The Best Chemical-Based Exfoliants for Glowing Skin

Turn to AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs to reveal a smoother, clearer complexion.

woman using cotton pad on face
Photo: PeopleImages / Getty Images

Chemical exfoliants are composed of acids that, when applied topically, reveal a smoother, clearer complexion over time. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jessica Chwalek explains that these acids help loosen the bonds between skin cells, which results in shedding; certain types, she adds, can even help fade dark spots and clear acne. They're relatively easy to spot on an ingredient list. Dr. Dendy Engelman of the Shafer Clinic says that the most common chemical exfoliants are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which include glycolic, mandelic, and lactic acids, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), like salicylic acid. Dr. Chwalek cites polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), which include gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, as yet another chemical exfoliant to be on the lookout for.

As for their formulations? Chemical exfoliants regularly appear in cleansers, toners, pads, or peels. And while they are often advertised for general use, both dermatologists say that those with sensitive skin should be extra careful when incorporating a product with these ingredients into their routines. "Chemical exfoliants can cause skin irritation and over-drying on sensitive skin types or if they are not used properly," says Dr. Engelman. "Be sure to do a patch test before using, carefully follow directions, and stop use if you have a negative reaction."

Dr. Chwalek agrees, adding that lactic acid, mandelic acid, and PHAs are often better suited for delicate complexions; they are less drying and more gentle. Their intensity can also be altered or increased by any companion products, which is why Dr. Chwalek advises against using retinol or acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide alongside chemical exfoliants (as a general rule of thumb, exfoliate in the morning and turn to those other hero ingredients at night). If you do apply an exfoliant at the start of your day, don't forget sunscreen, since all forms of chemical exfoliants make your visage more susceptible to UV rays. With all of these key application tips in mind, we asked Dr. Chwalek and Dr. Engelman which chemical-based exfoliants they recommend to their patients. Scroll down to see their picks—along with some of our personal favorites—and discover the correct product for you.

Top Picks

01 of 10


Natrium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%
Courtesy of Amazon

Made with 12-percent mandelic acid (an AHA) and niacinamide, this chemical exfoliant works to stimulate collagen production and smooth rough patches while also fortifying the skin barrier. It's also "clean" as far as formulations go: it's cruelty-, paraben-, gluten, and fragrance-free.

Shop Now: Natrium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%, $20,

02 of 10

Dr. Dennis Gross

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Peel Pad
Courtesy of Sephora

If you like the idea of a peel pad, try this one, which is delivered in a two-step formulation. The first wipe contains glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids; consider this the active portion of the process (the acids smooth rough skin, brighten dull complexions, and clear away any acne scars or dark spots). The second pad is a nourishing post-exfoliant that polishes with ingredients like ascorbic acid.

Shop Now: Dr. Dennis Gross "Alpha Beta" Universal Peel Pad, $88,

03 of 10

Glo Skin Beauty

Glo Skin Beauty GlyPro AHA Resurfacing Peel
Courtesy of Dermstore

"This set comes with everything you need to do a professional-quality peel at home and is super easy to use," says Dr. Engelman. "The peel is formulated with glycolic acid (an AHA), an antioxidant-rich superfruit complex, and brightening niacinamide to reduce signs of aging and leave skin looking radiant."

Shop Now: Glo Skin Beauty "GlyPro AHA" Resurfacing Peel, $85,

04 of 10

Biologique Recherche

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50W Exfoliating Toner
Courtesy of Joanna Czech

As far as "cult-classics" go, this product is well worth the hype. It has salicylic and glycolic acid to exfoliate away dead skin cells and glycerin to moisturize. If you can take its pungent smell (vinegar comes to mind), you will discover that this multitasking product tackles all of your most pressing concerns.

Shop Now: Biologique Recherche Lotion P50W Exfoliating Toner, $68,

05 of 10


SkinBetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads
Courtesy of SkinBetter

Dr. Chwalek loves these peel pads; they contain glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid, which work together to improve your skin's texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines.

Shop Now: SkinBetter "AlphaRet" Exfoliating Peel Pads, $105,

06 of 10

Paula's Choice

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Courtesy of Sephora

If you're acne-prone, turn to this formula, which boasts two-percent salicylic acid to clear dirt and debris from pores and fade hyperpigmentation.

Shop Now: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $29.50,

07 of 10

Ambari Beauty

Ambari Beauty Gold Profection22 Mask
Courtesy of Neiman Marcus

Dr. Engelman recommends this mask to everyone, but says that is an effective gateway product into the world of exfoliants. It's formulated with a blend of AHAs, PHAs, and CBD to soothe and revive your complexion.

Shop Now: Ambari Beauty "Gold Profection22" Mask, $92,

08 of 10

Pixi Beauty

Pixi Beauty Glow Tonic
Courtesy of Ulta

With a relatively low glycolic acid concentration (just five percent), this toner is suited for those with sensitive skin—or for those new to this product category. Nourishing ingredients like aloe vera and ginseng temper the formula.

Shop Now: Pixi Beauty Glow Tonic, $18,

09 of 10

Drunk Elephant

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial AHA+BHA Mask
Courtesy of Sephora

With a 25-percent blend of AHAs (a mix of glycolic, tartaric, and citric acids) and two-percent BHAs (salicylic acid), this chemical-based exfoliant is very effective. Best of all, it smooths and clears skin sans irritation.

Shop Now: Drunk Elephant "T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial" AHA+BHA Mask, $80,

10 of 10


SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight Cream
Courtesy of Dermstore

A hydrating chemical exfoliant is a rare find, but this moisturizer strikes that perfect balance. With 10-percent glycolic acid to promote cell turnover and natural oils, like jojoba and sunflower seed, to nourish and lock in hydration, this product is a must-try.

Shop Now: SkinCeuticals "Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight" Cream, $80,

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