfoliators become more essential the older we get due to the slower rate at which our cells turn over for new skin. Cheers! You’re now an educated skincare consumer, and you’ll only get more knowledgeable from here. •
Elizabeth Nguyen is a sophomore double majoring in Economics and IRG (International Relations and Global Studies), and double minoring in Finance and Computer Programming. She just joined Spark’s blogging team this semester! In her spare time, she loves hanging out with friends and family, watching youtube videos, reading Pinterest and listening to K-pop.