I have a love-hate relationship with chemical exfoliators. They’re wonderful workhorses for a bevy of skin issues — dullness, hyperpigmentation, and breakouts — but a lot of chemical exfoliators are very strong … a little too strong for my liking. If you haven’t heard of them, when alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids are applied topically, they break the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, making them easy to rinse away (exfoliation!). But as someone with dry, sensitive, eczema-prone skin, I’ve been burned (literally) by AHA- and BHA-packed products in the past (before I learned that just because a brand suggests nightly use, it doesn’t mean you should). I love what chemical exfoliators do for my skin when I use them sporadically, but I find that so many of the AHA and BHA products out there are just too harsh for consistent, weekly use.
I was complaining about this issue to my friend and aesthetician Sofie Pavitt when she asked if I had tried any products that use her “favorite ingredient,” mandelic acid. When I said I hadn’t, she went on to explain that, much like its AHA siblings glycolic and lactic acid, mandelic acid works on the outer layers of the skin. But it’s the largest molecule of the three — its bigger size means it penetrates the skin slower, making it the gentlest of the bunch. It’s also naturally antibacterial, so it’s great for anyone prone to breakouts or congestion. Sofie said that mandelic acid is a game changer for her clients who have acne-prone, but also dry and sensitive, skin.
And, as it turns out, that was the case for me too. Mandelic-acid products have been a way for me to reap all the benefits of a weekly chemical exfoliation without worrying about irritation, dehydration, or eczema flare-ups. Even though mandelic acid is on the gentler side, I would still recommend being slow and steady with your use — my skin tolerates it well, but I still only use mandelic acid products once or twice a week!
Below, a list of mandelic-acid products I love and some that Sofie recommends to her clients.
If you want to test out mandelic acid without having to shell out a lot of money, this serum from the Ordinary is a great option. Its formula incorporates glycerin and hyaluronic acid, so your skin is getting hydration and exfoliation.
This is my personal favorite! This serum uses a blend of 12 percent mandelic acid, antioxidant-rich fruit extracts, and skin-care workhorse niacinamide. The mandelic acid–niacinamide combination tackles stubborn hyperpigmentation and breakouts. After cleansing, I apply this only in areas where I’m prone to blackheads, breakouts, or dark spots (for me, that’s my chin, jaw, and nose) and finish with a good moisturizer. It even helped eradicate a cluster of spots brewing along my chin (they never exploded into full-fledged, painful zits like they usually do; they kinda just faded away).
This mandelic-acid-infused toner from Wishtrend is popular among skin-care redditors for its light, nonirritating exfoliation, soothing, and hydration. Aside from mandelic acid, the formula uses centella asiatica (which is great for calming inflammation and redness) and panthenol (a water-attracting ingredient that helps moisturize and regenerate the skin).
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.