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Your Guide to Choosing the Right Facial Exfoliators

Woman applying a chemical exfoliant with a cotton pad
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

AHAs or BHAs? Glycolic or salicylic? The world of facial exfoliators is a confusing haze of scary-sounding acronyms and acids. But every beauty blog is telling you that you need to exfoliate your face—so what should you do?

While everyone’s skin is different, facial exfoliation is beneficial much across the board. However, the skin care industry has exploded with new products in recent years, making it harder than ever to choose the right thing.

But the wealth of options comes with some good news: since there are so many products on the market, you’re almost sure to find one that works for you. The key is knowing what’s out there, so you can narrow down the list based on your needs. Let’s take a closer look at what your facial exfoliation options are, and how to choose the best one for you.

Do You Need Facial Exfoliators?

Technically, the answer is no—there’s no harm done if you decide not to exfoliate your face. However, exfoliation can give you clearer, healthier skin, and who doesn’t want that?

Exfoliating your face works in the same way as exfoliating your body: it gets rid of dead skin cells faster. The younger you are, the better your skin is at shedding old cells. As you get older, the old skin cells tend to hang around longer, which can make your skin look dull. Those old cells also clog pores and cause breakouts.

Exfoliation helps your skin’s natural shedding process work better. As long as you don’t over-exfoliate, it will help your skin look and feel healthier. If you use other skincare products, they’ll also penetrate better when you exfoliate regularly.

Most people need exfoliation no more than two to three times a week. It’s best to start slow—try once a week at first. Then, if your skin still seems dull, you can work your way up to more regular exfoliation.

Types of Facial Exfoliators

Now, it’s time to find the products that will work best for you. Let’s take a look at the most common types of exfoliators.

Physical Exfoliators

Physical exfoliators use ingredients like sugar or salt to create a scrubby texture. You can also find facial exfoliation brushes that scrub the dead skin cells from your face.

While physical exfoliators are straightforward and easy to use, they’re often harsh on your skin. It’s easy to scrub too hard, or choose something a little too abrasive, and end up with red or damaged skin as a result.

Chemical Exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators are where things can get confusing, with lots of different terms and acronyms. But this class of exfoliator is usually the best choice for your face.

Chemical exfoliators use acids, rather than an abrasive texture, to get results. The acid breaks down the bond between skin cells, loosening the dead ones so they’ll wash away.

Woman washing her face after using exfoliant cleansers
TORAWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

However, different chemical exfoliators work a little bit differently. Let’s take a look at some of the most common types.

AHAs

AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids, form one of the two main types of chemical exfoliators.

The primary difference between these two types is that AHAs are water-soluble, while BHAs are oil-soluble. AHAs typically come from organic sugars, such as those found in fruits or milk.

Some people find AHAs irritating, although all facial exfoliators have the potential to irritate the skin. AHAs also make you more sensitive to the sun, so it’s essential to use sunscreen daily if you use this kind of exfoliator.

Types of AHA include:

  • Lactic acid
  • Glycolic acid
  • Citric acid

While other types exist, these three are the most common and effective AHAs in skincare.

BHAs

Oil-soluble BHAs, beta hydroxy acids,  don’t come with as much sun sensitivity, but it’s still recommended that you use sunscreen while using these exfoliators.

In addition to exfoliating, BHAs penetrate the pores to help keep them clear. While AHAs include several acid types, salicylic acid is the only BHA you’ll see in most skincare products. (Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in products for acne.) However, some kinds of citric acid are actually BHAs, too.

Other Chemical Exfoliators

You can also find products that use different acid types, like PHAs (polyhydroxy acids), but these are much less common than AHAs and BHAs. If you have sensitive skin, though, PHAs might work well for you. They function in much the same way as AHAs but don’t penetrate the skin as deeply.

Types of Exfoliating Products

Exfoliators come in all kinds of different forms: you can find cleansers, scrubs, serums, toners, and more. Not all of them will be labeled as an “exfoliator,” so you’ll need to shop based on ingredient.

It doesn’t really matter which type of product you choose, as long as you pick something that you’ll remember to use. However, some products offer more intensive results than others. A serum that you leave on overnight will exfoliate more thoroughly than a cleanser that’s only on your skin for a few minutes. You may find that you want more than one product to use at different times.

Choosing the Right Ingredients

Each type of acid has a slightly different effect. Salicylic acid tends to dry skin out, which is great for oily skin but not ideal for normal to dry skin. Glycolic acid is antimicrobial, making it a great acne-fighting AHA.

However, different products can also have different effects due to the acid concentration and other ingredients used. It’s possible to use both AHAs and BHAs at the same time, too. Some products contain both, or you can rotate between products to get the effects you want. Just avoid using separate products at the same time—that can get too harsh for your skin.

While a dermatologist might help steer you in the right direction, trial and error is often the best way to figure out the right ingredients and products for you. Start by finding products that target your skin type and concerns, and request samples of what you’d like to try. Make sure to use sunscreen every day, and give your skin a break by waiting at least a day or two before trying a different product.

After testing a few things, you’ll soon start to see which ingredients work best for your skin, so you can target products that feature those. When you find the right products for you, the glowy results will be well worth it.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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