The acid test: What’s the best exfoliator for your skin type?

Confusing jargon abounds in the beauty world and nowhere is that more the case than when it comes to exfoliation, an area rife with acronyms (apparently AHA is not just an exclamation of surprise) and words with way too many syllables – try saying gluconolactone three times fast, if you don’t believe us.

But ‘glowy’ skin is what everyone wants right now and, in order to get that, you’ve got to slough away dead skin cells. So, what’s the best way to do it? Acid exfoliants are getting a lot of airtime at the moment, but are they always better than traditional scrubs?

We asked a skincare expert for the lowdown on exfoliants, and discovered it’s all about the As, Bs and Ps…


What are acid exfoliants?

“Acid exfoliants work by breaking down the glue that holds dead skin cells to the surface of the skin,” explains Daniel Isaacs, chief product officer at Medik8. “This allows them to be naturally shed, speeding up cellular turnover and revealing a brighter, smoother complexion.”

They are a type of chemical exfoliant, usually applied with a cotton pad, as opposed to mechanical exfoliators, such as scrubs or brushes, which physically remove the dead skin.


What are the different types of acids?

Acid exfoliants can be broken down into three types: alpha-hydroxy acids (for example, glycolic and lactic acid); beta-hydroxy acids (such as salicylic acid); and polyhydroxy acids (which include the aforementioned gluconolactone).

“AHAs deeply exfoliate to plump and refine the skin, while BHAs penetrate deep into pores to clarify the skin and keep blemishes at bay,” Isaacs says. “And PHAs polish the uppermost layer of skin to brighten and renew the complexion at surface level.”

What’s the best type of exfoliant for each skin type?

People with normal, healthy skin can benefit from using all three acids at once, because – according to Isaacs, “each acid exhibits slightly different properties, so they can be used in tandem to enhance overall skin health and radiance.”

“For sensitive skin types who are worried that acids may be too irritating, it might be useful to find a formula that uses only PHAs,” he recommends. “The molecules that make up PHAs are much larger in size. This means they cannot penetrate skin as deeply as traditional AHAs and BHAs. Instead, they work exclusively on the skin’s surface without disturbing the delicate layers that lie beneath. This ensures optimum skin renewal with minimal irritation.”

Handy information on how to use a chemical exfoliator 🔊

A post shared by Glossier (@glossier) on

Are there any ‘dos and don’ts’ to be aware of when using acid exfoliants?

“Generally speaking, most over-the-counter acids are safe and easy-to-use, even when combined with other skincare products. Just don’t apply them to broken or damaged skin,” Isaacs warns. “And if you’re using a high-strength solution, make sure you follow the instructions exactly to avoid unwanted irritation.”

Some people think that hydroxy acids shouldn’t be used with retinol products, but that’s not the case. In fact, they complement each other.

“Retinoids essentially cause old cells to retire faster. At Medik8, we actually recommend a combination of hydroxy acids with retinol,” Isaacs says. “The retinoids speed up cellular renewal and the acids ensure that the retired cells can be efficiently shed from the surface, so you can enjoy flawless, radiant skin even faster.”

As for combining chemical and mechanical exfoliators, many beauty buffs like to mix them, using an acid in the evening and a scrub in the morning to carry away the dead skin cells that were loosened the night before.

Also, it’s important to follow a chemical exfoliant with sunscreen the next day, as they can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.

Where can you find each type of exfoliant?

So now you know which type of exfoliator is best for your skin, here’s where you can find those all-important ingredients.

For normal/combination skin:

(Paula’s Choice/PA)

Paula’s Choice Resist Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA, £34

For acne prone skin:

(This Works/PA)

This Works Evening Detox Spray On Exfoliant, £28


DCL Multi Action Penta Peel, £58, CultBeauty


Glossier Solution, £19

For sensitive skin:


Medik8 White Balance Click Oxy-R, £59

(La Mer/PA)

La Mer The Replenishing Oil Exfoliator, £85 (available May 1)

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