The Basics of Chemical Exfoliation : Acid Toners, Acid Peels (AHAs & BHAs)

Written by: Smriti on:

Acid peels are the new star in skincare. A millenial concept, with hundreds of brands catering to this new demand via a variety of products and formulations can come across as daunting for someone who is just trying to make the switch to this gentler variant of exfoliation.

* Chemical exfoliants work by loosening the dead skin cells sitting on top of your skin, gently and evenly. By doing this your skin can shed them easily, revealing healthy plump skin cells that lay hidden beneath! 

Let's discuss a little on the topic of AHAs and BHAs. Abbreviations for alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, it's a term you will frequently find in the ingredient list of any chemical exfoliant. 

*AHAs go by the name 'fruit acids' as they are found in a variety of citrus fruits and are water soluble
BHAs are lipid (oil) soluble and so can expect them to penetrate better and get rid of excess sebum

If you are a beginner and new to acids, then it is very important to start with the lowest most gentle formula

Chemical Exfoliation, best acid peels review, best acid toners review


Examples of AHA include Glycolic acid, Lactic acid, Lactic acid, Malic acid & Madelic acid, to name a few.

Mandelic acid
It has a larger molecular size so it penetrates the skin less and slowly. Because of this it isn't as effective as glycolic acid but it also makes it more tolerable for beginners & for sensitive skin. 
Please remember that if you are getting a mandelic acid formulation, then it is best if the product is in an opaque container as the ingredient is light sensitive. 

Lactic Acid 
It's in your fridge! Curd & milk! This one is also gentle enough, unless you are allergic to it. It exfoliates the surface layer.

Glycolic Acid
If you are a beginner choose the lowest concentration. 5% (in the Pixi Glow Tonic) or 7% (the Ordinary toner). This has the smallest molecular size among the 3 and thus it penetrates deeper into the layers of the skin.  
AHAs help in battling signs of ageing as they can boost collagen production (think of collagen as elastic strands that keep your skin bouncy and youthful), and also help to decrease signs of photo-ageing like crepey skin and fine lines.

  1. Pixi Glow Tonic (mild acid toning) - REVIEWED HERE (5% Glycolic)
  2. Pixi Glow Mud Cleanser  - REVIEWED HERE (if you want an Glycolic in a wash off/cleanser form, for beginners)
  3. Dr Sheths Gentle daily peelREVIEWED HERE (combination of Glycolic + Lactic)
  4. The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA - good option for dry skin & beginners who want to try AHA. 

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The most popular & commonly used BHA is Salicylic acid which has been shown to be beneficial in acne, reducing its number and severity. Since it is oil soluble, it penetrates deeper and thus also works on cleaning out the pores. With regular use, Salicylic acid can make the pores appear smaller. Depending on the formula, it can even be use it as a spot treatment on an active breakout. It also works in reducing blackheads,whiteheads, comedones and milia. 

  1. Paula's Choice 2% BHA Exfoliant REVIEWED HERE (love)
  2. Cosrx Bha Blackhead Liquid (has Betain salicylate & is gentler than Paula's Choice)
  3. Cipla Saslic Facewash - REVIEWED HERE (if you want a BHA in a wash off/cleanser form, for beginners)


It's Lipohydroxy acid/Caproloyl Salicylic Acid, which is a derivative of salicylic acid. It has a higher molecular weight, a pH ~ 5.5 & is more lipophilic = it dissolves better in oil/sebum but doesn't penetrate as much & is better tolerated by sensitive skin!⁣

  1. Rovectin LHA Blemish Ampoule - REVIEWED HERE (for sensitive skin) 

(Please remember, pores are normal. Skin is supposed to have pores. Nothing will make your pores vanish). 


Before you think of adding chemical exfoliants to your arsenal for glowing skin

* Be sure to develop a diligent practice of applying sunscreen & the right amount! 
Chemical exfoliation reveals fresh skin cells from the deeper layers which are much more prone to sun damage, and nobody wants that! It's going to end up being counter-productive.

* It is always wise to start chemical exfoliation with low percentages of the molecule, 1-2% (salicylic acid) or 5-8% (glycolic) or mandelic acid if you have sensitive skin. 

* Please do not pick up concentrated acid peels right away just because everyone is raving about it. 
Go easy. 

* Do a patch test first, to determine how your skin will react to this process. If everything is fine, go ahead and add it to your regime. 

*  Allow your skin to adapt, which basically means - DON'T start using it everyday straightaway! Incorporating any new product into your regime slowly directly reduces the risk of overdoing it and facing skin irritation. Start with 1-2 times a week and observe your skin. 

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You can slowly increase the frequency or concentration, but do it slowly and allow the feel of your skin to guide you. If it ain't broken, don't fix it- if your skin is doing well with a certain frequency and concentration, be happy and let it be, don't mindlessly overdo it in greed for a glow that can be seen from the moon. Won't happen girl, but your redness and breakouts will sure be seen by fellow Earthlings.

If you are a beginnner, you can start by incorporating an Acid based Cleanser or Acid Toners into your skincare routine first and then slowly progress to acid peel solutions if you need it. (which are usually of higher concentration).  

Your Guide to Exfoliation


Do not use them both at once in the same time. Maybe you can use an AHA one day and BHA the next day - you can alternate them only if your skin can take it! Personally I am not too keen on this. 
This is purely your choice, but it is not required per se. The end line is that you can experiment and see what works best for your skin.  We cannot stress this enough, listen to your skinIf you are a beginner then it will be best if you don't use them both.  

  1. The Ordinary AHA + BHA solution - REVIEWED HERE (NOT FOR BEGINNERS)

Also, just because acids are the new in thing, doesn't mean that each and every product you use from your cleanser to your moisturizer needs to have acid in it. There is something called OVER EXFOLIATION. DO NOT DO THAT. 

So there you have it, all our thought on chemical exfoliation and how to go about it. We sincerely hope this two part series helps you in making the correct choice! 

  1. Gravitale skin rejuvenating gel - REVIEWED HERE (love)
  2. Kiehl's Micro refining peel 
  3. Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask - REVIEWED HERE 

Chemical Exfoliation, best acid peels review, best acid toners review


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