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The 6 Exfoliants (From Mild to Mildly Stinging) That Brighten My Skin

The Dr. Loretta micro peel pads are strong or weak depending on whether you wash it off. Photo: Rio Viera-Newton

The words “chemical exfoliant” can sound scary, but used properly, they’re also great for your complexion. Not only can they make your face super soft by getting rid of dead skin, but they can also reduce the appearance of wrinkles, brighten a dull complexion, and unclog pores. I can attest: My skin changed drastically once I introduced it to Biologique’s P50 a few years back. I was dealing with really bad breakouts and flaky dryness, and my skin basically went through a Mia Thermopolis–style before-and-after transformation.

When it comes to exfoliating, there are AHAs and BHAs, and each kind does something different. AHAs (such as lactic or glycolic acid) exfoliate the skin’s surface, so they’re great for dryness or sun-damaged skin. BHAs (such as salicylic acid) have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, penetrating deeper down to combat breakouts, enlarged pores, or blackheads.

But not all BHAs and AHAs are created equal: Some are much stronger than others, so it’s good to introduce new exfoliants slowly — once a week before increasing as needed. Since I first tried chemical exfoliants, I’ve fallen in love with quite a few. Below, some of my favorite mild, medium, and intense exfoliators for busting breakouts and dryness. Disclaimer: Everyone’s skin responds differently to products, so something I find mild, you might find quite harsh. Please proceed with caution and be sure to patch-test the product before putting it all over your face!

Mild exfoliants

Dr. Loretta Micro Peel Peptide Pads (60 Count)
$60 at Dermstore

These exfoliating pads include 10 percent glycolic acid, as well as marine peptides and botanicals — so you’re nourishing the skin while getting off all the dry, dead skin cells. What I love about this peel pad is that, depending on how you use it, it can give you a really nice, gentle exfoliation, or a medium-level one. When I want something gentle, I use it once a week and wash it off after rubbing it all over my face. If I want a stronger exfoliant, I use it more frequently and don’t rinse it off. My skin immediately looks crazy bright and feels super soft every time I use these pads.

Cosrx One Step Pimple Clear Pads (70 Count)
$16 at Jet

These BHA-soaked acne pads are the perfect thing to combat pesky breakouts without overdrying your skin. A lot of times, what I’ll do with this product is take a pad and stick it to a problem area for about 15 minutes, then take it off and pat it into my skin. The next day, the broken-out area is always doing much better.

Medium exfoliants

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel — Packettes (30 Count)
$88 at Dermstore

When I realized I’d found a product that was as travel-friendly as it was effective, I was smitten. There’s a reason these peels from Dr. Dennis Gross have a cult following. With a blend of AHAs and BHAs, this two-step product is perfect for any kind of skin concern you might come across — from dryness to breakouts. The product comes in cute little two-step packaging: The first step is the exfoliant pad, and the second is a little anti-aging “neutralizer,” which is a soothing and fairly moisturizing concoction. I first tried these when I was going through a particularly brutal breakout when in London (I had packed these and not my Babyfacial because they were more convenient) and they saved my skin.

Tula Skin Care Dual-Phase Skin Reviving Treatment Pads
$59 at Dermstore

A recent love interest of mine are these exfoliating pads from Tula. I tried them on a whim, and they’ve quickly been coming for Dr. Dennis Gross’s spot in my routine (equal parts effective and travel-friendly). With a cocktail of AHAs, BHAs, and 100 percent probiotics, these pads will thoroughly exfoliate while the probiotic ingredients soothe and protect, ensuring that even the most sensitive skin can try out these pads. It also includes witch hazel, an ingredient that helps remove excess oil from the skin, and has historically worked wonders for me on any kind of stubborn, bulging breakouts.

Deep exfoliants

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
$80 at Sephora

This is by far the most intense exfoliant in my cabinet, and I often save this for when my skin is really in need of a deep clean. With a crazy-high 25 percent AHA and 2 percent BHA, you can practically feel all the dead skin on your face fizzling away. It actually stings. But let me tell you, the way my skin looks when I take this off is next level. Breakouts, winter dryness, and hyperpigmentation are doomed with this product around. But I mean it when I say that this stuff is strong. First-time users should proceed with caution. You leave this on for 20 minutes after cleansing, then wash it off. Be sure to throw on a ton of moisturizer afterward.

Tata Harper Clarifying Mask
$68 at Nordstrom

This is an exfoliating mask, but it’s one of my favorites for self-care Sundays, when I’m dealing with a brutal breakout, and extra-deep penetration and clarifying. For anyone struggling with blackheads or hormonal breakouts, I really can’t recommend this enough. A trio of white willow bark, wintergreen extract, and meadowsweet work away to combat breakouts, and AHAs get rid of any dead skin to brighten up the complexion. I’ve used this during some of the worst breakouts I’ve had, and it’s been a total lifesaver.

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The 6 (Mild to Mildly Stinging) Acids That Brighten My Skin