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

How Exfoliation Works

We naturally shed huge amounts of dead skin every day, but this shedding process gets suppressed and waylaid, primarily due to sun damage. This can also happen  because of having oily, dry, or combination skin, going through midlife changes, or other concerns aging skin causes. The not-too-pretty results of all this is dull, dry, or flaky skin; clogged, enlarged pores;  bumps, wrinkles, loss of firmness, and uneven skin tone. When you gently and naturally remove this appearance-hampering abnormal buildup dead skin, all of the issues mentioned above can become stunningly diminished, almost overnight. That's where AHAs (such as glycolic acid and lactic acid) and BHA (salicylic acid) exfoliants have a significant edge over scrubs or cleansing brushes.

Scrubs and cleansing brushes aren't as effective as AHA or BHA at exfoliating skin gently. They can also aggravate skin by being too abrasive: Many scrubs have a rough, coarse, uneven texture that's harsh on skin and many cleansing brushes have stiff bristles which can have the same negative impact, causing micro-tears in skin. This damages and impedes every aspect of healthy skin, but equally concerning is that harsh scrubs and cleansing brushes only work very superficially; the depth of the problem is beyond where they can reach.

Gentle scrubs and soft cleansing brushes can be an option, but even then, they are best thought of as an extra cleansing step. That's because abrasively trying to exfoliate dead skin is not the natural way your skin used to shed when you were young, and helping skin behave more as it did when were young is the goal.

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 boosting hydration, minimizing the appearance of wrinkles, and delivering firmer-looking skin. Both can also help even out skin tone and smooth away rough skin. However, each also has unique qualities you'll want to consider when deciding which one to use.

  • AHAs are best if rough, crepey skin, with loss of firmness are your concerns. It is 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 plumper-looking skin and an ultra-smooth healthy glow.
  • BHA is also preferred for those struggling with sensitive skin and redness. Not everyone with temperamental skin can tolerate an exfoliant, but a BHA is the best option to gain all the benefits a leave-on exfoliant can provide as well as calm red areas and enhance smoother skin. If that sounds like your skin type try our ultra-gentle CALM Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion Exfoliant.

Tips on Getting the Most from Your AHA or BHA Exfoliant

  • 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, or 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 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.
  • How often you should exfoliate depends on your skin type and skin concerns. For some people that can mean using your AHA or BHA exfoliant twice a day, once a day (like Paula), or every other day. You will probably need to experiment to see what works best for you.

Why Not Just Use a Scrub or Cleansing Brush?

Not only are scrubs and cleansing brushes not as effective as AHA or BHA at exfoliating skin gently, they can also aggravate skin by being too abrasive. Many scrubs have a rough, coarse, uneven texture that are harsh on skin and many cleansing brushes have stiff bristles which can have the same negative impact.

Gentle scrubs and soft cleansing brushes can be an option, but even then, they are best thought of as an extra cleansing step because abrasively trying to exfoliate dead skin is not the natural way your skin used to shed when you were young.

Exfoliation from the Neck Down

AHA and BHA exfoliants can be just as helpful for your body as they are for your face—but such products are nearly impossible to find; instead, you’ll come across countless body scrubs and loofahs, which can cause as much harm from the neck down as they can for face (abrasion isn’t healthy for skin, period). From the neck down, non-abrasive AHA or BHA products that are gentle reveal healthy skin naturally and imperceptibly.

This surprising lack of options and the research about how great AHA and BHA are for skin led us to formulate two body exfoliants for Paula's Choice your body will welcome with overnight results: RESIST Skin Revealing 10% AHA Body Lotion, which is great for smoothing and hydrating dry, crepe-like skin texture that's also uneven, and RESIST Weightless Body Treatment with 2% BHA, an oil-free lotion that perfectly smooths 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 oil- and alcohol-free CLEAR Acne Body Spray makes quick work of acne and blackheads from the neck down, and its super-light, spray-on formula couldn't be easier to use.

How to Find the Best Exfoliant

Now that you know the many ways an AHA or BHA exfoliant can help improve the appearance of your skin, all that's left to do is find the one that works best for you. 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 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
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135-142
Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, July 2012, pages 488-491
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651-663
Natura Reviews. Genetics. March 2002, pages 199-209
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 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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