How Paula’s Choice AHA Exfoliants Work


In This Article:

Exfoliation is often thought of as a step involving abrasive scrubs, but using such products would be a mistake because it just isn’t good for skin. Exactly as the name implies, "scrubs" are manually massaged over skin to scrape off built-up dead surface skin. This abrasive manner of exfoliation creates micro-tears on skin’s surface and that leads to problems your skin will not be happy about.

In terms of taking the best care of skin, all of us need to exfoliate regularly because with age and sun damage from years of unprotected sun exposure (among other reasons), our skin can’t exfoliate as it did when we were young. Gently removing the abnormal, dulling build-up of surface dead skin reveals beautiful, soft, hydrated skin hiding beneath.

This is where leave-on AHAs (or BHA, salicylic acid) come in to gently and naturally—without any abrasion—help skin shed in a healthy gradual manner. Regardless of your skincare concern, these outstanding ingredients work to help you achieve the smoothest skin possible.

For this article, we’re going to focus on AHAs which are a better option to fight visible signs of aging for those with normal to dry skin. AHAs can reveal a radiant even skin tone, and alleviate dry, rough skin that has lost its youthful vibrancy. A well formulated AHA goes beyond what any scrub can do, and without any of the problems scrubs pose for skin. For most, it’s overnight skin renewal that keeps getting better!

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What Is a Leave-On AHA Exfoliant?

AHA is an acronym for alpha hydroxy acid but don’t let the word "acid" in the name scare you. AHA ingredients are actually gentler on your skin than most scrubs or cleansing brushes could ever be!

There are several kinds of alpha hydroxy acids. AHAs can be naturally derived from various plant sources and from milk—though the majority of AHAs used in cosmetics products are synthetically derived because this type is more stable in a skincare formula.

AHAs include ingredients such a glycolic acid and lactic acid, which are the most effective and well-researched forms. Others like malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid can also have benefit, and when used together are more effective than when applied alone.

Do not mistake ingredients like "mixed fruit acids" or citrus juices to serve as AHAs. These kind of ingredients sound like natural forms of AHAs but they can’t work in the sway to reach the depth needed to have the most benefit.

Why You Should Use an AHA Exfoliant

When we’re young, skin naturally sheds built-up dead skin but with the passage of time, several factors slow this process down or prevent it from happening. Culprits like sun damage, dry skin, oily skin, or other skin problems get in the way of natural shedding, resulting in a thickened, dull, dehydrated, older-looking surface of skin beyond where you can see. AHA steps in by exfoliating the excess skin in a gentle, skin-softening process just as young skin does.

A leave-on AHA exfoliant works by undetectably ungluing the sticky substances that keep unhealthy dead skin in place far longer than it should be. This benefit can be a game-changer for your skin. A good example is the sticky residue left on after you peel a price tag from a product. Once that annoying residue is gone, the product’s surface looks smooth, renewed, and feels even.

AHAs exert their benefit on the surface of skin and are best for normal to dry skin. BHA (salicylic acid) can work on the surface, too, but it also absorbs deeper into skin, getting inside the pore lining. That’s better for those with normal to oily skin, especially when clogged pores and bumps are a problem.

Which Paula’s Choice Skincare AHA Is Best for You

Once you’ve decided that an AHA is appropriate for your skin type, you need to choose which one is best for you. Paula’s Choice Skincare has offered AHA products for years since we started in 1995, as the research supporting the benefits of routine exfoliation is clear. 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 would be best. You can use it daily or every other day.

For a more advanced approach to using an AHA exfoliant that also include potent anti-aging ingredients or a more concentrated depth of exfoliation, these options are formulated to target specific concerns.

Your concern: Anti-Aging and Dry Skin. Our RESIST Daily Smoothing Treatment 5% AHA pairs 5% glycolic acid with 0.5% BHA (salicylic acid) to add a bit more exfoliation if you also have congested pores. This soothing lotion formula also works as hydrating moisturizer loaded with anti-aging peptides, ceramides and antioxidants.

Your concern: Advanced signs of aging. RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA has a liquid texture designed to enhance its exfoliating power. You also get multiple anti-aging ingredients for more dramatic, overnight results to improve an uneven skin tone, dullness, dryness, the look of wrinkles, and rough skin.

Your concern: Brown, dark spots. Unprotected sun exposure causes early signs of aging in the short term and long term. One of the results are mottled areas of brown or dark spots. RESIST Triple Action Dark Spot Eraser with 7% AHA Lotion can work far beyond what other skin-lightening products can do. This innovative formula also contains 2% hydroquinone, widely regarded as the gold standard for lightening discolorations.

This light moisturizing lotion texture can be used as a spot treatment or can be layered with your favorite Paula’s Choice Skincare moisturizer, serum, or targeted solution. If you’re diligent about using it every day and consistently wear an SPF 30 or greater over it, many people tell us they begin seeing dramatic improvement in about 8 weeks.

Your concern: Dry, uneven skin, or red, raised bumps on your arms and legs. Anti-aging isn’t just for your face. A luxurious body moisturizer enriched with antioxidants and skin-restoring ingredients can help a lot. Our RESIST Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA offers all that along with a concentrated amount of glycolic acid to focus on removing built-up surface dead skin on your body. Loofahs and scrubs from the neck down are harsh and potentially damaging which is not a good thing to inflict on skin. A leave-on gentle AHA exfoliant improves the signs of aging (especially on the décolleté), smooths uneven skin tone, and softens and hydrates skin. It’s excellent for diminishing the look of raised, hard red bumps that often show up on arms and legs.

How to Use a Leave-On AHA Exfoliant

It can take some amount of experimenting to see which AHA works before for you. Some people can use higher concentrations with no problem, while others find lower concentrations work best. In addition, some people find that alternating a higher and lower strength AHA is ideal. Our RESIST Skin Resurfacing & Smoothing Set is perfect for that.

Apply your leave-on AHA exfoliant after cleansing and toning; there’s no need to wait for your toner to dry. You can absolutely layer other products such as boosters, targeted solutions, serums, and moisturizers over it. This type of layering won’t make the AHA less effective in any way!

Because of how AHAs work it’s vitally important to wear an SPF 30 or greater every day. Of course, it’s always the most important last step of any daytime skincare routine, but even more so if you are using a leave-on AHA exfoliant!

You can use an AHA exfoliant twice a day or just a night. Our weekly RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA can be used once a week or every other day. Again, it takes experimenting to see what gives you the ideal results.

For much more on the benefits of AHA exfoliants, see our article How to Exfoliate 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 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, issue 8, pages 9-17 and November 2010, issue 3, pages 135-142
Archive of Dermatological Research, June 1997, issue 7, 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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