The Best Chemical Exfoliators, According to Byrdie Editors

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Lately, we've been waxing poetic about the dangers of using abrasive scrubs, especially if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin. As much as using a good scrub on our complexion feels like it has to be working, the not-so-immediately-apparent damage it may be doing to your skin is rather frightening. According to celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, over-scrubbing can cause dehydration, redness, and breakouts. Aren't those the things we're trying to prevent or remedy when we exfoliate?

The answer to this beauty conundrum? Skip the scrubs. According to Rouleau, using an exfoliating acid is the key to more youthful, glowing skin: "These exfoliants include ingredients such as glycolic acid, AHAs, and BHAs, and enzymes such as pumpkin, papaya, and pineapple," she explains. Here at Byrdie HQ, we're big fans of chemical exfoliators. They're easier on our skin and give us that dewy glow we're always yearning for.

So without further ado, below are the best chemical exfoliators available now.

Our Top Picks
This top pick delivers a radiant glow after one use and helps clear up any deep-rooted blackheads you may have.
Don't let the gentle formula fool you, this pick is super effective at decongesting the skin.
These spa-quality peel pads gradually release glycolic acid to give you clearer, more even skin by morning.
These pads gently help alleviate those common beauty blunders like fine lines, age spots, and hyperpigmentation.
Best With Lactic Acid:
Goldfaden MD Fresh A Peel at Amazon
In this peel, lactic acid and fruit enzymes combine to rejuvenate the skin.
Packed with powerful exfoliators, this pick promises to reduce acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and more for a clearer complexion.
Formulated with AHAs and BHAs, this pick reduces the appearance of large pores.

Best Overall: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

All the Byrdie editors unanimously agree that these pads from Dr. Dennis Gross are a must-try. Not only do you get a radiant glow after you're done using them; they also help clear up those deep-rooted blackheads you think have taken up permanent residence on your face. It's truly a five-star product.

Best Clarifying: Amanda Lacey Miracle Tonic

Amanda Lacey Miracle Tonic

Says senior editor Hallie Gould, "Aside from the fact that it's both gentle and effective (congestion is a problem we all have, I'm sure), it's one of those super pretty products that look Insta-worthy on your vanity."

Best Pads: Bliss That's Incredi-Peel Glycolic Acid Pads

Bliss That's Incredi-Peel Pads

Gould also loves these resurfacing pads. "They'll genuinely make you wake up prettier," she says. If that doesn't sell us, we don't know what will.

Runner-Up, Best Pads: Cane + Austin Miracle Pad + 30% Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Face Peel

Cane + Austin Miracle Pad +30%

Another product coined a "miracle," these pads gently help alleviate those common beauty blunders like fine lines, age spots, and hyperpigmentation.

Best With Lactic Acid: Goldfaden MD Fresh A Peel

Goldfaden MD Fresh A Peel

Lactic acid and fruit enzymes combine to rejuvenate skin in an incredibly refreshing way. Just a small drop on the face and neck is all you need; then rinse clean to reveal smoother, softer skin. 

Key Ingredients

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that lightly exfoliates by dissolving dead skin cells and balances your skin’s PH level.

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Naturopathica Sweet Cherry Brightening Enzyme Peel

Naturopathica sweet Cherry Peel new

Wellness editor Victoria Hoff says of this peel, "It smells like you have Pop-Tarts on your face—in a good way." Anything that smells like a sweet treat is reason enough for us to try it, but couple that with the fact that it actually makes your skin look luminous, and we've got a winner on our hands (er, our face). 

Best for Large Pores: Radical Skincare Age-Defying Exfoliating Pads

Radical Skincare Age-Defying Exfoliating Pads

Just take a quick scroll through the reviews of these exfoliating pads, and you'll see why Byrdie contributing writer Deven Hopp loves them.

Most of these exfoliating pads are saturated with a copious amount of product. To get the most bang for your buck, cut the pads in half and get twice the use out of them.

What to Look For in a Chemical Exfoliant? 


Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are one of the best choices for gentle chemical exfoliation, unclogging the pores, brightening the skin, and help with inflammatory conditions like acne and rosacea. Common examples of AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. While these acids are relatively gentle, it’s important to patch test any new product, especially if you have sensitive skin. Also, remember that when it comes to AHAs it’s less about the dosage and more about the consistency of use. 

Hydrating Ingredients

Exfoliating can dry the skin out. After all, you are sloughing off the dead skin and debris from the top layer of your skin. To maintain your skin's hydration, opt for exfoliators that also contain hydrating ingredients. Think: moisture-retaining hyaluronic acid or glycerin (a humectant).

  • Are chemical exfoliants bad for your skin?

    Chemical Exfoliators are acids (AHA’s and BHA’s) that work to get rid of dead skin cells and unclog the pores, in a safe and gentle way. If you’re nervous schedule a visit with your dermatologist, and patch test before full usage to rule out any irritation. 

  • Can I use a chemical exfoliant every day?

    While some products are safe to use every day, most experts recommend exfoliating two to three times per week. If you have sensitive skin, you should avoid over-exfoliating as it may be too harsh. 

  • What's the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation?

    Physical exfoliants use, as the name says, something physical (such as a sugars) to remove dead skin cells, whereas chemical exfoliants use acids (like glycolic, lactic, salicylic) to exfoliate the skin. 

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Tang S-C, Yang J-H. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863

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