Exfoliation for beginners

Exfoliation facts revealed, myths busted

Why should you exfoliate?

Daily, gentle exfoliation with a leave-on formula is a complete game-changer for every skin type and skin concern. Adding this one step to your routine is the fastest way to get glowing, smooth, clear skin and remember:  most of us can’t see or feel the dead skin cells that keep us from our freshest, most vibrant complexion.

It’s a common belief that if your skin doesn’t feel rough, you don’t need to exfoliate. But even if your skin looks great without exfoliation, adding that step will help keep your skin healthy, hydrated and radiant. Common chemical exfoliants like AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) do this by  helping shed dead skin cells more quickly, the way it did before age and environmental factors began to slow down that process. These acids are also the gentlest way to exfoliate and they nourish & transform the look of your skin in a way no brush or scrub could.

Besides, there’s even more to exfoliation than sloughing off dead skin, as AHAs and BHA also help reduce the visible signs of sun damage and the look of fine lines & wrinkles.

Though facial scrubs are popular, most are too harsh and abrasive; they can cause tiny tears that damage the skin over time, even if that damage isn’t immediately visible. Even the best scrubs (which might have their benefits) can’t produce the same results as an AHA or BHA exfoliant.

For those new to the world of skincare, the HOWs and WHYs of exfoliation with leave-on products can be a bit confusing. Here we answer your most common questions with the research, so you have all the facts.

So scrubs are bad for your skin?

Myth: Your skin isn’t being damaged unless it immediately shows signs of irritation, so scrubs with natural ingredients can’t be harmful.

Fact: Abrasive ingredients, even if they’re natural, can be damaging – though your skin might not show it right away. Most exfoliator scrubs are bad for your skin. Any scrub that scratches your skin compromises its surface by leaving tiny tears which lead to sensitivity and eventually, the visible signs of ageing that you’re trying to offset in the first place.

The right non-abrasive scrub with gentle, rounded beads can be a great extra cleansing step, but if a scrub feels even the tiniest bit scratchy on the back of your hand, don’t use it.

SPF for beginners

How is AHA different from BHA and which is best?

Myth: AHA and BHA are pretty much the same.

Fact: AHA and BHA exfoliants have both shared and varying benefits: all kinds of chemical exfoliants smooth the skin, reduce the look of fine lines & wrinkles, help even out skin tone, hydrate and restore radiance. AHAs are more hydrating and have more research showing their efficacy in diminishing visible signs of sun damage. BHA can help there too, but its unique benefit is working inside the pore. So if you’re prone to breakouts, bumps, redness, or clogged/enlarged pores, BHA is the exfoliant for you.

Can you use AHA and BHA exfoliants at the same time?

Myth: You have to use both AHA and BHA to get good results.

Fact: You can use an AHA and BHA in your routine, but it’s also fine to stick with one or the other. If you want to use both, try using one in the morning and the other at night, or on alternate days. It’s also fine to layer your exfoliants, though that tends to be too much for most people.

SPF for beginners

What’s the strongest percentage of an AHA or BHA that you can use?

Myth: A higher percentage is always the better choice.

Fact: Paula's Choice BHAs are available in varying strengths to satisfy all skin types, concerns and needs.

1% BHA works best for sensitive skin.
2% BHA is for daily use. We offer three different textures to suit all skin types, but the SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant  is our iconic formula.
Our AHAs are also available in a range of strengths.
5% AHA works best for sensitive skin or those new to AHAs, smoothing and providing anti-ageing benefits.
8% AHA products can have a multitude of benefits, depending on the form of AHA used. We offer a liquid texture composed of a 6% mandelic acid and 2% lactic acid blend.
10% AHA provides advanced smoothing and anti-ageing benefits.

In short, there’s no “right answer” or particular percentage that’s best for everyone. Think of it like a scale, always tipped toward benefits. And keep in mind that you can combine or alternate percentages; many people use a lower percentage daily and a higher percentage a few times a week to kick things up a notch. Just pay attention to how your skin responds and adjust accordingly.

How does your skin feel after exfoliation?

Myth: Your exfoliant isn’t working unless you see your skin peeling or flaking.

Fact: You shouldn’t see (or feel) a thing. AHA and BHA exfoliants work imperceptibly loosening the bonds that hold dead, dull skin to the surface, so it sheds more quickly – the way it once did naturally. BHA is oil soluble and has the added benefit of unclogging pores so oil flows easily to the skin’s surface, where the debris inside pores can easily wash away.

Don’t forget: AHAs and BHAs (when well formulated) are gentle. Because your skin’s surface is naturally acidic, acid exfoliants are naturally compatible. There’s no need to expect flaking when using a well-formulated AHA or BHA exfoliant because they work gently. BHA, in particular, has soothing properties, so it helps diminish the appearance of redness.

If you’ve had problems with AHA or BHA exfoliants in the past, they may have contained fragrance or sensitising ingredients like denatured alcohol – whereas every Paula’s Choice product is tested for irritancy & safety. You may have used too high a percentage of AHA or BHA, or your skin might respond better to a different “delivery system” like a gel rather than a liquid, for example. That’s why we offer exfoliants in a range of strengths and textures.

How do you add a chemical exfoliant to your skincare routine?

Myth: You have to exfoliate before toning, else it’s ineffective.

Fact: Cleanse, tone, then apply any AHA or BHA exfoliant, regardless of texture (gel, cream, lotion). Follow with any treatments in your routine as they’re designed to work best over exfoliated skin. During the day, finish with a broad spectrum SPF rated 30 or higher. At night, finish with a facial moisturiser.

Can you use an exfoliant around your eyes?

Myth: You should apply an exfoliant around your eyes.

Fact: Of course you don’t want to get AHA or BHA ingredients into your eyes, but all our formulas are fine to apply up to the orbital bone. After cleansing and toning, apply a light layer and blend away from the eye, as products tend to migrate a bit when they warm up to body temperature.

Can you mix exfoliants with other powerful ingredients?

Myth: You can’t exfoliate and then apply retinol or vitamin C.

Fact: Chemical exfoliants are fine to use with any of our other formulas, including those that contain retinol. All our products are formulated to work well together. Whatever you might have heard, retinol does not exfoliate the skin. Some people experience flaking from retinol, but that’s a sign that their skin isn’t tolerating the product well, not that it’s being exfoliated. Again, you shouldn’t see or feel any unwanted signs of exfoliation from AHA or BHA products, just their glowing results.

Now that you’re up to speed on the basics, what are you waiting for? Find the right exfoliant to work into your routine.


References for this information:
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, pages 1-5
Dermatology and Therapy, March 2015, pages 1-18
International Journal of Research in Engineering, Science and Management, October 2020, pages 1-2
Clinics in Dermatology, May-June 2012, pages 335-344
Archives of Dermatologic Research, July 1997, pages 404-409
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135-142
Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, July 2012, pages 488-491
Dermatology Research and Practice, February 2015, ePublication


Find out more:
Can you over-exfoliate with acids?
The difference between AHA and BHA exfoliants
How to exfoliate your body


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