How to Exfoliate Skin (and Why It's So Important)


In This Article:

AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliants are the all-important, unsung heroes of the skincare world, and too often overlooked. Whether you want to fight the signs of aging, achieve a radiant and even skin tone, alleviate dry, rough skin, diminish bumpy skin, or all of the above, these incredibly gentle, completely non-abrasive leave-on exfoliants go beyond what any scrub can do. And don’t let the names of these exfoliants make you nervous: AHA and BHA are actually gentler on your skin than most scrubs or cleansing brushes could ever be! We’ll explain why…

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Recommended Exfoliants

Why You Should Exfoliate

Our skin naturally exfoliates copious amounts of dead skin every day, but over time this shedding process slows and can come almost to a stop, primarily due to unprotected exposure to the sun or to other causes, such as having oily, dry, or combination skin, and going through mid-life changes. The not-too-pretty results are dull, dry, or flaky skin; clogged, enlarged pores; bumps, wrinkles, loss of firmness; and uneven skin tone.

Helping your skin gently exfoliate this abnormally large buildup of dead skin can noticeably diminish all the issues mentioned above, almost overnight. That’s where AHA (such as glycolic acid and lactic acid) and BHA (salicylic acid) exfoliants come into play…

Which is Better: AHA or BHA?

When properly formulated, AHA and BHA exfoliants boost hydration, minimize the appearance of wrinkles, and deliver firmer-looking skin. Both can also help even out skin tone and smooth away rough skin. While one isn’t better than the other, each has unique qualities ideal for certain skin types and concerns. We explain what you need to consider when deciding which one to use.


AHAs are best if rough, crepey skin with loss of firmness are your concerns and you have minimal signs of oily skin or clogged pores. AHAs are especially helpful for addressing advanced signs of aging and dry skin.

Our RESIST Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA is an outstanding option that will give you hydrated, supple skin and an ultra-smooth healthy glow, and it’s great for daily use.


BHA is ideal if you are dealing primarily with clogged pores, blackheads, blemishes, or enlarged pores, but it can also address multiple signs of aging.

Our CLEAR Regular Strength Exfoliating Solution with 2% Salicylic Acid is a great option for those with oily or combination skin who are also struggling with mild acne. Our CLEAR Extra Strength Exfoliating Solution with 2% Salicylic Acid has an enhanced delivery system for those with stubborn acne.

If you have dry skin and clogged pores, exfoliate with our moisturizing SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Lotion Exfoliant for beautiful results

BHA is also preferred for those with temperamental skin and redness because it has soothing properties while it exfoliates. If you have easily aggravated skin, try our ultra-gentle CALM Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion Exfoliant. A 1% strength can still provide stunning benefits.

How to Exfoliate with AHA or BHA (and Get the Most Out of it)

  • Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant after the cleanser and toner steps in your routine. If the exfoliant is a liquid formulation, use it with a cotton pad, if a lotion or gel, apply it with your fingers.

  • You can use it around the eye area, but not on the eyelid or directly under the eye (along the lower lash line).

  • You don’t need to wait for the BHA or AHA to absorb or dry; you can apply any other product in your routine—moisturizer, serum, eye cream, or sunscreen—immediately afterward.

  • Experiment with different strengths of AHA and BHA to see which concentration gives you the best results. For example, you can start with a 1% concentration and then try a 2%. Or, if you have advanced signs of aging or problem skin, you might find that using a higher strength every day or even twice a day gives you optimal results.

  • How often you exfoliate depends on your skin type and skin concerns. Some people do well exfoliating with AHA or BHA twice a day, whereas others find that once a day or every other day is the perfect balance. Experiment to see what works best for your skin.

Why Not Just Use a Scrub or Cleansing Brush?

Scrubs and cleansing brushes are not as effective as AHA or BHA exfoliants, and they also can aggravate skin by being too abrasive. Many scrubs have a rough, coarse, uneven texture characterized by particles with sharp edges that can cause micro-tears on skin. Many cleansing brushes have stiff bristles, which also can have the same negative impact on skin’s vulnerable surface.

Gentle scrubs and soft cleansing brushes are options, but even then, they are best used as an extra cleansing step, not as a replacement for a well-formulated AHA or BHA exfoliant.

Exfoliation from the Neck Down

You can (and should) exfoliate with an AHA or BHA exfoliant from the neck down as well to reveal healthy, smooth skin.

Our RESIST Skin Revealing Body Lotion with 10% AHA is great for smoothing and hydrating a dry, crepe-like, uneven skin texture.

Our RESIST Weightless Body Treatment with 2% BHA is an ideal choice to smooth rough, bumpy skin, including hard, raised bumps that tend to be red and can feel uncomfortable.

What about acne breakouts on the body? We have an ideal exfoliant for that, too! Our CLEAR Acne Body Spray with 2% Salicylic Acid fights breakouts from the neck down, and its super-light, mist-on formula couldn’t be easier to use.

How to Find the Best Exfoliant

Now that you know how an AHA or BHA exfoliant can improve the appearance of your skin, all that’s left to do is start using the one that works best for you. If you’re still a bit confused about which product to choose, contact our Client Service experts for a personalized skincare consultation to help you find the perfect exfoliant for your skin.

The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! See Paula’s Choice AHA & BHA Exfoliants.

References for this information:
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, ePublication
Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, July 2012, pages 488–491
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135–142
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651–663
Clinics in Dermatology, July 2001, pages 460–466
Archives of Dermatologic Research, July 1997, pages 404–409

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!

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