Exfoliating is an essential step in your skincare regimen. It helps rid of dead skin cells, which might otherwise take residence inside your pores (and lead to breakouts), or which can leave your skin looking dull or feeling rough. By exfoliating your skin regularly, you encourage cellular turnover, and in turn, maintain a better complexion all around. In addition to fewer blemishes and smoother texture, you also help turn over dark spots and acne marks, so that they disappear sooner as opposed to lingering for months on end.
And while many people think of physical scrubs when they hear the word exfoliate, it’s the less gritty ones — the chemical exfoliants — that tend to work more effectively. These serums, peels, cleansers, and treatments seep into the skin, to dissolve dead skin cells, unclog pores, balances oil levels, and promote cellular turnover. They come in various intensities depending on how frequently you plan to use them, or how targeted and concentrated they may be. (For example, a daily cleanser or serum may have a lower concentration, while a weekly peel or treatment will have a high concentration.
There are also numerous types of ingredients used in chemical exfoliants. The most common are Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs). AHAs, like glycolic, lactic, citric, and mandelic acid work at the surface of the skin to dissolve dead cells and smooth texture, while also mitigating blemishes like blackheads and dark spots. As for BHAs, you’ll mostly see salicylic acid or willow bark extract (which itself contains salicylic acid); these help control/balance oil levels in the pores, while flushing out grime and also dissolving dead cells that might otherwise clog those pores. While AHAs have more universal appeal, BHAs are especially attractive for oily-skinned and acne-prone individuals.
You may also see fruit- and plant-derived enzymes (like papaya extract) or Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs), which offer various exfoliating and skin-smoothing benefits. They’re less frequently used than AHAs and BHAs, but are no less useful.
And if any ingredient with the word 'acid' sounds particularly off-putting to you, don’t forget that your own skin is acidic by nature. These ingredients should by and large agree with your skin — though sensitive skin types should take caution — and a spot-test should always be done on a small patch of skin before full-on use. Follow the instructions of any product closely in order to maximize its benefits, and to avoid nullifying its abilities outright.
Below are our favorite chemical exfoliants — each of which can help you get clearer skin in a few short weeks, and on a daily basis with continued use.
Best Overall Chemical Exfoliant: Herbivore Prism 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum
Herbivore’s serum glows, and your skin will too with a few drops and a good night’s sleep. It combines a blend of lactic, glycolic, and malic acids (all AHAs), along with willow bark extract (a BHA), which together target surface blemishes and smoothing, along with subcutaneous clogging and correction. And despite its high concentration of exfoliating ingredients, it’s still fairly gentle on skin — perhaps owed to the inclusion of soothing and calming rose water.
Best Upgrade Chemical Exfoliants: Omorovicza Acid Fix Treatment
This serum treatment teeters into ‘peel’ territory, thanks to its high concentration of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids. Apply it before bed, layered underneath a replenishing night cream, and you should wake with noticeably brighter, smoother skin. Incorporate it into your nighttime regimen twice a week to enjoy the longer-term skin-clearing and smoothing benefits. You may experience some redness upon application, but that’s because it’s more of a treatment/leave-on peel, rather than a standalone serum. It’s gentle than most peels, but tougher than most serums.
Best Affordable Chemical Exfoliant: Typology 10% Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Serum
Calling Typology 'Budget' feels a little funny, since they could bat against the best-designed brands in skincare. They’re straightforward in their aim, though, as evidenced by this glycolic acid serum. It’s suggested you apply it nightly before bed, to get the full skin-smoothing experience. It works especially well against blackheads and should agree with most skin types (which is a relief, since many low-cost exfoliating agents tend to burn on contact).
Peace Out Salicylic Acid Treatment Serum
If you’ve got oily or acne-prone skin and want a daily defense against clogged pores, then Peace Out is your solution. This 2% salicylic solution also helps healthy skin resurface, so that you also bid adieu to existing acne (and their dark remains).
Elemis Pro-Collagen Tri-Acid Peel
Apply this peel twice a week for 15 minutes — in the evening, on freshly cleansed skin — and you’ll experience its trio of resurfacing acids. Lactobionic acid is a PHA, and helps clear skin without irritation, while asiatic acid has anti-inflammatory powers. Together with mandelic acid (an AHA), they give skin a powerful peel, albeit a much gentler one than anything with less kind ingredients. Plus, as is standard for Elemis, this peel uses collagen-boosting algae to help hydrate, firm, and brighten the skin.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel
It’s also possible to get a dose of AHAs and BHAs while you cleanse your face. Dr. Dennis Gross’ cleansing gel utilizes them to help dissolve and evict any pore perpetrators. It contains mandelic, citrus, and glycolic acids to buff the skin’s surface, plus willow bark and salicylic acid to seep deeper into the skin. It builds an easy lather and can sit on the skin for 15-30 seconds before you rinse it away, in order to maximize its benefits.
Jack Black Power Peel Multi-Acid Resurfacing Pads (40 count)
These resurfacing pads provide another treatment option—and a gentler peel at that. They contain glycolic acid, texture-toning niacinamide, and fruit-derived exfoliating acids that help rid of dead, dulling skin cells, and in turn, invite your healthiest skin cells to shine. Use one pad each time, 2-3 times a week, before bed, and after cleansing.
Payot Clear Skin Serum
Specifically made for oily and acne-prone skin, this serum utilizes glycolic acid and zinc extract to mitigate sebum production and to plumb the gunk from any pores. It soaks in quickly, and promises a more balanced, even-toned complexion in under a month.