Your Skin On Acid: How to Choose The Right Exfoliant

by Carissa Zadwarny


Your Skin On Acid: How to Choose The Right Exfoliant

Not all acids are created equal.

Of all the skincare products one can hoard, acid exfoliants are hands down the most game changing to have in your routine. If you’re a skincare newbie, you might not know where to start with exfoliants, and you’re definitely not alone. It’s easy to confuse BHA with AHA and salicylic with glycolic — I mean, the names on their own are a tongue twister waiting to happen. We spoke to Dr. Nancy Samolitis, MD, FAAD of FACILE dermatology + boutique and she gave us the full scoop on how to choose the right acid for your skin type. 

When it comes to dissecting the differences between glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids, Dr. Samolitis breaks it down. “Glycolic and lactic acids are in the chemical compound family known as alpha-hydroxy (AHA) and salicylic acids is a different family of acids, known as beta-hydroxy acids (BHA),” she says. While they’re different, they all have the same end goal. Each one stimulates chemical exfoliation, aka dissolving the most superficial layer of skin cells. In other words, glowing radiant skin is a side effect of an effective acid working its magic.

However, acids aren’t one size fits all — different acids address different skin concerns. “AHAs like Glycolic and lactic acid are most commonly used to treat signs of sun damage including dullness, brown spots, and dehydration,” explains Dr. Samolitis. Prone to redness? Look to BHAs, which are oil-soluble and can penetrate deep into pores where oil is produced. They also have anti-inflammatory effects and reduce redness and swelling.

Acne sufferers, take note: there’s one acid that stands above the rest to treat troublesome zits. “Salicylic acid is most commonly used to treat acne because it breaks down oil and dead skin cells that are clogging pores, and reduces the redness and inflammation that is commonly seen in active acne,” says Dr. Samolitis. That’s why we see this ingredient in many spot treatments — it stops zits in their tracks.

“Acids promote smooth, glowing skin and stimulate new collagen production.”

When it comes to skin types, Dr. Samolitis had some crucial tips to share. “Someone with oily and acne-prone skin would be best served by using Salicylic acid, either in a cleanser or a spot treatment,” she says. “BHAs can penetrate more easily through oil.” For drier skin types, glycolic acid is a real game changer. It’s the smaller molecule of the two common AHAs, so it penetrates deeper, works faster, and enhances hydration. Sensitive skin types should opt for a less harsh acid. “Lactic acid, a larger AHA molecule, only penetrates very superficially and is therefore the gentlest option for sensitive skin,” she says.

If acid exfoliants are new to your routine, take Dr. Samolitis’ advice and go slow. “There may be a trial and error period at the beginning, and it can be a bit unpredictable to know how your skin will respond to acids based on the amount of oil your skin naturally produces,” she says. “Plan on possibly having some redness and dryness after using the acid, and start with a single application before waiting a few days or even a week to see how your skin responds.”

For long-lasting results, Dr Samolitis has one piece of advice: be consistent. “Acids promote smooth, glowing skin and stimulate new collagen production deep in the dermal layer when used regularly.”

We couldn’t leave you hanging without Dr. Samolitis’ must-have acid exfoliants. Here are her top picks for glowing skin:

FACILE Clean  — a daily cleanser with a low concentration of salicylic acid and fruit enzymes
Sente Exfoliating Cleanser — a gentle exfoliator that uses glycolic acid

PCA Smoothing Toner — a lightly exfoliating daily toner featuring lactic acid
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 — this cult favorite contains both lactic and salicylic acid

At-Home Peel
FACILE Peel — this stronger peel can be used weekly or monthly and  contains salicylic and glycolic acid

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