The most recent episode of the Snailcast was all about acids and how to exfoliate safely and effectively, and I’m super bummed because I wasn’t able to join thanks to moving hassles. But the topic got me thinking about acids and reminded me that I’ve been doing mine in a different way than I used to. A more efficient way, and one that substantially reduces the risk of overexfoliation and irritation. If you want to hear about it, read on!
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Chemical exfoliation pros and cons
If you’re unfamiliar with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), I highly recommend that you research how to exfoliate with them before moving ahead with this or any other method of chemical exfoliation. Actives are serious business. Episode 17 of the Snailcast would be a great place to start. The episode notes also link to some fantastic resources for learning about actives.
Even if you’ve been using chemical exfoliants for a while, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and really think about what they do and whether you’re using them in the best possible way for your skin. So let’s start with a quick rundown of the main pros and cons of the most common acids.
- L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) Pros: The “gold standard for vitamin C” according to The Beauty Brains, L-AA can increase collagen production, reduce hyperpigmentation, and provide antioxidant protection against sun damage and environmental stress. Cons: Effectively formulated vitamin C serums can be irritating due to their low pH. They can also contribute to overexfoliation if used with other exfoliants.
- Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) Pros: Can reduce active acne, promote smoother skin texture, and brighten skin by exfoliating the upper layers of skin. Cons: AHAs are a very common culprit of overexfoliation because of how effective they can be at…exfoliating. The upper layers of your skin need some dead cells to maintain the integrity of your barrier!
- Beta hydroxy acid (BHA) Pros: Oil soluble and therefore able to penetrate more deeply into pores, BHAs are great at minimizing the appearance of pores by clearing out old sebum and dead skin collected in the pore (think of those plugs as your face’s dust bunnies). Cons: In addition to increasing the risk of overexfoliation, BHAs can be quite drying to skin.
The chemical exfoliation conundrum
As you can see from the list above, L-AA vitamin C, AHAs, and BHAs all offer compelling benefits. It can be extremely tempting to decide that you want them all.
But as you can also see from the list above, each type of active also comes with drawbacks, and if you use all the actives, well, you open yourself up to suffering all the consequences. Overexfoliation is no joke, people. It can significantly worsen problems like fine lines, wrinkles, dryness, sensitivity, and acne.
Even if your skin is tough enough to handle all the actives all at once, there’s still another problem: the wait time question.
In many skincare enthusiast circles, which really are a thing because the Internet is amazing, it’s considered best practices to wait a certain amount of time (15-25 minutes generally) after each active. This is not only to allow the product to dry down and penetrate before applying additional products, but also to allow these pH-dependent actives to remain undisturbed at their optimal pH levels for as long as possible.
The necessity of wait times hasn’t been conclusively proven, though. Even within the Snail Unit, we’re divided on the topic. Tracy and Snow do wait times. Chel doesn’t. I’m undecided. I’ve waited after each active step for as long as 30 minutes for months and as little as 5 minutes, also for months, all without being sure of the more effective way. Presently, I wait when I have the time and patience but don’t let myself get too anxious or guilty when I don’t. If you believe in the importance of wait times, then using all the actives means that you’ll be spending a damn long time just waiting on your acids to neutralize! And even if you don’t and just want to wait until they’re fully dry, say 5-10 minutes, you’re still spending a pretty decent amount of time just waiting.
If you think about it, you probably don’t need to suffer through that after all!
Get the most from your acids in the shortest amount of time and with the least risk of irritation
Now we come to it. My ONE WEIRD TRICK!!!! that I adopted recently and without much thought and that is working out so well for me that I doubt I’ll ever go back to the old way again.
It’s really not that weird or groundbreaking, actually. But judging from the number of questions I’ve seen here and there about layering actives, dealing with wait times, avoiding overexfoliation from using a full acids regimen, and how to exfoliate in general, it may be a solution overlooked by more people than just me.
The idea came to me when I remembered a conversation I had with Tracy a while ago about spot treating active acne blemishes with a strong AHA. That’s a great idea–and there’s no reason on earth why you can’t extend that to all the rest of your actives regimen! Instead of layering each step all over your face, dramatically increasing your risk of irritation and overexfoliation as well as your time spent waiting for shit to dry, just combine some or all of your actives into one step by using each only on the areas that actually need it.
Here’s how it typically works out for me:
- L-AA: When it comes to using actives full-face or as a spot treatment, I think L-AA is the best candidate for the full face approach, since it has some great antioxidant and anti-aging properties. But I use OST C20 Original Pure Vitamin C Serum right now, and C20 really isn’t the most effectively formulated vitamin C serum for long-term anti-aging purposes, as my personal snailguru Chel explained. C20 brightens exceptionally well for me, though, so I reserve it for areas where I’m actively fighting hyperpigmentation. Right now, that means on my upper lip and around my mouth, where a waxing accident has left me scarred.
- AHA: AHAs are the acids most likely to give me overexfoliated Cling Wrap Face, so I use my stanky Papa Recipe White Flower Clear Up 8% AHA Gel only on bumps or areas threatening to get bumpy. Right now, I dab a bit on my forehead and chin.
- BHA: Since I rely on my COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid only to keep my visible pores clear and clean, it goes just on my nose, often with a cotton pad because COSRX’s Hye Young said that that’s the best way to do it and Hye Young is awesome and I want to steal her cat. I mean cuddle her cat.
- Spot treatment: While my COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol is not an “active” per se, as its concentration of BHA is too low and its pH too high for exfoliation, I’m including it here because of the many questions that are asked about the placement of this product in a skincare routine. When I have active breakouts or suspect it would be a good idea to whip out my A-Sol and use it as a preventative step, I do it after my pH-dependent actives. Sometimes I tap my A-Sol only on problem areas. In times of great trouble, however, I rub my A-Sol all over.
Of course, the actual configuration of your multitasking actives face will depend on your own skin’s needs. The main point is use your acids precisely, only where you want their effects, and to avoid using all of them all over your face. Your skin will still get what it needs, and your barrier will thank you!
My recommended chemical exfoliants
Although my beauty stash page contains a list of the actives currently in play in my own routine, bloggerlife dictates that what I have open right now isn’t always what I consider the best. So here are the acids I actually recommend and repurchase whenever those spots are open.
- Vitamin C: I’ve personally only used OST C20 and C21.5 vitamin C serums extensively. Of the two, I prefer the C20, which I find significantly more effective at fading hyperpigmentation than C21.5. C20 does have some cons, such as a sticky finish and tendency to oxidize fast if not placed in the refrigerator in between uses, but this product has the right concentration of L-AA at the right pH, for under $20. ( $14.99, Wishtrend* | $16.20, Amazon Prime*) If you’re looking to invest in a more serious vitamin C serum for full-face anti-aging purposes, Skinceuticals C E Ferulic is the patent-holding OG, with vitamin E and ferulic acid and a very low pH for optimal effectiveness ($134.50, Amazon Prime*). Paula’s Choice Resist C15 Super Booster is also well formulated and well regarded ($48, Paula’s Choice*).
- AHA: After I finish up my smelly bottle of Papa Recipe White Flower 8% AHA, I’ll be going back to my original love, COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid. The thin consistency of this product makes it easy to layer and work with. It’s quite gentle as far as full-strength AHAs go, yet effective enough to keep bumps at bay. Outstanding! ew($14.40, Jolse | $14.40, Wishtrend* | $14.97, Amazon Prime*)
- BHA: COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid keeps my pores nice and clean without drying the crap out of my face like Stridex does, and without leaving an unpleasant oily residue like the Paula’s Choice BHA I used ages ago. ($16.29, Amazon Prime* | $16.80, Wishtrend* | $16.80, Jolse)
What actives do you use? How do you get the most out of yours?