Everything you need to know about chemical exfoliants

When you hear the word “exfoliant,” you probably think of the grainy scrubs of your youth (St. Ives, I’m looking at you). And while these “physical exfoliants” feel nice in the moment, they can lead to irritation, redness, and even micro tears in your skin. These unintended consequences can leave your skin susceptible to bacteria and make breakouts worse. No one wants that. So how can we get that glow without scrubbing? The answer is: a chemical exfoliant.

Let’s get down to basics…

You may be wondering what it even means to exfoliate your skin. Over a thirty day period, your skin cells shed, which can lead to a buildup of dead skin cells on your face and body. To help facilitate their removal, plus improve skin brightness and smoothness, you can incorporate an exfoliant into your routine. 

So what can you use instead of that chunky sugar scrub? Let’s talk about chemical exfoliants. At first, these might sound a bit scary. After all, many of these products have “acid” listed as their active ingredient. Who would willingly apply that to their face after high school science class specifically told you not to? But if you use the right type of acid correctly, it can be super beneficial for your skin!

Why it’s time to make acid your friend


No, this is not a gasp of realization… AHA actually stands for alpha hydroxy acid, which are water-soluble acids often derived from plant and animal materials. When it comes to exfoliants, AHAs are commonly used to combat hyperpigmentation, signs of aging, and uneven skin tone. AHAs target the surface of your skin and can lead to a brighter appearance after use. Some common types of AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid.

  • Glycolic Acid: Since this AHA has a small molecular weight (72, to be exact), it can penetrate deep into the skin, helping smooth lines, reduce pore size and pigmentation, and improve skin texture. Unless you have sensitive skin, this is a great all-around AHA to use. 
  • Lactic Acid: Like glycolic acid, lactic acid also targets wrinkles and exfoliates the skin, leaving behind a better texture and appearance. However, it’s a bit milder than glycolic acid, so if you have sensitive skin, lactic acid is the way to go. 
  • Mandelic Acid: As with the other AHAs, mandelic acid is normally used to exfoliate the top layer of skin, called the epidermis. This acid, derived from almonds, can help clear your pores and reduce hyperpigmentation. Since it has a larger molecular weight, it doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply, which means it’s one of the safest options for people with sensitive skin. 


Perhaps not surprisingly, BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid and is another common chemical exfoliant. While AHAs are water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble, meaning they can work to exfoliate both the top layer of your skin and deeper into your pores. This makes BHAs especially useful for treating acne, sun damage, and clogged pores. BHAs can also slow down your oil production, so if you have oily or combination skin, it might be time to give a BHA a try.

What’s right for you?

So now we know that yes, you need a chemical exfoliant, and we know which ones do what best. But skin can be complex. Do you really need a heavy-duty serum? What if you have clogged pores and pigmentation? How often should you use them, and how do you find the right ones when there are hundreds of products to choose from?

We can help. At Kura Skin we use data from your unique Skin Profile to match you to the best skincare routine for your unique needs. Just take a quick quiz, let us know your budget, and say goodbye to guesswork (and those dead skin cells).

For more tips on how to keep your skin looking clear and feeling fresh, check out our posts on how scrubs help with acne , how to avoid ingredients that clog pores, and how to wash your face (you’re probably doing it wrong).

Emma Swislow