What is chemical exfoliation?

Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD
Acid-based exfoliants interact immediately with the skin and dissolve dead cells. These utilize beta-hydroxy acid (or salicylic acid) and alpha-hydroxy acids. Under the AHA banner are glycolic acid (derived from sugarcane), citric acid, lactic acid (from milk), and fruit enzymes. Whether in the form of a gel, cream, lotion, or even a cleanser, all of these chemicals basically produce a slight chemical peel. That's why many products are labeled "peel treatment," "retexturizing peel," or "peel pads," (acid-soaked pads that you swipe over your face, then follow with another neutralizing pad containing moisturizing ingredients).
Salicylic acid is definitely the exfoliant of choice for someone with oily or acne-prone skin. Because, unlike AHAs, salicylic acid is oil soluble, it's able to unglue a keratin plug and penetrate through the sebum to the lining of the pore, releasing some of the oil and bacteria before it can cause acne. It also has anti-inflammatory properties (since it's derived from a compound similar to aspirin).
For someone with very dry or sensitive skin, lactic acid is the best and gentlest option, since citric, fruit, and glycolic acids can be too harsh. But read the label carefully. Sometimes a product contains many different kinds of acids, which together can be far too strong. As a general rule, if a product contains more than three acid substances, it could potentially be irritating.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.