Which chemical exfoliants are best?

Although chemical exfoliants have been in the retail market for decades, they have gained popularity in recent years due to drugstores’ increased ability to fulfill supply and demand. Additionally, so many varieties of chemical exfoliants now exist, making it easier than ever to find one that best fits your skin type.

What to know about a chemical exfoliant

Main uses for a chemical exfoliant

If you suffer from acne or want to improve your skin’s appearance, you may already know the benefits of exfoliating. Exfoliating is the removal of dry skin by using a chemical, grainy material or a tool. Using chemicals to exfoliate does not require scrubbing, as most solutions only need to be applied topically as part of a regimen. Chemical exfoliants help brighten skin and reduce the look of pores, scarring and hyperpigmentation. Using a chemical exfoliant provides quick, noticeable results and can be safe for all skin types depending on which chemical you use and how often it is applied. 

Types of chemical exfoliants

No two chemical exfoliants are alike, and they can exist as cleansers, powders, peels or liquid solutions. However, all chemical exfoliants are naturally occurring. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) are water-soluble acids that act in the peeling of the skin, revealing newer, softer skin underneath. Some examples of AHA include lactic and glycolic acid. 

Beta hydroxy acids (BHA) are oil-soluble acids and can penetrate the skin at a deeper level to clear pores and remove excess oil. Salicylic acid is the most well known BHA and is often used to help treat acne in addition to exfoliating.

Retinoids are another form of chemical exfoliant used to help fight signs of aging, sun damage and scarring. The most common retinoid is retinol which can be found in many anti-aging creams and serums. 

How to use a chemical exfoliant

When choosing the best chemical exfoliant for you, it is recommended to think of your current skincare routine, lifestyle and which of these products would work if added. Depending which product you choose, the instructions for application may vary. For example, if you plan on using a facial chemical peel, the directions may tell you to apply a small amount to your face and gently massage your skin for a few minutes for the peeling to take effect. Other chemical exfoliants may require you to leave it on your skin overnight and wash off in the morning. 

What side effects you can expect

When using a chemical exfoliant to remove dry skin, dirt and oil, you may want to take note of your skin’s own sensitivity first. Chemical exfoliants have been known to cause some itching, redness and flakiness of the skin. These are typical side effects, and most dermatologists recommend following with a moisturizer to minimize these effects. 

How much you can expect to spend on a chemical exfoliant

Chemical exfoliants can be costly, but their growing availability is making them more affordable. You can expect to spend anywhere between $8-$60 on chemical exfoliants. 

What’s the best chemical exfoliant to buy?

Top chemical exfoliant

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant 

What you need to know: Formulated for all skin types, this liquid exfoliant is easy to apply and leave on all day or night. 

What you’ll love: The active ingredient is salicylic acid, which helps clear pores and removes oil, dirt and dry skin cells from the surface. This solution is also made with green tea and methylpropanediol, both of which aid in anti-aging and hydration. 

What you should consider: Some users claim it made their skin worse and caused more breakouts.

Where to buy: Sold by Sephora

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser 

What you need to know: This is a mild cleanser packed with highly effective chemical exfoliants and biodegradable buffing beads. 

What you’ll love: This cleanser incorporates three main acids: salicylic, lactic and glycolic, as well as small jojoba beads. These all work together to exfoliate and lift away dry, dull skin, dirt and excess oil.

What you should consider: It does contain parabens, which are not naturally derived ingredients.

Where to buy: Sold by Sephora, Murad, SkinStore and LovelySkin

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator 

What you need to know: This is a fine powder exfoliator formulated to help combat signs of aging, skin texture and reducing the look of pores.

What you’ll love: It is mild yet fast acting and removes dirt and oil to leave the skin looking brighter and smoother. Active ingredients like colloidal oatmeal and green tea help soothe and reduce redness.

What you should consider: Some users did not notice visible results, noting it might be too gentle of an exfoliator. 

Where to buy: Sold by Sephora, SkinStore and LovelySkin

Kiehl's Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate

Kiehl’s Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate 

What you need to know: This overnight chemical exfoliant is safe for all skin types and is made by a company with a long history of creating high quality skin care products.

What you’ll love: Main ingredients like quinoa husk and phytic acid help exfoliate and give skin a more youthful appearance. Using this solution is a simple addition to a nightly routine.

What you should consider: Users complain of a sticky feeling after application and the concentrate taking longer than normal to absorb into the skin.

Where to buy: Sold by Ulta

Top chemical exfoliant for the money 

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

What you need to know: This cheap, yet powerful liquid peeling solution is packed with ingredients known for their exfoliating and resurfacing properties. 

What you’ll love: This vegan, fragrance-free peeling solution has complex AHAs and BHAs working together to achieve dramatic results after a few uses according to most reviewers. 

What you should consider: This solution is strong and per instructions, users should test a small area before applying as it can cause a lot of burning and irritation upon application, as well as itching long after if used too often. 

Where to buy: Sold by Ulta, Sephora, SPACE NK and SkinStore

Good Molecules Pineapple Exfoliating Powder

Good Molecules Pineapple Exfoliating Powder

What you need to know: This gentle exfoliant lifts away dead skin with starch and fruit enzymes without irritation thanks to calming ingredients.

What you’ll love: This product allows you to control how rough or gentle of an exfoliation you want by the amount of powder to water ratio you mix together, creating a customizable experience.

What you should consider: Reviewers mention the powder does not mix well and is messy to use.

Where to buy: Sold by Ulta

NUDESTIX Lemon-Aid Detox & Glow Micro Peel

NUDESTIX Lemon-Aid Detox & Glow Micro Peel

What you need to know: This vegan-friendly facial peel provides multiple skin benefits thanks to powerful enzymes, fruit extracts and essential oils.

What you’ll love: This chemical exfoliant is made with AHAs, so it works quickly to deep clean, remove dirt and oil, and leave your skin smooth and refreshed. 

What you should consider: The instructions say to apply as a mask, which was confusing for some users because it is not a mask and does not require sitting on the skin for a long period of time.

Where to buy: Sold by Ulta and SkinStore

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser

What you need to know: This cheap cleanser is packed with exfoliating properties thanks to salicylic acid that is gentle enough to use every day. 

What you’ll love: The packaging puts this cleanser in an 8-ounce bottle with a locking pump for convenience, whether you choose to keep it near the sink or in the shower.

What you should consider: Some users mention it is too drying for them; however, using this product once a day or following with a deep moisturizer could alleviate this problem.

Where to buy: Sold by Ulta


Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.

Shelby Sears writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

Copyright 2022 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.