How Paula’s Choice AHA Exfoliants Work


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Extensive research has made it abundantly clear that taking the best possible care of your skin means exfoliating every day to remove the built-up of layers of dead surface skin. Why: Because with age and years of unprotected sun exposure (among other reasons), our skin can’t exfoliate as it did when we were young.

BUT, helping your skin exfoliate does not mean using a scrub! A scrub is not how skin exfoliates naturally, plus it’s harsh and damaging. One of the best ways to exfoliate gently and naturally is to use a perfectly formulated leave-on AHA exfoliant. Adding this step to your routine will reveal the beautiful, smooth, young-looking skin hiding beneath the layers of dead skin. Paula’s Choice Skincare has several AHA options, one for your exact skin type and skin concern!

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What Is an AHA?

AHA stands for alpha hydroxy acid, but don’t let the word “acid” scare you. AHA ingredients are much more gentle on your skin than most scrubs or cleansing brushes could ever be!

There are several kinds of AHAs commonly used to exfoliate skin, some you may have heard of. The two most effective and well-researched AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Other AHAs—malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid—also have benefit, but there isn’t as much solid research about these AHAs, which do tend to work better together than if used as the sole exfoliant in a formula.

With any AHA exfoliant, the pH of the product matters a great deal! Glycolic acid and lactic acid AHAs work best at a pH between 3 and 4. Unfortunately, many AHA products do not adhere to this tight pH range, which means the AHAs in those formulas will be less effective or possibly not effective at all. Every Paula’s Choice Skincare AHA exfoliant is formulated within the ideal pH range so you’ll see the best results possible.

Why You Should Use an AHA Exfoliant

When we’re young, our skin naturally sheds built-up layers of dead skin, without any help. But as the years pass, several factors gradually slow this process, bringing it almost to a halt. Culprits like sun exposure, dry skin, oily skin, and other skin problems lead to skin’s surface becoming thickened, dull, dehydrated, and older-looking. An AHA can step in to exfoliate this buildup in a gentle, skin-softening process, just as young skin does before it becomes damaged.

A leave-on AHA exfoliant works on the sticky substances that keep unhealthy dead surface skin in place, essentially ungluing the dead skin and allowing it to shed. This benefit can be a game-changer for your skin!

AHAs exert their benefit on the surface of skin and are best for normal to dry skin, although all skin types can benefit from them. Research has shown that AHA products containing glycolic acid or lactic acid in concentrations between 5% and 10% are ideal for optimal, youth-reviving exfoliation.

Why Not Use a Scrub?

Exfoliation often brings to mind use of face or body scrubs, but most such scrubs are not good for skin. Scrubs involve manually massaging skin to scrape off the built-up dead surface skin. This abrasive, harsh technique creates micro-tears in skin’s surface, and will lead to problems your skin will not be happy about!

A gentle scrub, used very gently, is an OK, occasional option for more thorough cleansing of the surface of skin, but the layers of dead skin cannot be scrubbed away. You can get rid of that surface layer of dead skin only with a leave-on exfoliant, and AHAs or BHA are the best. (We discuss how BHA differs from AHAs in a separate article.)

Which Paula’s Choice Skincare AHA Is Best for You

Paula’s Choice Skincare has been offering AHA products since we launched in 1995, as the research supporting the benefits of routine exfoliation were clear even back then. In recent years, we’ve expanded our collection, keeping up with formulary advances to ensure each AHA exfoliant provides multiple benefits and meets the needs of different skin types and concerns.

Here’s a guide to help you determine which AHA from Paula’s Choice Skincare is right for you.

If you prefer a weightless, sheer, water-based formula to layer under your booster, targeted solution, serum, or moisturizer, our SKIN PERFECTING 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant is best. All skin types can use it daily or, depending on how your skin responds,  every other day.

For a more advanced approach that also includes potent anti-aging ingredients and/or a more concentrated depth of exfoliation, the following AHA options are formulated to exfoliate as well as to target specific other concerns.

Wrinkles, loss of firmness, and dryness: Our RESIST Daily Smoothing Treatment 5% AHA pairs 5% glycolic acid with 0.5% BHA (salicylic acid) to add a bit more exfoliation, especially if you also have congested pores. The soothing lotion formula makes it good for all skin types and it also hydrates and improves signs of aging with anti-aging peptides, ceramides, and antioxidants.

Advanced signs of aging, including deeper wrinkles: RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA has a liquid texture, which enhances its exfoliating power. You also get multiple anti-aging ingredients for dramatic, overnight results. Expect to see fast improvements in uneven skin tone, dullness, dryness, the look of wrinkles, and rough skin. This is suitable for all skin types and is ideal for alternating with one of our other exfoliants.

Brown spots, markedly uneven skin tone: If you’re seeing mottled areas of brown or dark spots or a very uneven skin tone, RESIST Triple-Action Dark Spot Eraser 7% AHA Lotion is for you. This innovative, all-skin-types formula combines 7% glycolic acid with 2% hydroquinone, widely regarded as the gold standard for lightening discolorations.

Its light moisturizing lotion texture means you can use it as a spot treatment or layer it with your favorite Paula’s Choice Skincare moisturizer, serum, booster, or targeted solution. If you’re diligent about using it twice per day and consistently apply an SPF 30 or greater over it, you should begin to see dramatic improvement in about 8 weeks.

Note: Sunscreen is a mandatory part of any skin-lightening routine. In almost every case, the brown spots you want to get rid of were triggered by years of unprotected sun exposure. Skipping the SPF means that your lightening product won’t be able to give you the results you want.

Dry, uneven skin, or red, raised bumps on your arms and legs: Anti-aging shouldn’t stop at your face. A luxurious body moisturizer enriched with antioxidants and skin-restoring ingredients can make a beautiful difference. Our RESIST Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA offers all that plus the 10% glycolic acid to help remove built-up dead skin on the surface of your body as it moisturizes, softens the look of crepe-like skin, and revives a healthy glow.

It’s also excellent for diminishing the look of raised, hard red bumps that often show up on the arms and legs, and is suitable even for skin prone to Keratosis Pilaris. Hello, sleeveless tops, goodbye to embarrassment over those unsightly bumps!

How to Use an AHA Exfoliant

It often takes some experimenting to see which AHA works best for you. Some people can use higher concentrations without a problem, while others find that lower concentrations work best, and some find that alternating between higher and lower strengths of AHA is the ideal. Our RESIST Skin Resurfacing & Smoothing Set is perfect for that. Although daily exfoliation is optimal, depending on how your skin responds, you might find that exfoliating every other day works best for you.

Here’s how to work an AHA exfoliant into both your morning and evening routines, but keep in mind you may find that exfoliating only once per day (usually at night) works great, too:


Same order as above, except your daytime moisturizer is replaced with your nighttime moisturizer and eye cream (You can use your eye cream during the day too, but you will need to apply a sunscreen over it.) It’s also fine to apply your AHA exfoliant to your undereye area.

AHA Tips:

  • You do not need to wait between steps for each product to absorb. The AHA will work even if you apply another product immediately afterward.
  • Don’t forget to protect your freshly revealed skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater. This step is fundamental to younger-looking skin!
  • You can use an AHA exfoliant twice a day or just at night. Use our RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA anytime your skin needs an extra exfoliation nudge.
  • Don’t apply an AHA body lotion to freshly shaved legs. Shaving is a form of exfoliation, so no need to double up on those days.

For much more on the benefits of AHA exfoliants, see our article How to Exfoliate Skin (and Why It’s So Important).

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 Exfoliants.

References for this information:

Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, October 2015, pages 21–26
BioMed Research International, 2015, volume 2015
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, volume 2015
Clinical Cosmetic Investigative Dermatology, December 2014, pages 9–17, and November 2010, pages 135–142
Archive of Dermatological Research, June 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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