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The 6 best chemical exfoliators for glowing skin

Curology’s dermatology experts share their recommendations to help you get healthier, more radiant skin.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Apr 4, 2024 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
Woman Obtaining Chemical Treatment
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Apr 4, 2024 • 10 min read
Medically reviewed by Kristen Jokela, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

Why exfoliate your skin?


  • Regular exfoliation can help you maintain healthy, glowing skin. It helps to remove the buildup of dead skin cells, prevent dullness and dryness, and can even improve the skin’s absorption of other skincare products.

  • There are various types of chemical exfoliants: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). Each type offers unique benefits, from deep pore cleansing to gentle exfoliation for sensitive skin.

  • Chemical exfoliants not only improve the texture and appearance of your skin but also address aging concerns such as fine lines, highlighting their role in a comprehensive skincare regimen.

  • Our chemical exfoliator product recommendations include Paula’s Choice for acne-prone skin and Skinceuticals for aging skin.

  • Curology offers a liquid pore exfoliant with a unique formula designed by dermatologists. It’s designed to unclog pores and enhance the appearance of your skin's texture without stripping it of essential moisture.

  • At Curology, we offer tailored skincare advice and custom-formulated products, making it easier to find the right skincare products that suit your unique skin requirements.

Chemical exfoliators aren’t just your average scrubs; they’re carefully formulated elixirs designed to gently dissolve away dead skin cells, revealing a brighter, smoother complexion.

Confused about which chemical exfoliator you should choose? Don’t worry—we’ve compiled a list of our 6 favorite chemical exfoliators. Whether you have sensitive skin, are battling acne, or simply seeking that elusive glow, we’ve got you covered.

Why exfoliate your skin?

Your skin is your body’s largest organ and requires regular care. Exfoliation can be a key step in helping to maintain its health and radiance. As you age, your skin’s natural cell turnover slows down, leading to an accumulation of dead cells. This can leave your skin looking dull, rough, and dry. Exfoliation, whether physical or chemical, is useful in addressing these issues as well as certain concerns related to aging.

Physical exfoliants work mechanically, using abrasive particles or tools to scrub away dead skin cells. This method provides immediate results, making your skin appear smoother right away. However, it’s crucial to use them gently to avoid skin irritation or damage.¹

On the other hand, chemical exfoliants, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), function differently. They loosen the bonds between dead skin cells, promoting the natural shedding process and revealing fresher, smoother skin beneath. These types of exfoliants can be more gentle, as they don’t require physical scrubbing, reducing the risk of irritation.²

Regular exfoliation improves the texture and appearance of your skin and even enhances the effectiveness of other skincare products by potentially improving absorption. It’s particularly beneficial for conditions like acne and pigmentation. However, it’s vital to select the right type of exfoliation method based on your skin type, specific concerns, and sensitivity levels.³

Understanding the different types of chemical exfoliation

When it comes to skincare, understanding the different types of chemical exfoliants can be a game-changer for your routine. These hydroxy acids are the secret ingredients in many skincare products, each offering unique benefits for various skin concerns.

Let’s break them down into simpler terms.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Think of AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid as your skin’s rejuvenators. They work by loosening the glue that holds dead skin cells together on the surface, leading to smoother and more evenly pigmented skin. AHAs are great for general exfoliation and have anti-aging properties, making your skin look fresh and youthful.⁴

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)

BHAs are like deep-cleaning agents for your skin, especially effective for oily and acne-prone types. They can penetrate your pores, helping to dissolve the debris that causes breakouts.

Salicylic acid is often grouped with BHAs, but it’s actually a bit different when you look at its chemical structure. Like other BHAs, it’s particularly good for oily skin because of its ability to dissolve in fats. It not only exfoliates but also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, making it a common ingredient for acne treatment.⁵

Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs)

These are the gentle giants of the exfoliating world. PHAs, like lactobionic acid, are suitable for sensitive skin because they’re generally less irritating. They still offer the exfoliating benefits of AHAs but also bring antioxidant properties to the table, helping to strengthen your skin’s barrier.

Bionic acids are a subset of PHAs; the only difference is that these bionic acids have an added sugar molecule—in case any chem enthusiasts are curious! They’re particularly kind to your skin, providing gentle exfoliation along with antioxidant benefits. They’re a great choice if you’re looking for a mild exfoliant that still packs a punch in terms of skin benefits.⁶

Our top chemical exfoliator picks

So, you’re on the hunt for the perfect chemical exfoliator to keep your skin glowing and healthy? Well, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve scoured the beauty aisles and consulted with skin experts to bring you our top picks. And the best part? We’ve made sure they’re all free from those oh-so-common pore-clogging ingredients.

Ready to dive in and find your skin’s new best friend? Let's go!

1. Best overall

Product: Curology Liquid Pore Exfoliant

Why it’s great: You might be raising an eyebrow to see our own Curology Liquid Pore Exfoliant topping the list, but hear us out — it's not just that it’s ours, it's about performance. This exfoliant is a game-changer, expertly formulated with a powerful yet gentle blend of 2% BHA, 8% AHA/PHA, and 1% Zinc PCA. It's great for a wide range of skin needs, particularly excelling with acne-prone skin. Our exfoliant dives deep to unclog pores, remove dead skin cells, and control excess oil, all while maintaining your skin's natural moisture balance with glycerin and allantoin. We're committed to transparency and excellence, so while it's our product, its ‘best overall title’ is earned by its merits! Choosing Curology’s Liquid Pore Exfoliant means opting for an effective, dermatologist-designed, top-tier solution for achieving clearer, smoother, and healthier-looking skin.

2. Best for acne-prone skin

Product: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Why it’s great: This exfoliant features 2% salicylic acid, a BHA ideal for acne-prone skin. It penetrates deeply into your pores to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum, which are the primary causes of acne. It’s formulated without any comedogenic ingredients, making it a good option for acne-prone skin.

3. Best for mature skin

Product: Skinceuticals C+AHA Exfoliating Antioxidant Treatment

Why it’s great: This dual-action exfoliator combines alpha hydroxy acids with Vitamin C and antioxidants. It gently exfoliates to remove dead skin cells while targeting signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles, making it suitable for mature skin.

4. Best for dry skin

Product: Ren Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic

Why it’s great: Ren’s AHA tonic is a great choice for dry skin and features lactic acid and willow bark extract, a natural source of BHA. Its formulation is hydrating and free from ingredients known to clog pores, making it good for dry skin types looking for effective yet gentle exfoliation. This tonic is designed to enhance skin hydration while gently removing dead skin cells, providing a smooth and luminous-looking complexion without making your dryness worse. That said, everyone’s skin is different and may respond differently to the product.

5. Best for normal skin

Product: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

Why it’s great: This serum blends glycolic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic acids to refine and resurface the skin gently. It’s suitable for normal skin types and is formulated without any pore-clogging ingredients.

6. Best for sensitive skin

Product: KraveBeauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA

Why it’s great: KraveBeauty's Kale-Lalu-yAHA is an excellent choice for sensitive skin due to its formulation with 5.25% glycolic acid, a gentle yet effective concentration for exfoliation. Additionally, it contains soothing ingredients like aloe, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin B5, which help to calm and hydrate the skin.

Choosing the right product for your skin

Choosing the right chemical exfoliator for your skin can be a bit of a skincare puzzle. But here’s a tip that’s often overlooked: The best way to ensure you’re making the right choice is to have a chat with a licensed dermatology provider.

Why is this so important? Well, every skin type is unique, and what works wonders for one person might not be ideal for another. A dermatology provider can take a close look at your skin’s condition, consider your skin history, and recommend a product that’s right for your concerns.

So, before you dive into the world of AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs, consider booking an appointment with a skin expert. They’ll guide you towards the right exfoliator that suits your skin’s individual character, ensuring you get the best possible results. Remember, when it comes to skincare, sometimes a professional’s eye is what you need to crack the case!

Enjoy clearer skin with Curology

Whether you’re new to chemical exfoliation or looking to refine your skincare routine, understanding the different types of exfoliants and choosing the right one for your skin type is crucial. From AHAs and BHAs to PHAs, there’s a whole spectrum of options designed to reveal brighter, smoother, and healthier skin.

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Ready to take your skincare to the next level with a product that's designed to address your concerns? We encourage you to take our skin quiz, a simple yet insightful tool that helps us understand your unique skin needs. Based on your results, a licensed dermatology provider can prescribe a personalized formula that aligns with your skin type and goals.

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What is the best acid exfoliator?

The best acid exfoliator truly depends on your individual skin concerns and type. If you have dry or aging skin, AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid can be beneficial. They work on the surface to smooth and brighten the skin while promoting hydration.

For those with oily, acne-prone skin, BHAs like salicylic acid are ideal as they penetrate deeply into pores to clear out excess sebum and dead skin cells, preventing and treating blemishes. PHAs, like lactobionic acid, are great for sensitive skin due to their gentler nature while still offering exfoliating and antioxidant benefits.

How often should I exfoliate my face?

The frequency of exfoliation should be tailored to your skin type, the type of exfoliant used, and how your skin responds to treatment. For most, exfoliating 2-3 times per week is sufficient. If you have sensitive skin, you might need to reduce the frequency to help prevent irritation. Over-exfoliation can lead to skin barrier damage, so it’s important to listen to your skin and adjust accordingly.

Is AHA or BHA better for exfoliation?

Whether AHA or BHA is better depends on your specific skin needs. AHAs are water-soluble acids that work on the skin’s surface, ideal for dry or sun-damaged skin due to their moisturizing properties. They help with fine lines, uneven skin tone, and texture. BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble, allowing them to penetrate deeper into the pores. They are particularly effective for oily, acne-prone skin and for those dealing with blackheads and enlarged pores.

Why should I exfoliate my skin?

Exfoliating is important for maintaining healthy, radiant skin. It helps remove dead skin cells that accumulate on the skin’s surface, which can lead to a dull complexion, rough texture, and clogged pores. Regular exfoliation helps to improve skin texture, unclog pores, and allows for better absorption of skincare products. It also plays a role in addressing aging concerns, such as fine lines and uneven skin tone.

How do I know an exfoliating product is safe?

To ensure an exfoliating product is safe, opt for products from reputable brands and check that they are formulated without harmful or pore-clogging ingredients. Look for products specifically designed for your skin type and read reviews or seek recommendations from skincare professionals. And, as always, consulting a dermatology provider can be helpful when introducing a new exfoliating product into your skincare routine.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. (2016, December 14).

  2. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  3. Samargandy, S. and Raggio, B.S. Chemical Peels for Skin Resurfacing. StatPearls Publishing. (2023, October 29).

  4. Kornhauser, A., et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2010, November 24).

  5. Kornhauser, A., et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  6. Kornhauser, A., et al. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

Kristen Jokela is a certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary. Restrictions apply. See website for full details and important safety information.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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