Skincare 101 – What Is Chemical Exfoliation?

Skincare 101: What Is Chemical Exfoliation? - Explaining What It Is and Why It's Useful

I don’t often get science-y around these parts but after yet another rant to my friend about how awesome acid toners are, she asked me ‘but what actually are they?’. That’s when I realised that although everyone’s raving about them, there’s still a lot of confusion about what they actually are. So I thought it was about time I sat down and had a good, long chat about why chemical exfoliation could be the step that your skincare routine is missing. Remember, I’m just another beauty junkie, I’m by no means an expert on the subject so take all of my advice with a grain of salt. You know your skin better than anyone and will know what’s working and what’s not.

So, what is Chemical Exfoliation?

Sticking acid on your face is a scary concept but trust me, it’s not what it sounds like. Chemical exfoliation works on a cellular level to break down the ‘glue’ that keeps dead skin cells on your skin. This encourages the cells to lift off and stop clogging up your pores and making your skin look dull. Chemical exfoliants can also increase cell turnover. The short and long-term effects can be truly incredible.

Chemical Exfoliation vs Manual Exfoliation

The other common kind of exfoliation you hear a lot about is physical exfoliation. That’s when you go to town with a facial scrub made up of sugar or biodegradable beads to manually slough away dead skin cells. If you use a Clarisonic or something similar, that’s also considered manual exfoliation. It leads to instant results but for me, I don’t find it as effective in the long term as having a good acid toner in my arsenal. I tend to use a scrub in the shower every once in a while too, but as I mention later, it’s important to not overload your face with exfoliating products.

What does it do and how does it benefit the skin?

/ It clears the skin, removing dead skin cells.

/ It also stops pores from getting clogged and creating pimples.

/ It brightens the skin, by removing dead skin particles, it leaves behind your best, glowing skin.

/ It leaves the skin feeling smoother and reduces texture.

/ It can reduce the appearance of pores.

/ It lightens acne scarring and skin pigmentation.

/ It reduces fine lines. Some acids boost collagen production, too.

Common Ingredients

AHA (Alpha-Hydroxy Acids)
AHA’s work by loosening the bond between dead skin cells and the surface of your skin. Stopping them from hanging around on your skin. They also work to reduce pigmentation in the skin and smooth the texture of the skin. AHAs are great for dry skin, because they have hydrating properties, too. Common AHA’s include Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Citric Acid and Mandalic Acid.

BHA (Beta-Hydroxy Acids)
BHA’s are ideal for oilier skin types or those that are blemish or acne prone. They’re oil-soluble (as opposed to water-soluble AHAs), so can get deeper into the pores to clear them out. They work to control excess oil production and clean out existing sebum from pores, the main culprits behind acne and spots. All while gently exfoliating the skin. Salicylic Acid is the most commonly used BHA. It can be a little more drying on the skin, though.

Enzymes are mostly derived from fruits and vegetables (such as papaya, pineapple & pumpkin) and provide a gentle form of exfoliation by dissolving dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, this also helps to promote product absorption into the skin.

Where do they fit into your routine?

There are a bunch of different products with chemical exfoliating elements on the market, including cleansers, toners, treatments and masks. When it comes to treatments or toners (applied with a cotton pad or a pre-soaked pad) I apply them after cleansing and using a hydrating toner but before going in with oils or thicker moisturisers.

Really, it’s up to you where you want to fit it into your routine. If you’re just starting out or don’t really feel like adding another step to your routine, check out the masks on the market for a quick fix. Otherwise, adding in an exfoliating toner is a great place to start. Acids are more effective when left on the skin to work so that’s a case for using a toner over an exfoliating cleanser that you wash off.

Tips For Usage

/ Don’t overdo it. Getting too aggressive with chemical exfoliation can strip the skin and leave it red, irritated and dehydrated. Be mindful of how much exfoliation you’ve already got in your routine (this includes scrubs, Clarisonic-y products, even face washers).

/ When adding new products into your routine, always start slowly. This goes for any product but particularly with acids. It can take a while for your skin to get used to a product so don’t get too excited and put every new product on your face at once.

/ If you have sensitive skin, it’s not recommended to use AHAs every day. It takes a bit of trial and error but you might only need to include an acid toner in your routine twice a week.

/ Make sure you’re using an SPF during the day if you’re using an acid toner, as AHAs leave you more susceptible to sun damage.

/ AHAs are water soluble so if you’re finding your product too intense, you can add it into your water-based moisturiser to make it less intense.

/ If you’re allergic to aspirin, be cautious when it comes to salicyclic acid, as they come from the same thing. Always patch test first.

Chemical Exfoliant Products I’ve Tried & Loved


I haven’t tried as many cleansers with acidic ingredients but the Skinstitut L-Lactic Cleanser* has been a mainstay in my routine for ages, now. I’m now onto my third tube now, I think. This is my go-to cleanser on days where I’ve gone makeup free. It does a beautiful job of cleansing without stripping my skin of moisture.

Acid Toners

Obviously, most of my experience with acid toners come from acid toners, adding in after cleansing, before treatments. The very first I tried was the Clarins Gentle Exfoliator Brightening Toner all the way back in 2013. I then went on to try the Alpha-H Liquid Gold* (looove this one) and the very easily available, Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner. The Neutrogena option is a great place to start, I think, if you’re looking to try out chemical exfoliation. Lately, I can’t go past Pixi’s Glow Tonic. It’s every bit as good as everyone says it is. Gentle but really effective.

I also love using pre-soaked pads. The Nip & Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme* remain the favourite option I’ve tried in the drugstore market. I also love the Go-To Skincare Exfoliating Swipeys* and the Peter Thomas Roth Max Complexion Correction Pads, if you’re after something more intense.


When it comes to treatments, there are a couple of ways to go about it. My very favourite skincare product, the La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo+ has some acidic ingredients in it while being one of the gentler ways to introduce chemical exfoliants into your routine. Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant* and Daily Superfoliant* remain some of my favourite two-minute wonder products to smooth out texture in no time, leaving my skin glowy and oh so smooth.

I recently added The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% to see what all of the fuss is about and so far, I’m loving it. It’s really gentle on the skin and I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in the couple of weeks I’ve been using it. The Aspect Fruit Enzyme Mask* is really more of a treatment – you use a little bit of product all over the face and you can feel the dry skin coming off under your fingers (sounds gross but satisfying). It smells beautifully sweet and has become my favourite for when I really need my skin to look incredible.


I also love a good exfoliating mask. I always apply one of these the night before any big event to make sure my skin is glowy and smooth. Peter Thomas Roth’s Pumpkin Enzyme Mask cannot be beaten when it comes to efficacy but can be quite intense on the skin – not for the faint-hearted. Another recent love has been the Philosophy Renewed Hope In A Jar Re-Energising Mask* which gives skin plenty of hydration while also having chemical exfoliation benefits for a brighter complexion. A previous favourite that I, unfortunately, don’t have on hand anymore is the incredibly popular REN Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask. As for more readily accessible budget options, check out the Formula 10.0.6 Get Your Glow On Brightening Peel Off Face Mask or L’Oreal’s Exfoliating and Smoothing Red Algae Pure Clay Face Mask*.

My Top Recommendations

Over the course of years and years of loving chemical exfoliation, I’ve definitely tried my fair share of options. If you only try one chemical exfoliator, make it the Pixi Glow Tonic. It’s simple enough to add into your routine and works wonders in no time. I also love the Nip & Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme* for a slightly cheaper toning option. For face masks, if you can get your hands on Peter Thomas Roth’s Pumpkin Enzyme Mask, definitely give it a go. And of course, I’ll always recommend trying out La Roche Posay’s Effaclar Duo+ to anyone that’ll listen.

This hasn’t even scratched the surface of the products available. Most brands have jumped on board with the trend now. So if there’s a skincare brand you love, check out their range and you’ll probably find something.

Want more info?

Caroline Hirons is always my go-to for skin care advice and is very knowledgeable in the chemical exfoliation field in particular. Mecca & Sephora also have ingredient glossaries which can be invaluable. I also love reading Lab Muffin’s posts on the subject.

If you made it this far, congratulations and thank you for reading my ramblings! I hope this was helpful to anyone who wants more of an idea of what they’re putting on their face. Let me know if there are any other 101 posts you’d like me to do. This space is just as much about educating as it is about rambling about beautiful makeup!

Have you tried chemical exfoliants? What are your favourites?

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*some products in this post have been provided for editorial consideration, honesty as always!
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  • Great post, you’ve explained this all so well! I love me some chemical exfoliation too 😉

    Bonnie |

  • Chantalle

    i am a huge fan of chemical exfoliation, and can thank them for the huge difference in my skin! My preferred acid types are usually glycolic, lactic and salicylic as I find these work the best for my skin. As for products, I will never stop using Liquid Gold, Pixi Glow Tonic or the First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads – they are definitely up there in fave skincare products of all time! x

    Chantalle |

    • Yes! Ever since adding chemical exfoliation into my routine (years ago) I’ve seen a big difference in my skin! Ooh I’ll have to try the First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads – thank you for the recommendation!

  • It’s hard to get exfoliation right when you have drier skin 🙁 Hopefully the Glow Tonic works well for you!

  • I’m glad it was helpful! It’s always a good idea to really understand the products you’re using on your skin! 🙂

  • Ah, thank you! I’m glad you love it!

  • Such a a good post! Chemical exfoliation can be so confusing!

  • Great post Ash! I get a bit confused with all this chemical exfoliation stuff. I’ve never used one since my skin gets rather fussy (the joys of sensitive skin!), but I did consider buying a bottle of Glow Tonic whilst in the States last year. I might give it a go sometime, but just gradually work it into my routine.

    Shell // The Novice Life

    • It can be tricky to get right, definitely! Especially with sensitive skin :/ Another thing to try would be to buy a serum and add it in with your moisturiser, AHAs are water soluble so it’ll lessen the effect on them and hopefully that way you can see how much your skin can take!