One of my most recent skincare discoveries that has now become an everyday essential is chemical exfoliation. It sounds a bit extreme, especially if you have pale and delicate skin. Using chemicals to wear down the layers of dead skin on your face – that sounds like an awful idea! I did exfoliate, but tended to use those acne washes with the little beads in. Not only are these not great for the environment (those beads don’t always biodegrade) but using them too vigorously and too often can actually damage the skin, scratching and tearing away at it. I was using these washes regularly but I still had flakey skin on my face and clogged pores, so it wasn’t really working.
After discovering /skincareaddiction I decided to try their “beginner’s routine” to reset my skincare from scratch.They give exfoliation as an optional second step, between cleansing and moisturising. Here’s what they say:
Chemical exfoliation is great for evenly getting rid of dead skin and cleaning up dirty pores. It’s not a vital step in a routine, but it can be useful for improving skin tone, battling acne, and getting rid of closed comedones. AHAs such as glycolic acid or lactic acid work by loosening the bonds between dead skin so that it can shed more quickly and reveal brighter skin. BHAs, which mainly refer to salicylic acid, are lipid soluble and able to penetrate deeper to break up sebum.
Chemical exfoliation is the same stuff you get in liquid treatments for in-grown hairs, the chemical gets rid of the dead skin that’s clogging follicles and causing the hair to get trapped. When people talk about “chemical peels”, these use similar chemicals but to a greater extent.
What do they do?
Chemical exfoliants are dissolvers. It might sound a bit dangerous, dissolving your skin, but it’s okay! They break down the dead skin cells, allowing them to come away. They also break down the connecting material between skin cells, incouraging greater turn-over. The end result is smoother, fresher skin.
There are two types of chemical exfoliant – AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) like lactic acid and glycolic acid, and BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids) like salicylic acid. If you’ve done any chemistry you’ll know these are slightly different structures of molecule. They’re teeny weeny and get right into the skin.
AHAs are most suitable for dry skin as they can improve the skin holds moisture. However because of the way they work and make skin turn-over, they can make skin more sun sensitive. Therefore if you’re using them you definitely need to have daily SPF. For this reason I was more keen to try a BHA. BHAs are more suitable for oily and acne-prone skin – salicylic acid is an ingredient in most acne products.It gets right into the pores and has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities, making it good at stoping spots before they really start.The reason it gets in so deep is that it’s lipid-soluble, so goes beyond just the upper-most layer of the skin. BHAs are less likely to irritate the skin but they do also make skin more sun-sensitive, though to a lesser degree than AHAs.
I decided a BHA would be better for me than an AHA as my main concern was shininess and big open pores, and I was also wary of the sun sensitivity issues with AHAs.
First I tried Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA liquid. I’m not sure who Paula is, but she knows her exfoliants and sells a massive range! 2% is the weakest end of the range.
Similar to other chemical exfos, Paula claims:
Shrink enlarged pores with this 2% liquid salicylic acid leave-on exfoliant that removes old skin cells both on the skin’s surface and inside the pore.
- Unclogs & diminishes enlarged pores
- Creates radiant, even-toned skin
- Reduces redness & builds collage
- 100% fragrance and colourant-free
They recommend a 30ml bottle could last 2 weeks of daily use, so you can soak a ball of cotton wall and your skin should be wet for a good 10 seconds+ afterwards. I started off using only a small amount a couple of days a week so that my skin wouldn’t be too irritated, and then began to increase. It has little smell to it and didn’t make my skin itch or feel sore, unless the skin was a bit broken. I saw some improvement but it was quite slow.
The next product I tried was Stridex soft-touch pads. This is a little tub of pads already soaked in the chemical, so you don’t have to try and work out how much to use. The main ingredient is salicylic acid 2% and it has a fresh perfume. They’re sold as acne treatment particularly.
I saw much quicker results from this – the pores on my nose look tighter, my t-zone is less shiny, my skin is smoother and areas that have long been “bumpy” with little not-quite-spots under the skin began to smooth. I don’t know if this related to getting more of the product on my skin due to the pre-soaked pads, but it’s worked for me. It’s also much cheaper than Paula’s Choice, though the packaging lacks some elegance. With 55 pads in a tub it’s also lasting me ages, and they can be cut in half as they’re quite big. I use it at night, after cleansing, and let it dry before I moisturise.
If using an exfoliator makes your face sting or red, you may need to use a different pH or a lower concentration, or work up your use more gradually. If it continues, just stop! They’re not for everyone.
Managing the risks for sun-sensitivity
As someone with skin very prone to burning obviously the sun-sensitivity issue is a worry to me. One study suggests that BHAs can increase sun-sensitivity by 50%! (mentioned here, no reference to qualify) and AHAs are supposed to be even worse. I’ve been using my BHA through the winter months and plan on decreasing the frequency when summer comes along. I wear factor 50 SPF on my face daily, plus makeup with SPF in. I use the BHA in the evening only and wash any residue off in the morning. As the product is still new to me I’ll have to wait and see if my skin is significantly more sensitive this summer. If it is I might consider scaling back but I think given the benefits I will still find a way of keeping the BHA in my routine, just be extra careful about the sun.
AHAs and BHAs are ingredients in many skincare products and there often isn’t a warning about sun sensitivity, which I think is quite irresponsible. This may change in the future though.
Have you tried chemical exfoliation? Has it made your skin awesome? I’d love to know!