PSA: Winter is coming and paying subscribers were treated to a whole Plan Of Action to prepare for the season, but I feel compelled to shout at all and sundry to get your moisturization in order. Don’t let your hands get dry, mofos, or you’ll never recover - same for the lips. Okay, over and out and on to exfoliation.
The first thing I will ask you to do is to stop thinking of exfoliation as grainy scrubs or peeling masks or taking a loofah to your skin or otherwise sloughing dead skin off your person by means of elbow grease. Yes, that too is exfoliation, but only in the same way that the Flintstones’ “car” is transportation. We have airplanes now! In skincare, that translates to chemical exfoliation, and that’s what we’re going to talk about.
If you’re stuck on manual exfoliation, I can only refer you to what I had to say about them in my missive on cleansers. Even if you do properly use one that’s very gentle and unobjectionable, it is still inferior to chemical exfoliation because (a) it only affects the outermost surface of your skin, and (b) it doesn’t renew or soothe or hydrate or repair your skin as chemical exfoliants can. Because chemical exfoliants are MAGICAL.
You may be tempted to run out and buy whole bottles of acid after my eternally waxing rhapsodic over them, but please be 100% certain you have the rest of your routine firmly in place and extremely well-established before you do this. Especially your moisturizer (which I will blab about next week, fyi.) Get your house in order first, please! This is a category of products that must be introduced into a happy, stable home life.
And I swear to god and the devil and all other galactic forces up to and including Michelle Obama that if you put this on your face and skip sunscreen, we’re done-zo. Done. Zo.
Fear Not: A lot of people get freaked out by the fact that these are acids and omg, you’re telling me to put acid on my face, etc. And while it’s good to approach these products with respect and caution, please be assured there is no reason to be afraid of putting a well-formulated acid product on your face. You probably put citric acid in your mouth all the time, after all, and you can’t swing a dead cat (MY GOD where did that saying come from) in the skincare world without hearing someone gush about hyaluronic acid. So please remember that “acid” does not immediately mean “will eat your face off.”
And even if you already know that, it’s shockingly easy to fall for some of the bullshit out there. There’s always been a lot of scaremongering in the skincare world, but lately the “clean” and “natural” jagoffs are working overtime to make us afraid of safe and effective ingredients. You might hear - or even just instinctively feel - that the better exfoliating alternative is fruit enzymes or apple cider vinegar. But they’re not, I promise you - and not only because they aren’t as effective, but because they can be really damaging to your skin. [extensive monologue on ACV and fruit enzymes has been deleted]
Healthy Reservations: The above does not mean that you should definitely use a chemical exfoliant on your face, or just jump right in. First, if you have a skin condition like rosacea or eczema or anything that makes your skin more sensitive or reactive, you absolutely should proceed with EXTREME CAUTION and if you have a dermatologist then please don’t do anything without their input!
When you do decide to go ahead with an exfoliant or two, don’t just throw it on your face every day and see what happens. More than any other category of skincare (except for retinoids), chemical exfoliants need to be gradually introduced. Some of us have very hardy skin that can handle splashing on a new exfoliant every day out of the blue, but most people do not. Even if a product says it can be used every day, you shouldn’t start at daily use until you know what your skin can handle.
Also, as previously mentioned, your skin may purge. So be prepared for that possibility and don’t start this new and glorious practice like a week before your wedding, okay.
Terminology: Because marketers gonna market, you will often find products whose chief ingredient is an exfoliant but you wouldn’t know it until you look at the ingredients. This is annoying, because you might just think you’re picking up a standard lotion or a face oil or even a cleanser or whatever, but you’re really getting a dose of exfoliation and you might not even know it.
Some of the key words used in a product name or description that always make me perk up my ears because they are probably exfoliants include:
Fortunately, consumers are savvier these days and companies are responding, so you are likely to see mention of exfoliating properties or the actual ingredient in the product’s description, if not its name. But just in general, don’t put anything on your skin if you don’t know what the hell it is. “Glow” is not an ingredient. If only.
Over-exfoliation: This is so unbelievably common because of the two points above: people use a product more often than their skin can handle, and/or they’re using more exfoliants than they even realize. You can tell it’s happening because your skin freaks out, usually in an unprecedented way. It is protesting, and you must listen to it! Don’t be a heartless industrial mill owner faced with starving protesting employees!
Sorry, I was gonna insert a gif from that moment with the strike-breakers where Margaret on the balcony is all impassioned with the “Mr. Thornton, I beg you to talk to these men!” and what have you, but I got distracted and lost in North & South gifs and anyway, a dose of Thornton will leave you about as glowing as any exfoliator. Man, if they could distill the essence of this gif and bottle it, I’d write one newsletter and it would read “put it on your face, the end,” I mean look at him. Look. Look back at meeee.
Protests against exfoliation usually take the form of extreme dryness, a full-face breakout, and/or actual pain - like, everything stings, even stuff you know your skin usually likes.
This is why I cautioned before about introducing products one by one to your face, and also why you don’t start out whole-hog with an exfoliant. My rule of thumb is to use an exfoliant as often as my skin will tolerate it. Start out using it half as often as the instructions advise - or even less, tbh, 2-3 days a week instead of 7 is a smart start. Then if your skin is agreeable, try every other day. If the results are there but barely noticeable and your skin seems cool with it, try it every day. Like that. You kind of need to have a dialogue going with your skin at all times, and seek consent for this kinky shit you’re suddenly introducing into your relationship.
So why, with all these many cautions and caveats, am I so in love with chemical exfoliation and downright evangelical about it? Because OH MY GOD THE GLOW, YOU GUYS. These products are seriously skin-changing - which often means life-changing, for a lot of people.
Just brace yourself. Once you find the right product for your skin and fit it into your routine, you will threaten to throat-punch anyone who tries to take it away from you. This is truly The Good Shit, y’all.
There are two main types of exfoliating acids that you can easily get and a few that I mentally put in the category of OTHER, so that’s how I’ll attack this.
***ATTENTION NON-U.S.A. PEOPLE!***
In the US, we have long been in a love affair with these acids and trust our consumers with them over the counter, as long as the company can prove that it’s not harmful when used as directed - them’s the rules. And it’s been great, as far as I know, no one has melted their damn face off. But if you are not in the US, I’m sorry to tell you that these ingredients are often regulated to the point of being virtually useless. In the EU, lactic acid is capped at 2.5% and salicylic at 2% (it used to be much less, so rejoice!) and in most Asian countries, salicylic acid can’t be more than 0.5%. Those are just the ones I know about, so you might need to do your own research in your own country.
For practical purposes, the most important thing is to realize that global companies make different formulas of the same product for different markets. That means that that the acid toner that I use here in America might be wildly different than the one you use, even if you go out and buy the exact same thing with the exact same name from the exact same manufacturer. For instance, very infamously, Sunday Riley Good Genes (a beloved lactic acid product) is a powerhouse in the US and total weak-sauce in Europe.
I can only be of so much help, unfortunately, since I am not all-knowing. But thank god for the internet because you can google around and get answers - or email a company and ask if the formulation for your country is different. And there’s no shame in begging a friend who might be visiting the US to bring home a bag of skincare for you! Employ your saddest puppydog eyes and offer to pay the checked bag fee.
The first and only time I went to a dermatologist, it was because I have this birthmark on my cheek that suddenly went a little lighter and became raised and I was scared of potential cancer. (And I had insurance so I could afford to care about it, America is fucked up but WHATEVER.) (Side note: it was fine, birthmarks just do that sometimes.) The rather old man flipped his magnifying glasses down over his eyes, leaned in, immediately jerked back a bit and said “Wow, you’ve got a lot of blackheads.” Naturally I reared back, sucking in my breath and putting a hand to my throat and, appalled, hissed, “Bitch!”
Haha, just kidding, I killed him.
I honestly have mixed feelings about this incident because I genuinely didn’t even notice my blackheads at all, and you know what a blessing it is to get through like 30 years of your life without feeling like there’s anything wrong with your face? Let me tell you, it’s fucking glorious. Then this asshole comes along and has me examining my nose and wondering why skin that looked perfectly acceptable to me was apparently not. Fucker. BUT ALSO, it started my first foray into pretty serious skincare research, because a doctor said it should be fixed so I figured I should fix it, and I hated the product he gave me. It was some kind of gel he sold out of the office, it was sticky and I saw no change after using it. Turns out it was because it was glycolic which I learned is not what you use for blackheads, did I mention many dermatologists are shit? Yeah.
What you need for blackheads and for any kind of skin congestion or acne (as well as for enlarged pores and texture) is BHA, which pretty much is only one thing: salicylic acid. Fun fact: it’s derived from willow bark and is strongly related to aspirin, which means that it has anti-inflammatory and soothing properties to it. Huzzah! This automatically makes it better for your skin than a scrub, see. Um, unless you’re allergic to aspirin.
The relevant thing about salicylic acid is that, in the proper formulation (meaning a high enough percentage and within the right pH), it’s oil soluble and cleans inside the pore lining. So it’s the only thing that can actually get in there and break up what’s clogging your skin. It’s fucking brilliant, man. You tend to see nearly immediate results - within a few days, for most people - and if you use it consistently then you will see a reduction in acne, pore size, and redness, and your skin will take on a smoother texture overall.
Sadly, there are just not a ton of great BHAs out there. I cannot understand why the the industry has allowed Paula’s Choice to nearly 100% corner the market on this category, but there it is. Now look, you will definitely see a lot of salicylic in the drugstore - nearly always marketed to teenagers, always in anti-acne products for clear skin - but they are nearly ALWAYS paired with bad-for-skin ingredients (like menthol, fragrance, tons of denatured alcohol) or formulated in an non-optimal way (wrong pH, not strong enough amount of salicylic). When at my most broke, I have tried some of the better-looking drugstore products. Every time, over the last 15+ years, I’ve wound up up saving my pennies and going back to my chosen Paula’s Choice BHA product - which actually isn’t THAT expensive anyway.
Interjection here about formulations: In order to really work on unclogging pores, salicylic needs
1. to be at a concentration of between 0.05% and 2% (1-2% is most effective)
2. to be at a pH between 3 and 5 (the optimal range is 3 to 4, but it can be effective at higher)
3. to stay on the skin and not be washed off (lower percentages in face washes are okay, but are not going to unclog any pores)
Side note: small concentrations of it, like 0.5% and less, are not so much exfoliating as they are there to help other ingredients penetrate the skin - so you may see it in some products that are not exfoliating, and that’s fine.
Right so I’ll cut to the chase here and say that it’s all about Paula’s Choice. If I had a dollar for every person I’ve turned onto their BHA products, I’d have…I mean at least a couple hundred bucks, let’s be reasonable. My personal favorite, which I have used ever since that asshole leaned in and SLANDERED MY FACE SKIN, is their Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid.
The old packaging is on the left, and I prefer it. But then again, I still remember when it was $15 and came in an orange bottle. Apparently it’s their global bestseller and has been referred to as a cult product, which hey boy howdy I did not realize I was part of a cult all these years. Live and learn.
Anyway, some people (though they are few) don’t like this product for various reasons. Some say it leaves a residue (doesn’t happen to me, but also it’s possible to use to much) and some find it too strong or otherwise unpleasant or irritating. And if that’s you, then I’ll just point out that Paula’s Choice really does have a corner on the market and for good reason: they have BHA in several different strength and formulations. Maybe 1% BHA is more agreeable to your skin, or maybe you prefer a lotion, or a gel, or a spot treatment. They have a wide variety, as well as an educated customer service team who will chat with you to figure out which is likely to be your jam and BEST OF ALL they sell samples and travel sizes. At least in the U.S. they do. (Other great thing: they’ve expanded into other global markets in recent years, hurray!) If you’re not sure which to try out, buy a bunch of samples and experiment. If you make the wrong choice, one of the best things is that they have a great return policy. They also do a ton of sales - the best one comes in Nordstrom’s summer VIP sale, it’s when we all stock up.
Like I said, I’ve tried other things and nothing does as good a job. The closest by far has been Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid but it didn’t handle my congested pores as well as PC. But it works fantastically for a lot of people and it might be great for you! It’s honestly the only one I can think of that’s even worth recommending. The Ordinary makes one but most people I’ve heard from say the formulation is awful (drying, irritating, leaves a sticky finish) and when you calculate price per ounce, it’s significantly more expensive than PC or Cosrx
Also, just as an aside, there’s no need to put your BHA anywhere except where you need it. For instance, I only put it on my nose and chin most days, with occasional swipes across my forehead and apples of my cheeks - that is, where I have visible pores and where pimples typically drop by to say hello. It clears up/prevents the pimples and makes the pores look smaller. Oh, my love.
One of my favorite skincare memories (yes, I have those) was a few years ago when a friend asked me if she could touch my face because it looked like someone polished it smooth, and then a few days later another friend asked why I was glowing as though I’d just experienced multiple life-changing orgasms when she knew for a fact I’d just been sitting in front of the TV all weekend. Even I was taken aback by it every time I passed a mirror because what the actual fuck, my skin looked, like, expensive and posh. (Never fear, the rest of me remains reliably schlub.)
This transformation took place about 6 weeks after adding an AHA into my routine. I did it because my skin felt, like, thick or something. Like it was a linoleum floor with a waxy build-up, ya know? And a powerful AHA immediately took that feeling away, and my skin instantly looked brighter. But I stuck with it and it went beyond that, into some magical territory.
You too can be a glowing ethereal goddess! Hopefully. We just gotta find the right AHA for you. It stands for alpha hydroxy acid, and it improves fine lines, skin texture, hyperpigmentation, and sun damage, and it stimulates new collagen and elastin cells as well as improving skin’s hydration. IT IS MAGIC. As long as you wear sunscreen, anyway, because it basically unglues the upper layer of dead skin cells and reveals all the bright shiny baby skin that was hiding under there - and baby skin is especially vulnerable to the sun.
There are a few different kinds, so let’s go over them briefly:
This is the most common one, because of its proven effectiveness and it’s been studied like whoa. It’s very often seen all on its own in products, and 5% or more is generally what’s effective, and if you get above 30% (found in weekly “peel” treatments) you’re getting pretty hard core. It’s the smallest molecule of all the AHAs, which means that it penetrates the skin more easily - great for fast results, but also it can be too irritating for some people. If you have very sensitive skin, it may not be the best choice.
Second only to glycolic in its ubiquity, but it’s been just as studied and proven effective. The molecule is slightly larger than glycolic, which means its gentler but also it’ll probably take a little longer to see results. Weirdly, it’s rarely by itself in formulations - it’s often combined with glycolic. It can be as low as 2% (good for hydration but not much else) but to exfoliate it needs to be more like 5-10%. It can have a strange sour-milk smell, because it’s a milk derivative. So if you have a milk allergy, be wary.
Not very common outside of Asian skincare, but it’s great stuff and definitely a good choice if you need something mild and/or you’re not in a big hurry for dramatic results. It’s very much worth looking into if you have extremely reactive skin. Or extremely young skin. There’s not a ton of research so no one really knows about percentage, but it’s usually offered at at least 20% and I think I’ve seen 40% before. Some toners are as low as 5%, if you want to play the long game.
Malic, Tartaric, Phytic, Citric
Or as I like to think of them, The Enhancers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these alone in an exfoliating product, they are more supporting players. They really don’t do much on their own, I just wanted you to know what they are if you see them on an ingredient list.
OH MY GOD THIS EMAIL IS SO LONG SORRY. But the good news is that this bit is kinda short. The bad news is, that’s because I don’t have a ton of recommendations. AHAs are very often found in mid- to high-end skincare, with few truly great options in the super-affordable range.
Because of that and because I honestly prefer as few products as possible, I prefer high concentration treatments every other week, a.k.a at-home peels. It suits me better, but I’m not super comfortable recommending it as a course of action to someone new to skincare, so I’m going to steer clear of it for the most part. I’ll tell you instead about less powerful but still extremely effective treatments, okay? Okay!
A big fave in the skincare world lately is Pixi Glow Tonic - and I feel compelled to mention it because (a) they really made the packaging very tempting, didn’t they? and (b) it’s just all over the place, it seems, so you’ve probably encountered a display at your local Target or wherever. It’s a decent starter option, but the pH is higher than optimal and the acid percentage is low, which weakens the glycolic punch. Also it has a ton of witch hazel, which is very drying/irritating for most people, and it’s overpriced for what it is… so yeah, that’s that.
Instead, my recommendation is to look at options from The Inkey List, The Ordinary, Alpha Skin Care, Cosrx, and MUAC/BellEvolve. Here’s a terrific though slightly dated run-down of a ton of lactic acid products to consider. And again: Paula’s Choice just has a ton of great ones, they really know their way around an acid, man. I honestly feel safe in recommending these companies’ AHA products to you even though I haven’t used them myself, because I read a ton and hear a boatload of opinions and also I looked some stuff up about all of them because I’m always wondering if I should move to a different product and what’s out there in the affordable range.
Many people decide to splash out on their AHA product and I will say that there are a LOT of great formulas that are actually worth it in the more expensive ranges (Drunk Elephant Baby Facial, Sunday Riley Good Genes, Kate Somerville ExfoliKate, and so on.) But they’re not likely to be more effective than a decently formulated cheaper one - it’s just that you might really enjoy using it more because it just feels nicer, or your skin seems happier with it, or whatever. But don’t feel like you have to start with the luxury version of an AHA.
Programming note: There are some options that are decently affordable and work beautifully, but they come in the form of soaked cotton pads. I’m never going to recommend them because of the environmental impact of that. It’s not happening. (These asshole have no excuse for not offering the product as a toner or serum that I can splash on my face with bare hands or a reusable cotton pad instead, they’re not getting my money. I swear I might actually start a consumer campaign to end this bullshit, it’s infuriating.) The actual planet and the futures of every human living on it are emphatically not on the list of Things I’m Willing To Sacrifice For Prettier Skin and yes that is my soapbox and I’ll clamber down off it now. Just please, for both our sakes, don’t try to convince me those products are great.
Holy god, how am I still talking about exfoliant? Will I ne’er shut up? Let’s try to make this quick, here are some others to consider, especially if any of the above don’t work for you.
Some people find these more effective (especially on the body, I think) or in some cases just more convenient than separating out the AHA and BHA. But for other people they can be irritating, just like using both an AHA and a BHA product minutes apart would be irritating. I tend to think that using an AHA/BHA combo is probably a decent idea for most people whose skin can handle both types of acid, but also the BHA in these combos tends to be pretty weak and not enough to unclog pores. The only reason I’ve never bothered even trying one is because I’m in love with my PC 2% BHA and you will pry it from my cold dead etc. Also my skin needs strong BHA every day but is fine with less frequent AHA, so using dedicated products makes sense for me.
These are poly hydroxy acids and they’re relatively new so you don’t see a lot of it out there. They often come in the form of lactobionic and gluconolactone in the ingredient list. Products might have these, but they are often blended up with AHAs instead of standing on their own - which is a shame, because a lot of people might could benefit from a dedicated product. They work more slowly than AHAs, but in the same way (that is, they basically resurface your skin.) They are much milder and gentler, and if you have very sensitive skin or rosacea - or if AHAs just piss your skin off no matter what - then this is a good option for you to try out. An especially cool thing about them is that unlike AHAs, they don’t make your skin more photosensitive! Anyway, the only products I know about that have just PHA is from The Inkey List (affordable!) and NeoStrata (less affordable!) PHAs are getting more talked about, so I’m keeping my eyes peeled for more products with them in it.
This is very common in European products but less so outside of Europe, I assume because everyone sees the word and thinks “pee” and that’s a tough obstacle to overcome. But let me assure you that it’s synthetic urea, a molecule created in a lab, and not some ox urine they collected at the slaughterhouse, okay. No one is waiting beneath a racehorse with a cup. (Also urea actually already lives in your skin as one of its natural moisturizing factors, so people need to get over it. It’s just a word, and it needs a re-brand.)
Urea is mostly extremely hydrating but in higher concentrations, it’s also exfoliating. Unfortunately if it’s a high enough amount to exfoliate as well as AHAs do, it also becomes extremely irritating - so that’s why you don’t see it by itself as an exfoliant. Frankly, it’s a brilliant ingredient, especially for stubborn dry or bumpy bits of skin - that’s why it’s most commonly found in foot and hand creams. Seek it out for that purpose, and just be aware that it has mildly exfoliating properties when you’re building a routine and want to avoid overexfoliation.
This is another option if your skin won’t stand for AHA or BHA, and is a downright godsend for people with rosacea. It’s mild, but it does the work that both AHA and BHA do - that is, it both unclogs pores and exfoliates the skin surface, while also evening out skin tone, diminishing redness, refining texture, combating hyperpigmentation, and brightening. (I am like Oprah right now, shout-singing FABULOUUUUUS!) However, it’s not as powerful as AHA and BHA and it works differently than them. The upshot here is that you can use it instead of AHA & BHA if you need to, but also in addition to AHA & BHA if you want to.
The down side is that it’s insanely hard to find in products. It’s mostly been used as a medicine (prescription in most places) for rosacea, under the names Finacea, Melazepam, Metroruboril AZ, and probably other names in other countries. It’s apparently really difficult to formulate with (hard to make it feel smooth) so that’s why there’s not a ton of non-medicinal products out there. I have three for you: The Ordinary, Paula’s Choice Booster (it’s the best of the lot but also most expensive), and Garden of Wisdom (slightly less potent but reportedly still effective.)
Azelaic acid is sourced from grain - wheat, rye, and barley - so if you have an allergy, check/write to see how the product is made!
Holy shamoley, are you tired? I am. This was almost as exhausting as sunscreen. And look, exfoliation is not easy and if you have questions, I Am Here For You. I’m happy to do a follow-up of FAQs from y’all, if need be, or to look at what you’re using and tell you if it’s a good option or not (feel free to leave a comment on this post.) The way exfoliators work and are formulated and how they interact with your other products and skin type - it’s just really complicated, and I get that. Despite having typed for so damn long on the topic, I’ve undoubtedly missed something vital in here.
Unlike other staples in the skincare routine, I’m not a big experimenter on exfoliation products - there’s just a ton of fuck-up potential and besides, when you find the one that works for you, you tend to clutch it to your heart like a precious blue-eyed kitten for whom you would DIE. I’m very confident you will find yours, but it’s not always easy and it may require some experimenting.
I can’t think of anything more to say, I am tapped. I will be back to you soon with a dissertation on moisturizers. Right now, I’m gonna get a drink and maybe a felafel sammich.