Chemical exfoliants are (mostly) naturally-occurring acids that gently dissolve the top layer of dead skin cells. They do this by breaking down the bonds which hold these dead skin cells in place, which then encourages cell turnover and reveals fresher, younger-looking skin.
Many people prefer chemical exfoliants to remove rough or flaky skin because they do so without causing irritation, which may otherwise occur using abrasive forms of exfoliation with scrubs or brushes.
There are 3 main classes of chemical exfoliants - alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). These groups of acids are similar to each other in many ways, while also providing their own distinct skin-benefiting properties.
The type of acid that a person should use depends on what specific skin concern they are targeting.
AHAs are primarily used for smoothing the skin, reducing dark spots or hyperpigmentation from age spots, sun damage or melasma, and reducing the appearance of scars. With long-term use, AHAs also help to increase collagen and elastin in the skin, which makes the skin look plumper.
AHA exfoliants are water soluble, so they only work on the skin’s surface. They are generally preferred for normal to dry, sensitive, sun-damaged or pigmented skin.
AHAs occur naturally in fruit, sugar cane and milk.
The most common types of AHAs include glycolic acid (found in sugar cane), lactic acid (found in sour milk and yogurt), citric acid (found in citrus fruit and berries) and malic acid (found in apples and pears).
BHAs are primarily known and used for minimizing the occurrence of acne breakouts.
Beta hydroxy acids are lipid-soluble, meaning they require fats or oils to dissolve. This makes them more effective on oily or acne-prone skin. BHA’s penetrate deep into pores to break up and remove sebum, dirt and debris, thus clearing out any congestion. They also help to break down whiteheads and blackheads.
BHAs are found in plants, tree bark, fruit (such as papaya, pineapple and berries), and some dairy products.
The most common form of BHAs is Salicylic acid, which comes from Willow Bark, as well as its derivatives - salicylate, sodium salicylate and Willow Bark extract. Other forms of BHAs include beta hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid and trethocanic acid.
Then we have PHAs. This group of acids are essentially the same as AHAs, and are used for their exfoliating, skin smoothing, moisturizing and anti-aging benefits. The difference is that their molecules are much larger in size, meaning that they take longer to sink in and cannot penetrate as deeply into the skin. This is the most suitable chemical exfoliant for more sensitive skin types, due to the fact that they only work on the most superficial layer. PHAs are gentle and mild enough to be used on skin issues such as eczema and rosacea without any stinging or irritation.
The most common PHAs include gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid.
So in summary, AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs all work to create a more youthful appearance by gently resurfacing the skin. All 3 acid groups help to diminish the look of fine lines, even out skin tone, brighten the complexion, make the skin feel firmer and more hydrated. The main distinctions are that BHAs are more suitable for oily or acne prone skin, while PHAs are more suitable for sensitive skin.
All 3 acids could also be combined for a total synergistic effect.
You can find all 3 forms of these chemical exfoliants within Meadow & Bark’s portfolio of youth preservation and blemish busting products.
Uncertain which product is best for you?
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Be sure to check out our skin resurfacing products, including the Glycolic Toner, Facial Mist, Sea Kelp Glow Mask, Bioactive Cleanser, Brightening Essence and Manuka Mask.