Skip to main content

Which exfoliating acid is right for me?

Which exfoliating acid is right for me?
Penny Lafferty
Writer and expert2 years ago
View Penny Lafferty's profile

Move over, abrasive face scrubs – there are new exfoliators in town! Exfoliating acids (or chemical exfoliators) have worked their way into a number of routines in one form or other. The clever acids help to loosen dead skin cells, sweeping away impurities for a brighter, more radiant complexion.

Exfoliating acids are the perfect at-home resurfacing treatment. They are categorised by alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), known for their ability to refine, smooth and brighten the skin. Still a little unsure about the benefits of liquid exfoliants, and wondering how to find the right one for you? Here’s everything you need to know about exfoliating acids…

What are exfoliating acids?

Head of askINKEY, Rachel Joy Lacebal from The Inkey List shares her expert knowledge on acid exfoliants: “Exfoliating acids are actives that loosen up the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin to reveal brighter, healthier-looking skin.” That means intense exfoliating and illuminating action in every sweep!

Expanding on the definition of exfoliating acids, PIXI's Global Head of Education and Artistry, Amanda Bell, tells us, "AHAs are water-soluble and work mostly on the surface of the skin. BHAs are oil-soluble and can penetrate deeper. PHAs are water soluble too and have a larger molecule size. These can all work to improve skin texture, minimise dark spots, sun damage and scarring, boost collagen, work to alleviate congestion/blemishes and give the skin a fresher, revitalised appearance.”

You should also always wear an SPF if you’re using chemical exfoliants, as they may leave your skin more susceptible to the sun’s harmful rays.

There are many exfoliating acids out there, but the most popular are:

1) Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a BHA. That means it’s made up of smaller molecules that seek to exfoliate skin on a deeper level. Salicylic acid is great for decongesting pores and creating radiance, helping to minimise the look of impurities like blackheads and blemishes. However, it’s important not to over-use salicylic acid, as it may cause dryness, flaking and irritation.

Want to know more about salicylic acid? Check out our in-depth blog post

2) Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is considered much gentler than other exfoliating acids on the market, due to its larger molecular size. It’s a substance that’s found in milk (we know), but strictly in skincare terms, it is an AHA that helps to smooth and unify with a mild, non-abrasive approach. Lactic acid can even be used under the arms to help reduce odour-causing bacteria – yes, we mean it acts as an alternative to deodorant!

3) Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a big-hitter in the world of exfoliants. The gentle but hardworking acid is an AHA that helps to sweep away dead surface cells, revealing a new-found radiance. It boasts a small molecular size to help deeply exfoliate the skin, working to smooth uneven texture and balance uneven tone. All skin types can benefits from adding glycolic acid into their skincare routine.

Get to know more about glycolic here…

What are the best exfoliating acids for my skin type?

Dry Skin

For dry skin, consider gentle acids that take the time to hydrate your complexion. The Indeed Labs Gluconolactone Toner exfoliates and nourishes, formulated with 10% PHAs and gluconolactone for an extra dose of moisture. LANEIGE’s Blue Hyaluronic Exfoliating Toner also boasts the perfect balance of PHAs and blue hyaluronic acid to exfoliate and quench the skin.

PHAs are another type of hydroxy acid that nibble away at dulling dead skin cells and uneven texture. They're super gentle on the skin, meaning they won't compromise dry or sensitive skin types.

Gift dry skin a gentle, at-home exfoliating treatment with The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2%. The facial peel helps to brighten the skin while refining uneven texture, topped with hyaluronic acid to hydrate those dryer areas. Looking for extra exfoliation? Try a higher percentage of The Ordinary's 10% Lactic Acid formula.

Oily Skin

Oily skin types can benefit from BHAs to help minimise the look of redness, and AHAs to smooth uneven texture. A smoothing, BHA-powered formula, like the CeraVe SA Smoothing Cleanser with Salicylic Acid, is perfect for blemish-prone complexions, dissolving dirt, oil and dead skin cells for a smooth, comfortable finish.

Revolution Skincare’s Multi Acid Peeling Solution is great for congested skin, working to exfoliate the surface layer with a careful blend of 30% AHA and 1.5% BHA. The facial peel features glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid, working in harmony to refine uneven texture and tone for a radiant, uniform complexion.

You could also try Herbivore's Prism 20% AHA + 5% BHA Exfoliating Glow Facial, a jelly-textured face mask that acts as a weekly exfoliating treatment. The glow-boosting formula refines the skin with a careful blend of fruit-based AHAs and willow bark-based BHAs, supporting a smooth, fresh and balanced complexion.

The Eucerin DermoPURIFYER Mattifying Face Fluid is a real crowd-pleaser for oily and blemish-prone skin types, supercharged with salicylic acid to help minimise the look of blemishes while instantly mattifying the skin. It’s even topped with licochalcone to soothe discomfort.

Combination Skin

For combination skin, Rachel suggests listening to your skin’s needs. “Do you get acne? Pick a BHA. Is your skin sensitive? Pick a PHA toner. Do you have dull skin? Glycolic acid is great.” She suggests the The INKEY List’s Beta Hydroxy Acid Exfoliant for blemishes, the PHA toner for sensitivity and the Glycolic Acid Toner for dull skin types.

If your skin type is oily in places but dry in others, it might appreciate a formula that’s suitable for all skin types – like PIXI’s Glow Tonic. The brand’s Global Head of Education and Artistry, Amanda Bell, explains, “Glycolic is the active ingredient in Pixi’s Glow Tonic and is an AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) derived from sugar cane. The molecule size of glycolic is small, so it works quickly, effectively and safely. Glycolic gently exfoliates the skin, improving texture as well as brightening and revitalising tone.”

For experienced acid users, The Ordinary’s Salicylic Acid 2% Solution could be a real treat. Used in the evening, the newly formulated acid pairs a strong percentage AHA and a hydrating saccharide isomerate to help exfoliate the outermost layer of skin while supporting its natural barrier.

Sensitive Skin

Similar to our advice for dry skin, sensitive skin types should look for formulas that blend chemical exfoliants with hydrators, like the Biossance Squalane and Lactic Acid Resurfacing Serum. The clever serum dislodges dead skin cells with 10% vegan lactic acid, while nourishing squalane locks in essential moisture, leaving skin feeling plump, soothed and smooth.

Suitable for all skin types, Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C Sakuri Babyfacial™ helps to reveal your smoothest skin to date, thanks to a blend of glycolic and salicylic acids for instant exfoliation. The gentle formula is balanced by matcha and milk thistle to condition and soothe. Think: glowing, baby-soft complexions.

ELEMIS’ Peptide4 Overnight Radiance Peel is a great at-home treatment for sensitive skin types, featuring a gentle blend of lactic acid and hibiscus flowers to brighten and clarify your complexion. The lightweight, milky peel should be applied before bed, working overnight to reveal radiant, healthy-looking skin by morning.

Don't forget to HYDRATE!

After all that exfoliation, take care to balance your skin with a hydrating hero. The BY TERRY Hyaluronic Global Face Cream is bursting with eight (yes, eight) hyaluronic acids, flooding your skin with moisture. It’s even boosted with a 38% youth-glow complex to help minimise the look of fine lines while revealing that lit-from-within glow!

LANEIGE’s Water Bank Hyaluronic Gel Moisturiser is enriched with the brand’s innovative blue hyaluronic acid, a molecule 2000 times smaller than normal HA to lend deep hydration and radiance to thirsty skin.

If we're talking staple formulas for extra-dry skin types, Neutrogena's Hydroboost Moisturiser is a perfect place to start.  Starring the brand's unique hyaluronic gel matrix, the formula releases continuous hydration throughout the day to help keep your complexion feeling supple and replenished.

Shop all our exfoliating acid formulas right here...

Penny Lafferty
Writer and expert
View Penny Lafferty's profile