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Chemical Exfoliants 101

If you are skincare savvy, you may have heard of AHA, BHA or PHA’s before. But what are they, how do they work and do we really need to add another step into our skincare routine?

The term chemical exfoliant may sound harsh or aggressive but it is personally my favourite step of a skincare regime. AHA, BHA & PHA all belong to a wonderful family of chemical exfoliants however they come in different forms and work very differently.

So before we dive into all these different acids, let’s take it back and ask ourselves: what are pores & how can they become clogged or inflamed?

Pores are tiny openings in the skin that house hair follicles & oil glands which allow oil & sweat to reach the surface of our skin. In our pores we have glands that produce a substance called ‘sebum’, an oil that is essential for our skin health. Sebum is responsible for keeping our skin barrier hydrated and supple, but we most commonly hear about sebum when it is overactive thus overproducing oils to cause acne or spots.

Throughout the day our skin naturally produces oils and these oils become mixed with dirt, build-up of dead skin cells, bacteria and makeup. This cocktail of dirt can get trapped in the pores and cause a blockage, creating a blackhead/whitehead or angry, inflamed pimples.

What are chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliants are a group of acids that will dissolve and breakdown build up on the face. Depending on the type, some are water soluble meaning that they only work on the surface layer and some are oil soluble which means they are able to travel deep into the pore and clean out the oil build up.

AHA: Alpha Hydroxy Acid

AHA’s are a water soluble acid meaning that they will exfoliate, slough off the dead skin and break down the ‘glue’ holding these cells together to reveal a brighter, even complexion. Glycolic, lactic & citric acid are three of the most common AHA’s you will find available. AHA’s are recommended for normal/dry skin due to its naturally moisturising properties.

BHA: Beta Hydroxy Acid

BHA’s work on the skins surface as well as beneath the skin, in the pores. This oil soluble acid is able to travel into the pores and break down the oils & dirt which helps to treat and prevent breakouts. BHA’s are typically suited for those with oily/combination/acne prone skin. The most common BHA is salicylic acid – it is a fat soluble acid with bacteria fighting properties.

PHA: Polyhydroxy Acid

PHA’s are one of the newest chemical exfoliants to appear in the skincare world. It belongs to the AHA family therefore a lot of its benefits are similar to AHA’s however PHAs are the most gentle out of the acids. PHA’s have a much larger molecular size compared to AHA’s which means they strictly work on the skins surface and are unable to penetrate into the skin. PHA’s help to repair the skin, exfoliate the dead skin cells as well as reduce the appearance of skin damage such as pigmentation or scarring. PHA’s are recommended for all skin types, especially those who have sensitive skin.

How do you use them?

If you have never used any chemical exfoliants before, it is recommended to do a patch test before applying onto your face. When introducing chemical exfoliants into your routine, begin by using them once to twice per week. This will allow your skin to get used to the product and will prevent any skin reactions. It is completely normal to experience a light tingle on your skin after application, if the tingling becomes itchy & painful please stop using the product immediately!

It is very important to apply chemical exfoliants onto slightly damp skin. AHA & BHA’s are “humectants” which means that in order to penetrate the skin, they need to attract moisture to be able to sink in to the skin.

The typical step by step routine when using chemical exfoliant products is: cleanse, tone, exfoliate and then apply serums, moisturizers & oils from the thinnest to thickest consistency. Applying in this order helps to protect and hydrate the skin!

Our favourites!

Evolve Liquid Radiance Glycolic Toner – AHA/BHA Toner

This is by far by favourite toner I have used in a while, it was the perfect saviour when my skin started going through some unwanted changes! I typically use it once a day, in the evenings. It does have the AHA/BHA combination with the fruit AHA’s and natural salicylic acid which makes this ideal for anyone with combination/oily/acne skin.

Skin & Tonic Fresh Face Exfoliating Water

This is perfect for anyone with sensitive or dry skin! The soothing blend of PHA with hibiscus and orange blossom has created a toner that is just ideal for daily use and will help to maintain balanced & radiant skin. Simply splash a few drops onto the palm of your hand and gently pat into the skin!

Do’s & Don’ts


  • Listen to your skin and understand what your tolerance is to the product
  • A patch test before using on your face
  • Use SPF if you are using a chemical exfoliants!
  • Pair chemical exfoliants with hydrating and nourishing serums & oils to prevent the skin from drying out
  • Enjoy a fresh, radiant complexion!


  • Layer multiple products with chemical exfoliants
  • Believe that a higher percentage means better results!
  • Expect instant results, the benefits of chemical exfoliants happen over the course of a few months
  • Use chemical exfoliants on sensitive or panful skin conditions

When used correctly, chemical exfoliants can help rejuvenate the skin and boost radiance. The key thing to always remember is that your skin is unlike anyone else’s so just because someone you follow or your friend uses a stronger exfoliant doesn’t mean you have to. Using products that are not right for our skin can sometimes put us in a worse place than when we started!


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