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Curious About Chemical Exfoliators? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

With the ever-expanding universe of skincare, it is nearly impossible to keep a track of all the terms and beauty jargon that’s being churned out by the minute. Circa now, the focus is on beauty that’s skin-deep with brands playing Agony Aunt—hearing our woes and in-turn formulating skincare products that tackle all our concerns, from stubborn ones like acne, ageing, and pigmentation to seemingly trivial ones like dull and listless skin.

And though, until a few years ago, a good face wash and moisturiser is all one needed as a part of our daily routine, Koreans have now tempted us into adopting their 7-step Korean skincare routine with their flawless ‘glass skin’. We’re now adding steps that we didn't know our skin needed. While most of us took to facemasks like a moth to a flame under the name of self-care, the step that we skipped out on, and that is now imperative, is exfoliation. If this is a skincare step your beauty routine has been missing, then we’re going to tell you everything you need about exfoliation, the different ways in which one can exfoliate, and the exfoliators that are your shortcut to glowing and radiating skin.

Image Courtesy: Herbivore
Image Courtesy: Herbivore

What Does Exfoliation Do?

As the term suggests, exfoliating your skin will eliminate the dead skin cells from the surface of your skin and clean out your pores which, in turn, will help your skin glow. When used consistently over a period of time, it will also reduce redness, smoothen rough patches, fade those stubborn acne scars away, and tackle dark spots and pigmentation to brighten your skin. Most importantly, as you grow older, dead skin cells are harder to get rid of and these not only clog your pores but also lead to breakouts and dull and discoloured skin. Clogged pores further prevent your skincare products from penetrating into your skin and having any significant effect. Exfoliation allows dead keratinocytes to shed and helps new skin to come to the surface, promoting cell turnover. So, while exfoliation might seem like an optional step in skincare, it is an effective and equally essential one.

Image Courtesy: Glossier
Image Courtesy: Glossier

Kinds Of Exfoliators

Exfoliators are classified under two broad categories: physical and chemical. While both boost skin radiance, reduce scarring and slough off dead skin, they do so in different ways. Physical exfoliators contain particles or granules such as grains, salt or apricot and walnut particles that buff the dead cells off your skin, while chemical exfoliators contain acids that do the same.

- Physical Exfoliators

We’ve all used an apricot scrub at some point or another in our life. It is a right of passage for most girls. Well, apricot scrub is a physical exfoliator that, like most physical exfoliators, uses small grains or particles that create physical abrasion caused by a force of hand to remove the dead skin. These granules used are called exfoliating agents and can range from salt and sugar to walnut shreds. Available over the counter and at drug stores, be sure to run through the ingredient list before you add to cart to ensure that the exfoliating agent is not too large. The larger the exfoliating agent, the more likely it is to have sharp edges that can cause micro-tears in the skin if used forcefully. Another method of physical exfoliating is to use a dry brush or loofahs. These are used to exfoliate your body and should be used on thicker skin; it’s definitely not advisable for your face since that skin on your face is sensitive.

Other than scrubs, there’s also microdermabrasion that involves face scrubbing performed by a licensed professional. This is suitable for those with scars, stretch marks, and wrinkles. One can also opt for dermaplaning which is done by licensed dermatologists and makes use of a scalpel to physically scrape the dead skin off your face, akin to shaving.

Image Courtesy: Herbivore
Image Courtesy: Herbivore

- Chemical Exfoliators

If you suffer from acne and have your dermatologist on speed dial then you probably know what chemical exfoliators are. For those of you that are not in the know, chemical exfoliators use gentle acids to aid cell turnover. These are much gentler on your skin and far more effective than using mechanical force to rid the cells off your face. Available in the form of peels, toners, moisturisers, serums and cleansing pads, these stay on your skin for longer than a few minutes (as opposed to a face wash) and penetrate your skin to remove the dead skin. The result? Plump and healthy skin that is smooth and super-radiant.

Image Courtesy: Herbivore
Image Courtesy: Herbivore

Chemical exfoliators can be broken down into two categories: Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and Beta hydroxy acids (BHA). Each has different properties and works across different skin types. We tell you the A, B, C of these.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)
If you have: sensitive skin that is dry and prone to redness

Alpha hydroxy acids are derived from natural substances and are soluble in water, which means that they draw moisture and keep your skin hydrated as they exfoliate the surface of your skin. AHA’s come in the form of lactic acid, mandelic acid, glycolic acid, and tartaric acid to name a few. These are great if you have sensitive skin or are just getting inducted into the world of acids. The best one to start with? Lactic acid since it’s the mildest of the AHAs. You can then work up to using glycolic acid, which is more potent but works faster.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)
If you have: Oily and acne-prone skin

Beta hydroxy acids are oil-soluble and can reach deeper into your skin and pores than AHAs.They tackle pores that are oil-clogged to treat blackheads, whiteheads, and zits. Generally prescribed to those with tough skin that is oily and prone to acne, BHAs can be drying if used in high concentrations. They also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that offer an in-depth exfoliation with keeping in mind your skin’s health. If you want to give BHAs a try, start with salicylic acid which is a favoured treatment for acne.

Image Courtesy: Herbivore
Image Courtesy: Herbivore

Can We Use Both?

Since both AHA and BHA work in different ways: AHA on the surface while BHA penetrates further, they’re both safe to be used together and might we add, more effective. BHA breaks down the bonds between cells while AHA causes the cells themselves to detach. In fact, most exfoliating toners and peels available in the market use a concentration of the AHA and BHA dream team to utilise the best properties of each.

Other Chemicals

A lot of you may have come across peels with fruit enzymes such as bromelain which is extracted from pineapple and more frequently papain, which is extracted from papaya. These also act as exfoliators and are a notch milder than AHAa and BHAs, making them perfect for those with sensitive skin. These break down the keratin in the skin and only target the outermost layer of the epidermis. But while most exfoliators can be patch tested before being applied to your face, it would be best to get your dermatologist to give you a go-ahead on these since they can become unstable depending on the environment. 

Image Courtesy: Sunday Riley
Image Courtesy: Sunday Riley

How Often Should One Exfoliate?

Since dead skin accumulates on your skin daily, exfoliators can be used often enough. If you have sensitive skin, start with a mild AHA like lactic acid. Use it once a week for the first few weeks and then work your way up to using it three to four times a week.

If you don’t see the desired results, you can switch to glycolic acid or salicylic acid and use it three nights a week before using it every other night. The application of these depends on the product purchased. If it a peel, you need to leave it on your face for seven to 10 mins and then rinse it off using a cold drenched cloth. If this is a toner, you can apply it on your skin using cotton pads. Some products come packaged as cleansing pads which can be used at night. Since it removes a layer of dead skin off your face, it is imperative to lather your face with sunscreen before you step out. Use the peels and toner preferably at night to avoid direct contact with the sun, and continue with your skincare steps like you would otherwise.

If we have piqued your interest, then these are some of the exfoliators that everyone in the beautyverse raves about:

Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution, The Ordinary

Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
INR 570 at Beauty Bay
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The Ordinary by skincare genius Deciem gives you all the acids you need, neatly bottled and for a steal. If you want to get inducted into the word of acids, this is a good place to start. This contains 7 percent glycolic acid which is an AHA to exfoliate your skin. It offers mild exfoliation that will result in improved skin instantly. The formula also contains Tasmanian Pepperberry derivative that reduces irritation, while ginseng and aloe vera both soothe your skin. Apply it on your face and neck, preferably in the PM and follow it up with your skincare routine. 

Glow Tonic, Pixi

Glow Tonic
Glow Tonic
INR 1,674 at LookFantastic
Buy Now

The ‘holy grail’ of all exfoliators, Pixi’s glow tonic has got a massive fan-following that swears by the product and its effects. Enriched with 5 percent glycolic acid, this gentle exfoliating formula brightens, tones, and conditions your skin. It also contains aloe that soothes and hydrates our skin while ginseng promotes cell health and skin vibrancy. Super-affordable and highly-effective, you can apply a few drops on a cotton pad and sweep it over your skin after cleansing every day for the best results.

Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, Paula’s Choice

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
INR 2,700 at LookFantastic
Buy Now

Highly recommended by beauty insiders, this leave-on exfoliant by Paula’s Choice is a great choice if you have congested, oily or combination skin. The gentle formula has salicylic acid, a BHA, and helps to reduce breakouts and blackheads to give you a clear and glowing complexion. This can be your armour when attacked by a bout of stubborn acne. 

Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment, Sunday Riley

Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment
Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment
INR 7,545 at Cult Beauty
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Good skin is a just a Sunday Riley bottle away. Not short of a magic elixir, this multitasks to keep your skin smooth, clear, and bright along with working wonders on your skin's elasticity. With glycolic acid molecules that penetrate deep into your skin, this also tackles clogged pores while reducing their appearance and that of fine lines. It also contains lactic acid that calms any irritation and brightens and clarifies your skin.

Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask, Ren

REN Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask
REN Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask
INR 2,976 at LookFantastic
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If your skin is looking tired, congested, and has acne-scarring and blemishes, then this renewal mask by Ren will improve your skin tone and texture dramatically, giving you a lit-from-within glow. This mask is packed with a combination of fruit acid complex and papain enzyme that exfoliates your skin gently while healing and repairing it. Use it once a week and apply it on your face and neck after cleansing. Rinse it with warm water after leaving it on for 10 minutes for radiant results.

Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Formula, Dr. Dennis Gross

Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Formula
Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Formula
INR 7,710 at Cult Beauty
Buy Now

Conveniently packaged in the form of pads, this Dr. Dennis Gross formula combines five AHAs and BHAs with antioxidants that fight wrinkles and signs of anti-ageing while also working towards smoothening and refining your skin. Repeated use will result in minimising the appearance of pores, redness, and will also tackle uneven skin tone. Mild, quick, and easy-to-use, these work across skin types and ages. 

Solution, Glossier

Exfoliating Skin Perfector
Exfoliating Skin Perfector
INR 1,720 at Glossier
Buy Now

Not just for its cute packaging, Glossier’s best selling solution packaged in a millennial pink bottle contains a 10 percent blend of three acid groups: AHA, BHA, and PHA. Daily use helps clear up acne and blackheads and also reduces redness and visibly large pores while improving the texture of your skin. Having received a lot of love from Glossier-heads, try this for smoother, softer, and glowing skin. 

ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment, Kate Sommerville

ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment
ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment
INR 6,379 at Nordstrom
Buy Now

A celeb-attested brand, this exfoliator by Kate Sommerville skincare smoothens and polishes your face to reveal a radiant complexion. It is formulated using fruit enzymes extracted from papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin for natural exfoliation of dead skin and also contains lactic acid that acts as a natural and mild AHA skin exfoliator to deliver healthy and supple skin right from the first application.

Multi-Action Penta Peel, DCL

Multi-Action Penta Peel
Multi-Action Penta Peel
INR 5,141 at Cult Beauty
Buy Now

Swipe your way to smooth skin with peel pads by DCL that will gently resurface and renew your skin in as little as five minutes. Your shortcut to smooth, glowing, and hydrating skin, these single-use pads have salicylic acid (BHA) that exfoliates your skin along with hyaluronic acid that lends hydration. Lactic acid smoothens the skin while phytic acid and mandelic acid brighten and refine your skin texture respectively.

T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, Drunk Elephant

T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
INR 6,600 at Cult Beauty
Buy Now

From Drunk Elephant, a skincare brand that is worth the hype, this night serum contains 12 percent alpha and beta hydroxy acid including glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic acid. These work in tandem to penetrate your skin and remove dirt and impurities while exfoliating the dead skin off your face. Blended with raspberry extract, the formula soothes and exfoliates, tackling wrinkles, fine lines, and open pores along the way.

Resurfacing Glycolic Pads, Malin + Goetz

Resurfacing Glycolic Pads
Resurfacing Glycolic Pads
INR 3,699 at Cult Beauty
Buy Now

Your go-to at-home peel, these glycolic acid-soaked pads by Malin + Goetz remove dead and dulling cells from the skin’s surface to unearth new and fresh skin. Say hello to smooth and even skin tone with reduced pores, diminished fine lines, and a youthful appearance, complete with a radiant goddess-like glow.

Moon Fruit Superfruit Night Treatment, Herbivore

Moon Fruit Superfruit Night Treatment
Moon Fruit Superfruit Night Treatment
INR 4,228 at Cult Beauty
Buy Now

Powered with fruit acids and AHA, this gentle exfoliator by Herbivore will slough away dead skin and improve your skin's elasticity. It is also packed with aloe vera that calms dry skin and gets rid of congestion with salicylic acid. Apply this treatment at night and sleep with it on to hydrate and rejuvenate your skin. Packed with antioxidants, this beautiful violet serum bottled in Herbivore’s minimally designed packaging is a total winner. 

Glycolic Peel, Caudalie

Caudalie Glycolic Peel
Caudalie Glycolic Peel
INR 2,050 at LookFantastic
Buy Now

Your self-care treatment should include this instant home facial by Caudalie. A peel treatment, this one-minute procedure will render visibly tightened pores while renewing skin texture and lending it a glow like never before. Featuring glycolic acid, an AHA, this exfoliates the dead skin, lightens dark spots, and boosts radiance. It is also enriched with fruit enzymes, and the combination of these acids results in increased collagen production. Use twice a week for 10 minutes or for an instant glow before a night out.

AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner, COSRX

COSRX AHA / BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
COSRX AHA / BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
INR 950 at Beauty Barn
Buy Now

Formulated by Korean beauty brand COSRX, this toner is made with mineral water to refresh your skin for a healthier appearance. Featuring AHA and BHA molecules, this exfoliating toner is made to hydrate your skin while preventing whiteheads, blackheads, blemishes, and fine lines to give you flawless skin without any filters.

Clarifying Mask, Tata Harper

Clarifying Mask
Clarifying Mask
INR 5,307 at Net-A-Porter
Buy Now

Tata Harper is loved for their mild and gentle products, and this natural mask is not different. Ideal for people with blemish-prone and sensitive skin, this contains salicylic acid (a BHA) that calms your skin by reducing breakouts and redness. This mask also features lactic acid that regulates oil production and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Featured Image: Sunday Riley, Glossier

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