Chemical Exfoliants: A Breakdown
Now is a great time to get a few things clear in the realm of “good” skin. Generally, skin in the winter is at an increased risk of dryness, and the reason for this isn’t as understood as I once thought. Though dry air and constant indoor-heat are a culprit, another contributing factor exists in the slowing of cell regeneration; As skin cells die faster in cooler months, an excess buildup of dead skin can sit on the currently existing layer of protective dead cells, known as the stratum corneum. This “protective layer” is good to have around; it keeps the world out, and moisture in, and protects you from a lot of potential harm. This layer will naturally shed over time in a process called desquamation; but in the winter it can often grow too thick. To us, we will simply feel frustrated with our suddenly dull, rough skin, but a massive aid exists in the use of chemical exfoliants. Here’s why.
Chemical exfoliation has often been touted as the “easier” option over physical exfoliants, simply due to it being less likely that (so long as you’re buying the correct product), you’ll over-exfoliate. Generally, chemical exfoliants work by normalising cell turnover or “un-sticking” the glue that holds the dead cells together, allowing for new skin to come to the surface, and your follow-up products to begin working with a much higher efficiency. It’s sort of like trying to make coffee with a new coffee filter (perfect!) versus an already-been-used one. You’ll still get a coffee-like result, but that filter won’t have used the beans to their fullest potential. A fresh filter (and in our case, fresh skin!) ensures that everything is being maximized here.
A Chemical exfoliant can come in a varying array of types. Today, and thanks to the release of Glossier’s Solution, we will be focusing on leave-on Hydroxy acids, which you might also know as AHAs and BHAs.
The term AHA plays house to ingredients such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid and mandelic acid. Glycolic and lactic acids are the ingredients you’ll most likely find in skincare, and the majority of scientific studies done on AHAs revolve around the results of glycolic acid. This acid has the smallest molecular structure, so though it can reveal the most dramatic results, a glycolic acid also increases your risk of side-effects, particularly if you have darker skin. If you’re prone to side-effects with glycolic acid, it may be beneficial to try mandelic acid, which has the largest molecular structure and will therefore penetrate through fewer layers of the skin. However, it’s always great to consult a dermatologist if you really want to know what will work for you.
BHAs are almost always salicylic acid, which have probably been marketed to us endlessly during our teenage years.
AHAs make the skin sensitive to sunlight; BHAs, with their fancy, UV protective effect built right in, do not. Regardless, it’s important to be using an SPF with any kind of chemical exfoliant — sunscreen is KEY.
Most cutting-edge chemical exfoliants also makes use of something called PHAs, or Polyhydroxy Acids. According to scientific studies, these acids seem to be less irritating than AHAs, and don’t cause as much sun sensitivity. Biologique Recherche’s cult favourite P50, for instance, includes gluconolactone; a PHA present in honey and fruit juices.
It’s important to understand that acids are not the only thing to watch out for when selecting a chemical exfoliant that works for you. PH, too, can make or break a product. If it is too low, than you run the risk of inflicting serious damage to the skin. If the PH is too low, than the product will not penetrate the skin with enough potency to work. Another way to measure an acid is with its acid strength, or PKA. If the PKA and PH are closely related, this means that there is a balance between the two products which will maximize effectiveness and reduce irritation. Generally, the PH of a product will be listed on the bottle, and if not, a customer service associate should be able to help you find it. AHA products should have a PH of less than 4, and BHAs should have a PH of less than 5, generally.
Sound like a lot? Below, a few products we believe have done the job well: