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The Best Chemical Exfoliators to Clear Acne, Brighten Skin and Diminish Fine Lines

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Written by Jenna Cartusciello
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Hoping to find the best chemical exfoliator for your skin with just one purchase? It’s not an easy task, but it is possible. Chemical exfoliants are a great alternative to physical exfoliants (such as a scrubbing brush or a sand-textured face wash) because you can use them more frequently without causing irritation. They can also help your other skincare products work more effectively because they can penetrate the skin on a deeper level. But how do you know which exfoliating product will work for your skin?

First, it’s important to know the three categories of chemical exfoliators. “Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are powerful exfoliants in skincare,” says Limor Weinberg, a board-certified nurse practitioner, esthetician and CEO of The Clinic. Common AHAs include glycolic and lactic acid, and salicylic acid is the most commonly used BHA. The most prevalent PHAs include gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry — learning about BHAs, AHAs and PHAs will actually simplify the world of chemical exfoliants and make it easier to choose a product that works well with your skin type. Learn the ins and outs of chemical exfoliants below.

The 17 Best Chemical Exfoliators for Acne, Dullness and Fine Lines

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Finding the Best Chemical Exfoliators

By knowing your skincare goals before choosing a chemical exfoliant, you’ll have a better idea of which formulas will work well for you. If you want to reduce and prevent breakouts, for instance, a BHA like salicylic acid is probably the best place to start. AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid are great choices if you want to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. And if you have very sensitive skin, PHAs like gluconolactone are a good alternative to BHAs and AHAs.

To achieve multiple skincare goals with one product, consider trying a serum or toner that has multiple chemical exfoliants in different categories — such as a serum with AHAs and PHAs. This is a much better solution than trying to mix and match individualized treatments on your own, which could lead to serious irritation.

What to Consider When Choosing the Best Chemical Exfoliators

In order to pick the right chemical exfoliator, it’s important to keep the strength of the formula, active ingredients, non-active ingredients, and price in mind. Understanding your skin type will also help.


While certain types of exfoliants are more irritating than others, the concentration in a formula can make a huge difference. For example, a solution that contains multiple, potentially irritating chemical exfoliants in very low doses (such as the Selfless by Hyram Mandelic Acid and Rice Bran Serum) may be milder than a solution that contains just one exfoliant in a high dose (such as the Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA).

If you have sensitive skin, try starting out with low-concentration products, such as a 1 to 2% BHA treatment, a 2 to 5% AHA treatment or a 3 to 5% PHA treatment.

Active Ingredients

The chemical exfoliants in your serum, toner or solution are the active ingredients, and they are responsible for helping you reach your skincare goals. Here are the basics of AHAs, BHAs and PHAs to get you started:

“AHAs such as glycolic acid and lactic acid work on the surface to remove dead skin cells and improve skin texture,” says Andrei Gherghina, board-certified dermatologist and cofounder of OCEANS Dermatology. “BHAs like salicylic acid go deeper into pores and help treat acne and blackheads. PHAs such as gluconolactone are gentler alternatives to AHAs and have less chance of irritation for ppl with sensitive skin.”

Non-Active Ingredients 

Sometimes, the active ingredients in your chemical exfoliant aren’t the issue. Alcohols, fragrance and colorants are also likely to cause irritation and flaky skin, and these non-active ingredients may counteract the beneficial effects of AHAs, BHAs and PHAs. We recommend avoiding products that contain these non-active ingredients.


Unfortunately, chemical exfoliants can get pricey quickly. Products that last at least a month typically cost between $10 and $30, though some can cost as much as $100. (Indeed, our most expensive recommendation costs $84 for one ounce!) If your budget is tight, we believe you can achieve great results without having to spend more than $20 on your exfoliant.

Skin Type 

Skin types greatly influence whether products work well or not. If you have oily skin, for instance, you can likely tolerate a salicylic acid treatment which does an excellent job of absorbing excess oil and unclogging pores. If you have dry skin, you may want to start with an AHA like lactic acid instead, which doesn’t penetrate as deeply. And if you have sensitive skin, a PHA is your best bet.

What Are the Different Types of Chemical Exfoliators?

There are three categories of chemical exfoliators: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs).

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

“AHAs, sourced from fruits and milk, gently break the bonds between dead skin cells, rejuvenating your skin's texture and reducing fine lines — perfect for dry or sun-damaged skin,” says Weinberg. In addition, they tend to be milder than BHAs and a little stronger than PHAs. Common AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid and citric acid.

Beta Hydroxy Acids

“BHAs target clogged pores, reduce inflammation and manage excess oil, making them a go-to for acne and oily skin,” says Weinberg. In addition, BHA penetrates the skin more deeply than AHAs or PHAs to help clear out pores. The most common BHA used in skincare is salicylic acid — few other BHAs are mild enough.

Polyhydroxy Acids

“PHAs, similar to AHAs but gentler, suit sensitive skin types, offering moisture retention and antioxidant benefits,” says Weinberg. PHAs don’t penetrate the skin as deeply as AHAs or BHAs, which is what makes them easier on sensitive skin. Common PHAs include gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid.


Best Overall: The Inkey List Polyhydroxy Acid Toner


  • Gentle
  • Multipurpose
  • Affordable


  • May cause dryness and irritation
  • Tacky finish
  • Amazon shipping issues

Whether you’re new to chemical exfoliation or a seasoned pro, the Inkey List’s PHA Toner is a great place to start. It can be used as often as twice daily to remove dead skin cells and even out skin texture and tone. It’s also relatively affordable compared to other PHA serums, and it’s gentle enough for sensitive skin.

The downsides: If you are a beginner, we recommend applying this PHA toner every two to three days — it can still cause dryness and irritation if overused. Also, a few buyers disliked the tacky finish even after applying moisturizer on top. Note that some customers have received broken packages from Amazon.


Best Budget: The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Exfoliating Peeling Solution


  • Affordable
  • Multiple exfoliants with many benefits for clear, smooth skin
  • Soothing ingredients to counteract irritation


  • May cause irritation
  • Not for beginners
  • Can damage skin barrier without moisturizer and sunscreen

Remember that shockingly red skin serum that went viral on TikTok a few years ago? That was The Ordinary Exfoliating Peeling Solution, and it’s still one of the most popular chemical exfoliators on the market. It contains lactic, glycolic and salicylic acid, so it works to not just remove dead skin but also smooth it and clear clogged pores. The red color comes from Tasmanian pepperberry which helps reduce irritation.

The biggest downside of this formula? It’s not for beginners or those with sensitive skin, as it may cause irritation, flaky skin and overly dry skin. While some tingling is common, very strong tingling or burning and excessive redness is not — and you should wash it off if this happens.


Best Splurge: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment Face Serum


  • Multi-purpose
  • Soothing ingredients to counteract AHA
  • Improves skin appearance in 3 minutes


  • Very expensive
  • May cause dryness and irritation
  • Pump isn’t removable

Weinberg lists the Sunday Riley Good Genes Serum as one of her top choices, and it’s easy to see why. This formula’s hero ingredient is lactic acid, an AHA that clears pores, evens out hyperpigmentation and reduces dark eye circles. It even improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in as little as three minutes. Other key ingredients include brightening licorice, toning lemongrass and soothing arnica and aloe.

At $85 for just one fluid ounce, this is our most expensive recommendation. In addition, some users have noticed that overuse (more than two to three days per week) leads to dryness and sensitivity. Others wish the pump were removable, which would help when trying to extract the very last of the product.


Best for Dry Skin: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA


  • Affordable
  • Simple ingredients
  • Hydrating


  • Tacky finish
  • May cause irritation (if overused)
  • May cause flakiness

Lactic acid is one of the gentlest alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and it has hydrating properties, which makes it a great pick for dry skin. We like the Ordinary Lactic Acid serum because it’s affordable and contains a relatively simple yet hydrating ingredient list.

If you have sensitive skin, this product may still cause dryness and irritation. (We recommend applying it once every three to four days and increasing this frequency as your skin builds a tolerance.) In addition, some customers dislike the tacky feeling once the serum dries.


Best for Oily Skin: Medik8 Press and Clear Exfoliating 2% BHA Tonic


  • Time released salicylic acid
  • Gentle
  • Helps fade dark spots


  • Slightly tacky finish
  • Drying without moisturizer
  • Amazon shipping issues

If you struggle with oily skin that’s also sensitive, the Medik8 Press and Clear toner is the product for you. The key exfoliant in it is salicylic acid, and unlike other products, it’s encapsulated and therefore time released. This gives your skin a steady, low-strength dose of salicylic acid all day long, which means it’s very gentle. The formula also contains tranexamic acid, which helps fade dark spots.

This product is on the pricier side, but it will last a while with five ounces in every bottle. Bear in mind that salicylic acid is drying, so even though this toner has hydrating ingredients, you will likely need a moisturizer on top. Note that a few customers have had shipping issues when purchasing through Amazon.


Best for Combination Skin: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 25% AHA + 2% BHA Exfoliant Peel


  • Multipurpose
  • Gentle and hydrating
  • Rinse off


  • Expensive
  • May cause irritation
  • May not be strong enough depending on skin type

Dry and oily skin may seem impossible to manage, but a high quality salicylic acid treatment can reset it in no time. We like the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Exfoliant Peel because it contains a low dose of salicylic acid, a BHA that dries up oil, and a moderate dose of AHAs, which even skin tone and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. The AHAs in this formula — glycolic, lactic and mandelic acid — are gentle and hydrating. We also like that this treatment is a rinse off formula, so it’s not likely to cause long term irritation.

Unfortunately, this product is expensive at $44 for just one fluid ounce. It may also cause redness and a burning sensation if it is left on the skin for more than 10 minutes. Some buyers believe the product isn’t strong enough to effectively reduce oiliness and breakouts.


Best for Acne: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant


  • Penetrates and unclogs pores
  • Gently removes dead skin
  • Contains soothing green tea


  • Expensive
  • Drying
  • May cause irritation

If you struggle with breakouts and inflammation, chances are you need to clear out your pores and eliminate dead skin cells on a regular basis. The Paula’s Choice BHA Liquid Exfoliant can do both as it contains salicylic acid, an ingredient that does an excellent job of reducing and preventing breakouts when used properly. We love that this formula contains green tea to soothe skin.

Though this product lasts a long time, it’s expensive to buy outright. It can also be drying and somewhat irritating, and may cause flaky skin, a burning sensation and redness.


Best for Sensitive Skin: Selfless by Hyram Mandelic Acid & Rice Bran Gentle Exfoliating Serum


  • Gentle enough to use every 2-4 days
  • 3 exfoliating ingredients
  • Great for acne and mature skin


  • May not be as effective as stronger formulas
  • Expensive
  • Runny (difficult to apply)

Adding chemical exfoliators to your skincare routine isn’t easy if you have sensitive skin, but the Selfless by Hyram Exfoliating Serum makes it easier. This gentle formula contains mandelic acid, a mild alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that removes dead skin cells and improves skin texture, a low dosage of salicylic acid to clear pores and rice bran (phytic acid) which brightens skin. You can use it safely every two to four days without irritation.

Since this serum is so gentle, it may not be as effective as stronger products. It’s also expensive at about $18 for just one fluid ounce, though it lasts a long time if used as instructed. Note that this formula is the consistency of water, so it’s a bit difficult to apply.


Best for Hyperpigmentation: Cos De Baha Mild Skin Peeling Solution, Salicylic Acid BHA 2%


  • Affordable
  • Niacinamide to brighten skin
  • Promotes cell turnover


  • May not work as well as stronger formulas
  • Slightly gooey feel
  • May cause slight irritation

If you’re looking for a chemical exfoliant that brightens the skin and reduces hyperpigmentation in addition to clearing breakouts, try the Cos De Baha Mild Skin Peeling Solution. This K-Beauty brand is affordable and made without fragrance or alcohol. What makes it great for hyperpigmentation? Salicylic acid encourages cell turnover while niacinamide brightens and evens out skin color. Many buyers say this formula is a dupe for Paula’s Choice.

Since this product is so gentle, some customers found that it didn’t help reduce hyperpigmentation or clear breakouts as much as they’d hoped. A few buyers also find the slightly gooey feel off-putting. The plus side: If this formula isn’t strong enough., Cos De Baha also offers a BHA 4% serum with niacinamide.


Best for Rosacea: Naturium PHA Topical Acid 12% Exfoliating Solution


  • Gentle
  • Moisturizing ingredients
  • Not likely to trigger rosacea


  • May need to build up tolerance
  • May cause irritation (if overused)
  • Excessive packaging

If you have rosacea, polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are considered safe and effective for your skin type. We like the Naturium PHA Topical Acid 12% Exfoliating Solution because it uses AHAs alone to promote cell turnover, reduce breakouts and even out skin tone and texture. It also contains hyaluronic acid to add moisture back to the skin to reduce irritation. Indeed, one Amazon customer noted that this is the one serum that doesn’t trigger her rosacea.

While customers and dermatologists alike find that this product is gentle enough for everyday use, your skin may only tolerate it every two to three days if you’re a beginner. Another downside: A few buyers were disappointed in the packaging, which seemed overdone for a small bottle.


Best for Mature Skin: Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%


  • Gentle
  • Brightening
  • Reduces appearance of fine lines and wrinkles


  • May not be strong enough
  • Best not to use every day
  • Smell is not for everyone

Mature skin doesn’t always take kindly to chemical exfoliants, which can cause irritation and dryness. However, a gentle exfoliant like the Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12% can help you achieve smooth skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles without the redness or flaking. This formula contains mandelic acid, a mild AHA, and niacinamide, which naturally brightens skin tone and reduces moisture loss.

Bear in mind that you may not find this product effective if your skin has a high tolerance for chemical exfoliants. If you have sensitive skin, try to use it every three to four days to reduce chances of irritation. Some buyers dislike the smell of this formula.


Best for Body: Curology Acne Body Wash


  • Affordable
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Clears and prevents breakouts


  • Only sold at Curology
  • Drying
  • May cause irritation

Did you know that chemical exfoliants are great for the body, too? They can gently remove dead skin cells and clear pores so you don’t have to rely on a scrub brush and a bar of soap (which may be comedogenic if you’re not careful). We recommend the Curology Acne Body Wash because it helps clear and prevent breakouts and ingrown hairs. Since it’s a wash-off treatment, it’s less likely than leave-on treatments to cause irritation.

The downsides: This product is sold only through the Curology website, and you have to create an account and take a skincare quiz to buy it. It may also cause dryness, so be sure to apply a body moisturizer after you step out of the shower.


Best Runner-Up for Body: CeraVe SA Body Wash for Rough & Bumpy Skin


  • Ceramides help hydrate and restore skin barrier
  • Clears pores
  • Smooths skin


  • Unscented (if you like scent)
  • Hard to create lather
  • May cause irritation

Need something a little more gentle than the Curology Body Wash? Try the CeraVe SA Body Wash, which contains not just salicylic acid to exfoliate skin and clear pores, but also ceramides to protect the skin barrier. With regular use, this formula should help smooth rough skin and prevent breakouts.

Note that this product is unscented, which some customers don’t like. It also doesn’t lather as much as traditional soap and may cause irritation if you have sensitive skin.


Best for Ingrown Hairs: First Aid Beauty Ingrown Hair Pads with BHA & AHA


  • Designed for razor bumps and ingrown hairs
  • 2 types of chemical exfoliants and witch hazel
  • Easy to keep container sanitary (use one pad at a time)


  • May not be strong enough
  • May cause irritation
  • Pads are less sustainable than serums

Struggling to get rid of ingrown hairs after shaving? Try applying a First Aid Beauty Ingrown Hair Pad. Each one contains AHA and BHA (glycolic and salicylic acid) to help remove dead skin cells, prevent razor bumps and keep skin smooth.

While many customers love how quickly this product works for them, others claim that it doesn’t do much — especially if the razor bumps and ingrown hairs are already there. A few buyers noticed irritation from this product.


Best for Scalp: Verb Ghost Exfoliating Scalp Nectar


  • Gently removes buildup
  • Clears dead skin and excess oil
  • Moisturizing ingredients


  • May not be strong enough
  • Expensive
  • Difficult to apply to entire scalp

Itchy, dry and flaky scalps may need more than just physical exfoliation (when you work in your shampoo) to stay healthy. The Verb Ghost Exfoliating Scalp Nectar is an excellent chemical exfoliant for the scalp because it contains AHA and PHA to help gently remove buildup, dead skin and excess oil. Moringa oil and vitamin B7 also help restore hydration.

However, some buyers wish this product were stronger because it was hard for them to see a difference. Others note that it’s expensive and hard to apply to the scalp with thick hair.


Best Brightening: Cos de Baha Glycolic Acid 10% AHA Serum


  • Natural ingredients
  • No alcohol, colorants, fragrance
  • Glowy appearance


  • May not be strong enough
  • May cause irritation
  • Often out of stock on certain sites

If you want to brighten your skin and create a more even skin tone, an AHA like glycolic acid is a great choice — it works by removing dead skin cells and smoothing rough textures. We like the Cos de Baha Glycolic Acid Serum because it contains natural ingredients and no colorants, alcohol or fragrance. It dries quickly and within a few uses it gives skin a glowy appearance.

However, a few customers wish this product had a stronger formulation. It may also cause burning and redness on sensitive skin, so wash off immediately if you notice anything beyond slight tingling and redness.


Best to Smooth Rough Skin: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution


  • Gentler than BHA
  • Smooths skin
  • Thin formula is easy to layer under moisturizer


  • May worsen breakouts if you have fungal acne
  • Drying
  • May cause irritation

If you want to improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines, Weinberg recommends The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toning Solution. This AHA is easier on the skin than BHAs but a little stronger than PHAs, making it a good in-between if you want results and don’t have very sensitive skin.

While this formula is relatively gentle, it isn’t for all skin types — some buyers with fungal acne found that it made their breakouts worse. It can also cause dryness and irritation if used more than twice per week.

People Also Ask

  • Q: Which chemical exfoliant is best?

    A:If you have sensitive skin, we recommend starting with a PHA or a combination of PHAs, such as gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid. For acne-prone skin, try a salicylic acid (BHA) treatment. AHAs such as lactic, glycolic and mandelic acid are great for all skin types and do a good job of smoothing out skin texture and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  • Q: What’s the best chemical exfoliator for acne and hyperpigmentation?

    A:For hyperpigmentation and acne, we recommend the Cos De Baha Mild Skin Peeling Solution, Salicylic Acid BHA 2%. This formula contains salicylic acid to help remove dead skin cells and clear out pores, and it contains niacinamide to brighten skin and even out its tone.

  • Q: What is the best chemical exfoliator for normal to oily skin?

    A:For beginners, we recommend Medik8 Press and Clear Exfoliating 2% BHA Tonic. It works well on normal to oily skin but is gentle enough for sensitive skin types.

  • Q: How much does a chemical exfoliator cost?

    A:Though some exfoliants cost upwards of $80, you don’t have to pay that much for a high quality chemical exfoliator. You can expect to pay between $10 and $30 for a month-long supply of product.

  • Q: How should I prepare my skin for a chemical exfoliator?

    A:“Before and after using a chemical exfoliant, your skin should be cleansed and moisturized, and other potential irritants should be avoided,” says Dr. Gherghina. “Sun protection with SPF 30+ is very important because the skin will be more sensitive to UV radiation.”

Why trust Us

At Us Weekly, we aim to inform readers to make smart purchasing decisions, saving you both time and money. Our editors are obsessed with finding products in a variety of categories from fashion and beauty, to home and fitness.

We try various products, so we can recommend our favorites, and we also summarize feedback and data from other customers. Data, like product reviews and ratings, helps us recommend the best product choices for individual price points and needs.

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Author photo

By Jenna Cartusciello

Affiliate Commerce Writer Jenna loves recommending great products to her friends and family, so helping the rest of the internet on their quest to find the best stuff makes tremendous sense! Though she mainly writes in-depth buyer’s guides these days, Jenna still enjoys crafting the occasional health article. In her spare time, she loves immersing herself in creative writing. Her favorite authors (for anyone who is willing to geek out with her) include Neil Gaiman, Cheryl Strayed, and Jennifer Egan.

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