How to Exfoliate Skin


In This Article:

AHA and BHA exfoliants are the unsung heroes of the skincare world. Whether you want to fight the signs of aging, improve an uneven skin tone, reduce dullness, breakouts, or all of the above, these leave-on exfoliants go beyond what a scrub can do to reveal radiant skin that’s been in hiding. And don’t let the "acid" part of their names scare you… AHAs and BHAs can actually be gentler on your skin than a cleansing brush—we’ll explain how.
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Recommended Exfoliants

How Exfoliation Works

Your skin naturally sheds millions of skin cells every day, but this shedding process can come to a screeching halt due to sun damage, genetics, or various skin disorders. The not-too-pretty results are unmistakable: dull, dry, or flaky skin; clogged, enlarged pores; blackheads; white bumps (milia); wrinkles; loss of firmness; and uneven skin tone.

When you finally gently get rid of the built up skin cells, you can unclog pores, stop breakouts, smooth wrinkles, and even make dry, dull skin a thing of the past! That’s where AHA (alpha hydroxy acid, such as glycolic and lactic acids) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid, also known as salicylic acid) exfoliants come into play.

The Difference Between AHA and BHA Exfoliants

When properly formulated, AHA and BHA exfoliants have a lot in common in regards to their potential for improving hydration, reducing wrinkles, stimulating collagen production, and firming skin. Both can also reduce discolorations from sun damage and the visible marks left after a breakout is gone.

However, each also has unique qualities you’ll want to consider when deciding which one to use.

  • AHAs are preferred for those whose chief concerns is sun damage because they primarily exfoliate skin’s uppermost layers. [1, 2]
  • BHA is ideal for treating acne-prone skin, blackheads, enlarged pores, and milia due to its ability to penetrate the oil that’s clogging your pores.[3, 4]
  • BHA has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial action. [3] That’s two more reasons to use a BHA exfoliant if you have acne or sensitive, reddened skin.
  • BHA is preferred for those struggling with rosacea. Not everyone who has rosacea-prone skin can tolerate an exfoliant, but those who can will see reduced redness and smoother skin. [3] (Salicylic acid’s antimicrobial action also may benefit rosacea because there’s some research suggesting that certain microbes on skin may be causing or contributing to the disorder.)

What if your skin is sun damaged and you’re also struggling with acne or clogged pores? In that case, BHA is the ideal choice to address both issues in unison. Better yet, some people find using both an AHA and BHA produces even more dramatic results!

Note: Those allergic to aspirin shouldn’t use a BHA exfoliant because of aspirin’s close relationship to BHA. BHA is salicylic acid, while aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid.

Tips on Getting the Most from Your AHA or BHA Exfoliant

  • AHA and BHA exfoliants work best when applied on clean skin, following your preferred Paula's Choice toner.
  • You do not need to wait for your AHA or BHA to dry—you can apply any other product in your routine, such as moisturizer, serum, eye cream, sunscreen, immediately afterwards.
  • Experiment with different strengths of AHA and BHA to see which concentration gives you the best results. Consider adding a "weekly" (higher strength) AHA or BHA treatment when you want to take your exfoliation to the next level.
  • Apply your AHA or BHA exfoliant around the eye area, but not on the eyelid or directly under the eye (along the lower lash line). This can help soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as enhance the penetration of anti-aging ingredients you apply after your AHA or BHA.
  • If you’re using topical prescription products for rosacea or acne, apply the AHA or BHA exfoliant first, and then follow with your medications from lightest to heaviest texture. Some people will find their skin doesn’t tolerate a topical retinoid along with an AHA or BHA, but for others it can provide brilliant results, so it’s definitely worth seeing if this combination works for you.

Why Not Just Use a Scrub or Cleansing Brush?

Scrubs and cleansing brushes are certainly an option for exfoliating your skin, but they only deal with the very top, superficial layer of skin. Most of the unhealthy, built-up skin cells are beyond the reach of a scrub, so you can see how they can come up short. What’s even more concerning in the case of scrubs is that most have a rough, coarse, uneven texture that can cause tiny micro-tears in skin.

If you can find a gentle scrub, it’s best thought of as an extra-cleansing step (much like using a soft washcloth or Clarisonic brush) to boost the results from your cleanser.

Speaking of cleansing brushes (Clarisonic being the most known brand), they’re a great way to clean skin more thoroughly and are something you may want to try—but they don’t replace the benefits possible from a well formulated AHA or BHA exfoliant.

Is it Possible to Exfoliate Too Often?

Exfoliating your skin is great, but it is possible to overdo it, and your skin will tell you if you've gone too far. For some people, once or twice a day works best; for others every other day, or even once a week—experiment to see what works best for you.

The important thing to understand is that exfoliating with an AHA or BHA does not negatively affect how healthy skin cells are generated in the lower layers of the skin. That’s because AHA and BHA ingredients do not penetrate that deep below the surface layers of skin or beyond the inside lining of the pore. (It’s why you can’t exfoliate a tattoo off skin—the ink is deposited below the upper layer of skin.) Contrary to myth, AHA and BHA exfoliants do not thin the skin. [5, 6]

How to Find the Best Exfoliant

Now that you know the many ways an AHA or BHA exfoliant can improve your skin, all that's left to do is find the one that works best for you. For guaranteed results, check out our state-of-the-art Paula’s Choice AHA and BHA exfoliants. If you still find yourself a bit confused about which product to choose, contact our Paula’s Choice Customer Care Experts for a personalized skincare consultation!

For more in-depth information about each of these ingredients, visit our articles on, "How Paula’s Choice BHA Exfoliants Work" and "How Paula’s Choice AHA Exfoliants Work".

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.

  1. Kornhauser A, Coelho S, Hearing V. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification; mechanisms; and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2010;20(3):135-142.
  2. Babilas P, Knie U, Abels C. Cosmetic and dermatologic use of alpha hydroxy acids. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. 2012;10(7):488-91.
  3. Bowe W, Shalita A. Effective Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments. Semin Cutan Med Surg. 2008;27(3):170-176.
  4. Strauss J, Krowchuk D, Leyden J, Lucky A, Shalita A, Siegfried E, Thiboutot D, Van-Voorhees A, Beutner K, Sieck C, et al. Guidelines of care for acne vulgaris management. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007;56(4):651-63.
  5. Fartasch M, Teal J, Menon G. Mode of action of glycolic acid on human stratum corneum: ultrastructural and functional evaluation of the epidermal barrier. Arch Dermatol Res. 1997;289(7):404-9.
  6. Kootiratrakarn T, Kampirapap K, Chunhasewee C. Epidermal permeability barrier in the treatment of keratosis pilaris. Dermatol Res Pract. 2015;2015:205012.

About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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