Smiling woman touching her face in front of bathroom mirror

Decided that you want to give chemical exfoliation a try? 

Compared to physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation is actually much gentler on the skin, and is extremely effective too. Of course, that does all depend on which method of chemical exfoliation you opt for…

Your main choices are AHAs, BHAs or fruit enzymes. 

Wondering how to pick which one to use? 

Read on to find out…

What Are AHAs?

AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid, and these work exceptionally well at exfoliating the surface layer of the skin. 

How do AHAs actually work? 

Well, your skin cells are all held together by a glue-like substance. Even when your skin cells die off, this sticky substance keeps hold of them, which is why the skin can often appear quite dull and rough once enough dead skin cells build up on its surface. 

AHAs target that glue, breaking down its bonds. This then causes the glue to release the dead skin cells that it has been holding on to, allowing them to be naturally shed by the skin. 

Although your skin does naturally shed these skin cells on its own, the rate at which it does so declines with age. Using an AHA is a great way to speed this back up again. 

Where do AHAs come from? 

There are actually several different types of AHAs, and pretty much all of them are naturally-derived. 

Here are a few of the most common: 

  • Glycolic Acidmade from sugar cane, glycolic acid is fantastic for exfoliation. It also contains antimicrobial properties, making it great for tackling acne-causing bacteria on the surface of the skin
  • Citric Acid – derived from citrus fruits, citric acid exfoliates while also balancing out the skin’s pH level
  • Lactic Acid – this AHA comes from milk. Not only is it gentle yet effective, it also provides the skin with anti-aging benefits
  • Tartaric Acid – made from grapes, tartaric acid isn’t as common as the other three AHAs listed above, but it is a great one for dealing with sun damaged skin 
  • Mandelic Acidderived from almonds, mandelic acid features quite a large molecular size, making it very gentle. It isn’t quite as effective at exfoliation when used on its own (which is why it is often combined with another AHA), but it does help to improve skin texture
Infographic on the different types of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

No matter which AHA you choose, keep in mind that AHAs make the skin more sensitive to the sun. Unless you want to be dealing with copious amounts of sun damage, make sure that you amp up your sunscreen use as soon as you begin using AHAs. 

Are AHAs Right for You?

As you can see, each AHA brings about different results. 

If you are dealing with one of the skin concerns mentioned above, then using that corresponding AHA can really help. 

One thing to keep in mind about AHAs…

AHAs are water-soluble. This means that they only really exfoliate the surface of the skin, since they can’t penetrate through the oil that is sitting in your pores. 

While some AHAs are good for dealing with acne marks, those of you who suffer from oily skin and frequent acne breakouts may find that AHAs simply don’t cut it. 

However, if you are dealing with some of the following skin conditions, AHAs would be ideal for you: 

  • Enlarged pores 
  • Mild hyperpigmentation
  • Fine lines 
  • An uneven skin tone 

Since AHAs are quite gentle, they can be used by people who have dry or sensitive skin. Of course, you would still need to build up your AHA use quite gradually in order to give your skin enough time to grow accustomed to the new ingredient.

The concentration of AHA you use will make a difference too…

AHAs are available in a variety of concentrations, usually ranging from about 3% to 15%. Of course, higher concentrations can be found too, but these are usually too strong for general exfoliation. 

Which concentration is best for you? 

If you plan on exfoliating a couple of times a week, then go for a concentration of between 5% and 10%. Keep your skin type in mind – if you are prone to sensitivities and irritation, go for something on the weaker end of the spectrum. 

What Are BHAs?

BHA stands for beta hydroxy acid. Unlike AHAs, BHAs are oil-soluble, which means that they can penetrate deep inside the pores. 

What do they do once they are in the pores? 

They exfoliate! They clear away any dead skin cells within the pores, while also removing excess oil. This means that they give you a deeper exfoliation than an AHA would. 

While there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to the many different AHAs out there, you’re quite limited in terms of BHAs…

The main one is salicylic acid, which, if you suffer from acne, you have probably already heard of. Salicylic acid comes from willow bark, meaning that this is a natural ingredient too.

Is salicylic acid the only BHA out there?

Pretty much, although there are a few AHA/BHA hybrids that are worth knowing about: 

  • Citric Acid – although citric acid is usually classed as an AHA, there are some formulations of this ingredient that enable it to work as a BHA too 
  • Malic Acid – derived from apples, malic acid works as both an AHA and a BHA. However, on its own, it isn’t a very effective exfoliant, which is why it is usually combined with other ingredients 

Are BHAs Right for You?

The main reason you would choose a BHA over an AHA is if you suffer from oily, acne-prone skin. 

The way in which a BHA clears out the pores, not only of dead skin cells but also excess oil, means that this will significantly help to reduce the frequency and severity of your breakouts. 

Wondering whether it is safe to use a BHA on sensitive skin? 

Yes, because BHAs also contain soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, meaning that they can help to reduce redness and irritation.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t use a BHA? 

If your skin type is dry, then a BHA isn’t for you. 

Why? 

Because all of those natural oils on your skin are needed in order to keep your dry skin moisturized and protected. A BHA will clear these away, leaving your skin drier and more vulnerable to damage. 

When it comes to choosing a BHA…

You will usually find this available in concentrations of between 1% and 4%. This may not sound like much, but it is all your skin really needs. You could go for a higher concentration if you feel that this is required, but try not to use anything over 9%. 

What Are Fruit Enzymes?

As you can tell from their name, fruit enzymes are enzymes that have been derived from fruits. 

What do enzymes do?

They are chemicals that speed up the natural chemical reactions that take place in the body, without actually needing to get involved in the reaction themselves. 

When it comes to exfoliation…

Fruit enzymes basically dissolve away the dead skin cells that are sitting on the surface of your skin. This helps to immediately give the skin a smoother and brighter look. 

By clearing away those dead skin cells, fruit enzymes also then speed up the skin’s natural exfoliation rate. 

Which fruit enzymes are best for exfoliation? 

These tend to be the most effective: 

  • Papain – comes from papaya. Also helps with hydration and reducing the appearance of scars and skin damage
  • Bromelain – comes from pineapple. Also contains anti-inflammatory benefits and helps to boost the skin’s production of collagen 
  • Pumpkin enzymes – packed with antioxidants and also has an anti-inflammatory effect 

Are Fruit Enzymes Right for You?

Since fruit enzymes have quite calming, anti-inflammatory effects, this makes them suitable for all skin types. Many people with sensitive skin, who find that AHAs and BHAs can be quite irritating, do great when using fruit enzymes for exfoliation. 

However, there is a downside to fruit enzymes that you should know about too before making your decision…

Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of research when it comes to using fruit enzymes for exfoliation. The handful of studies that have been carried out do show that these enzymes can be effective. One study discovered that, when used on a regular basis at a concentration of 15%, they can have similar effects to AHAs.

So, what’s the problem? 

The problem is that it is actually quite difficult to find products that contain fruit enzymes at a concentration of around 15%. Plus, more studies are needed to actually confirm that that is the optimum concentration for exfoliation. 

Another issue with fruit enzymes is that they easily become unstable. 

Fruit enzymes require specific conditions in order to stay active, with this applying to everything from temperature to pH. If these conditions are not ideal, then the enzymes quickly become unstable, making them pretty much useless. 

As you can imagine, with everything that a product goes through before it reaches your home, from manufacturing to shipping to storage, it doesn’t take much at all for fruit enzymes to be rendered inactive.

If you do manage to find a fruit enzyme exfoliant that looks promising, make sure that you continue to store this in an optimum way at home. Keep them in a cool and dark place, away from any heat or direct sunlight. 

Can You Mix AHAs, BHAs and Fruit Enzymes?

Still can’t decide between AHAs, BHAs and fruit enzymes? 

Don’t worry, you don’t have to pick just one…

Since each type of exfoliant has quite specific benefits, using all three means that your skin will be able to experience all of these. 

However, you should never layer your chemical exfoliants. 

Why? 

Because this will just be way too much for your skin to handle. 

You will likely only end up over-exfoliating your skin, which can cause the following: 

  • Irritation and sensitivities
  • Redness 
  • Inflammation 
  • Dryness and flakiness 
  • A rash 
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Breakouts in the form of rough, small and bumpy pimples

So, if you can’t layer chemical exfoliants over the top of each other, how else can you combine them? 

You have a couple of options…

The easiest would be to use different exfoliants on different days. For example, use an AHA at the start of the week and then a BHA at the end of the week. The following week, you could use fruit enzymes one day and then either AHAs or BHAs another day. 

Alternatively, you can use different chemical exfoliants at the same time if you apply them to different areas of your face. For example, use a BHA on any oily, acne-prone parts of your skin, and then use an AHA over the rest. 

There are a couple of studies out there that prove that when you mix and match different chemical exfoliants, you end up with fuller and healthier skin.

How Often Should You Be Exfoliating?

This is a common question that many people have, and this is because the answer can vary quite a bit. 

It really depends on your skin type…

Those with dry or sensitive skin will only need to exfoliate a couple of times a week. On the other hand, those with oily and acne-prone skin may need to exfoliate more frequently than this. 

It all comes down to how your individual skin reacts to exfoliation. It does take a bit of trial and error to figure this out at first, especially if you are using both AHAs and BHAs, but, once you do, you will have an exfoliation routine that is perfectly suited to your skin. 

The world of chemical exfoliants may seem a little confusing, but it really is worth taking the time to understand your many different options. Exfoliation really is so important when it comes to a healthy complexion, so make sure that you choose a chemical exfoliant that is well-suited to your skin.