You may be familiar with physical or mechanical exfoliants like body scrubs and skin brushes, but you should also know about chemical exfoliants. AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) can be found in products like facial cleansers, serums, and even some body lotions. They are great for removing layers of dead skin from the epidermis to reveal for clearer, smoother skin. In an attempt to be a more informed shopper, I reached out to cosmetic chemist Gavanne Davis to talk about different chemical exfoliants, packaging, and shopping tips.
What are alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, and enzymes?
AHAs and BHAs are naturally derived chemicals found in plants. They break up the upper layer of your skin to reveal cleaner, newer skin. Both are great with smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles in anti-aging creams and face washes.
What are the various forms of AHAs, BHAs, and enzymes that are used in consumer skin care products and their benefits?
Examples of AHA include lactic acid, malic acid, glycolic acid, and citric acid. They vary in water solubility and strength. BHA is commonly known as salicylic acid, which is oil soluble and milder in strength. The amount of exfoliation that occurs will depend on the concentration of the chemical exfoliant as well as other ingredients used in the product.
At what concentration level are the chemical exfoliants listed most effective?
Not one concentration level fits all, because it depends on skin sensitivity. I would start at 15% and work up from there.
What are AHAs usually formulated in and what are BHAs usually formulated in?
Water-based medicated face washes
Are chemical exfoliants most effective when using products that are left on the skin versus products that are rinsed off like cleansers and scrubs?
Rinse-off products are much safer, because those types of chemicals are intended to wash off and not be left on the skin. If a company is selling a leave on chemical exfoliant, it may not be that concentrated to see much of a result anyway.
As a rule of thumb, where should consumers look for chemical exfoliants on ingredient lists?
For any cosmetic product containing an exfoliant such as glycolic acid, it can’t be more than 30% in solution in the USA and up to 70% in solution for over the counter drugs. I would look at the percentage a company advertises and start from there.
Oftentimes I am confused when I see spot treatment products and moisturizers that contain 2% salicylic acid. Is it ok that full application and spot treatment products share the same active ingredients at the same concentration level?
It’s hard to tell without knowing the complete ingredients list, but normally spot treatments contain a lightener to get rid of dark spots or it is formulated as a drying paste to harden a pimple.
What role does pH and packaging (e.g. jar packaging) play in the effectiveness of chemical exfoliants? How stable are they in cleansing pads?
Cleansing pads aren’t very good at preventing acne. Chemical exfoliants lose its potency every time you open a cleansing pad container. These types of acids have to stay acidic (between 3-4) in order to do their job. Packaging is very important when it comes to chemical exfoliants. I would invest in closed, tube-like packaged products. They tend to be more expensive, but work better.
I’ve seen salicylic acid formulated in products where they are not listed as an active ingredient. Why is this and is it still effective?
You can see as little as .05% of salicylic acid in acne products. Under those conditions, they can get away with not labeling it as an active ingredient. Still having it in a formula at a low concentration can be helpful. It is just considered a mild acne solution product.
Will using the plants from which these ingredients are derived and applying them directly on your skin provide those same benefits and are they equally effective? For example, making a face mask using crushed aspirin or using products with willow bark extract.
It really depends on the concentration of each ingredient you’re comparing. The higher the concentration, the stronger the ingredient. Sometimes extracts are used because they are less expensive, preserve longer, or are easier to work with in a cosmetic formula.
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