Everything You Need to Know About Chemical Exfoliants

Science, y'all.

ByCaitlin M.

You know that exfoliating is a very important part of the skincare routine. And chances are you hear the work exfoliate and immediately think of a scrub. And you would be right to do so! A physical scrub is the most common type of exfoliant, thanks to physical properties that actually help wash away dead skin cells. However, chemical exfoliators are just as effective at removing impurities, refining pores, and helping with cell turnover. Curious how? Get the scoop on chemical exfoliators below.

The scoop: The main difference between a chemical exfoliant and your standard scrub is the method of exfoliation. A scrub relies on a physical abrasive—crushed shells, microbeads (but please don't use these!), sugar, or salt—to remove dirt and dead skin. A chemical exfoliant relies on its chemical ingredients to get the job done. Common chemical exfoliants that you'll see on labels are AHAs, BHAs, and glycolic acid.

Why it's necessary: Exfoliants are very essential in a good skincare routine as they follow cleansing and help to remove any excess dirt, dead or flaky skin cells, improve skin's texture and tone, and reveal younger, fresher skin. Whether you use a physical exfoliant versus a chemical one is a personal choice based on skin type and need. Some find that physical scrubs are too harsh and drying for them. If you find yourself in this category, you might opt for a chemical exfoliant. 

Chemical exfoliants can be great for those with sensitive skin, those looking to tackle fine lines, and even those with problematic acne. Although, they are gentle on skin, it is important to note that paying attention to the percentage of exfoliating acid in your product, as sometimes a high percentage can be too much for some skin types and can interact with other products. It's best to talk to your derm if you have any concerns about mixing topical skincare products!

How to do it: Apply your chemical exfoliant post cleansing but pre serum or moisturizer. Depending on your skin sensitivity and concern, you likely don't even have to exfoliate every day. 

Shop the trend:

Splurge: Paula's Choice RESIST Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA ($33)

Paula's Choice RESIST Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA

With five percent AHA, Paula's Choice is a great option for those looking to fight fine lines and wrinkles. It helps tackled dry, sun-damaged skin while delivering a moisturizing touch. 

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SaveNip + Fab Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Cleanser ($7.99)

Nip + Fab Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Cleanser

Glycolic acid is the star of this gentle drugstore cleansing exfoliator. If uneven skin tone, acne, and large pores are your problem, meet your new best friend.


Indie: BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz Essential 8 % Exfoliating Serum ($65)

BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz Essential 8 % Exfoliating Serum

For those who aren't familiar, Dr. Schultz is a board certified dermatologist in New York City and one of the top exerts on all things glycolic acid. From tackling pores to wrinkles, glycolic acid is Dr. Schultz's secret to renewed skin. And this eight perfect glycolic acid treatment is designed to tackle the appearance of enlarged pores and wrinkles, brown spots, and the appearance of fine lines.


Do you use a chemical exfoliant? What is your favorite?

About the Author
Caitlin M.
Senior Editor at Influenster. Runner. Music lover. All things nachos. Follow me on Instagram: @caitlinsmiller