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How to Choose the Right Exfoliating Acids Based on Your Skin Concerns and Skin Type

Posted by Sarah Otto on
How to Choose the Right Exfoliating Acids Based on Your Skin Concerns and Skin Type

In case you haven’t noticed, exfoliating acids in skincare have definitely been gaining more popularity in the last few years—and for good reason, too! Acids are what I like to call multifunctional, because they’ve been shown to improve mild acne, fade hyperpigmentation, boost collagen production, smooth fine lines and accelerate your cell turnover rate to promote a brighter, more refreshed appearance. And if that wasn’t enough to make you run out and purchase these products ASAP, they’ve also been shown to improve the penetration of your other skincare ingredients so they work even better (kinda like that one friend you know who inspires you by her presence alone!).

Too good to be true? Well, sorta. While we wouldn’t blame you for wanting to pour an entire bottle all over your face, there is such a thing as over-exfoliating, which can lead to irritation and redness (ouch!). That’s why it’s super important to find the right balance for your skin.

Okay, so, I know what you’re thinking: How do I incorporate these tried-and-true exfoliating acids into my skincare routine!?

Glad you asked! Before you run to your nearest Sephora, you should choose your exfoliating acid based on your skin’s needs (as well as your skin type) first. Let’s take a look at some of your options...

What Are the Different Types of Exfoliating Acids?


The Nerdy Stuff: AHAs, or alpha-hydroxy acids, are derived from plant substances like sugar cane, milk and fruit. These water-soluble exfoliants function by loosening the glue that holds skin cells together on the top layer of your skin. These also work by stimulating collagen production, smoothing fine lines, fading hyperpigmentation, and brightening your complexion.

Where It’s Hiding: Glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, fruit acid complex (such as bilberry, sugar cane, sugar maple)

Psst...I’m kinda-sorta-definitely obsessed with fruit acid complex. To learn why this is a great alternative to synthetically derived AHAs, read this!


The Nerdy Stuff: BHAs, aka beta-hydroxy acids, are considered oil-soluble, which means they penetrate deeper into the pores, allowing them to work better for oily, acne-prone skin. They also have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties which help to dissolve excess oil in the pores. So, as you can imagine, BHAs are great for those who suffer from mild acne, clogged pores, white heads and blackheads.

Where It’s Hiding: Salicylic acid (willow bark extract), citric acid (orange or lemon extracts)


The Nerdy Stuff: PHAs, or polyhydroxy acids, are a second generation AHA that provide similar effects with less irritation. They work to gently remove dead skin cells for a smoother, more even complexion. In addition, PHAs are superstars at smoothing your complexion and alleviating sun damage. In other words, if you struggle with sensitive skin, PHAs are the perfect option for you!

Where It’s Hiding: Gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid

Your Go-To Guide for Blending Acids Based on Skin Concern and Skin Type

Amazing alone, but even better together. By blending exfoliating acids, you’ll not only target one main skin concern, but tons of others at the same time—from reducing the appearance of brown spots to speeding up cell renewal, helping lessen breakouts or fading acne scars. The list goes on and on.

But before you start blending acids in your bathroom at random, be sure you’re using the right combination and frequency. This way, your skin will get the best results from your acids.

So, let’s dive in!

Acne-prone, oily skin types

For acne-prone, oily skin types, try pairing this CeraVe Renewing Salicylic Acid Cleanser with a good multi-acid toner, such as Glossier’s Solution. For best results, use the cleanser daily, or every other day, and the toner three to four times per week.



Acne-prone, normal to sensitive skin types

For acne-prone, normal to sensitive skin types, try this Honest Beauty Clearing Cleanser, made with a blend of salicylic acid and a fruit acid complex. Next, pair it with Go-To’s Lactic Acid Exfoliating Swipeys. For best results, use the cleanser daily, or every other day, and the Swipeys two to three times per week, tops.



Repairing sun damage, reducing hyperpigmentation, normal to sensitive skin types

For those of you with normal to sensitive skin who want to repair sun damage while reducing hyperpigmentation, try my Multitasker Night Serum every night to every other night. Then, either add Pixi’s 5% Glycolic Glow Tonic or Éminence Organic Lactic Acid Strawberry Rhubarb Dermafoliant two to three times per week.




Smooth fine lines and wrinkles, brighten overall complexion, normal to sensitive skin types

For those of you with normal to sensitive skin who want to smooth fine lines and brighten complexion, try Chemist Confessions Baby Steps (made with gluconolactone and lactic acid) as a mask two times per week. Next, pair it with January Labs Daily Brightening Tonic one to two times per week. Lastly, use my Fresh Start Face Oil nightly.




Woo-hoo! You reached the end! And now you can confidently say you have everything you need to know about choosing the right exfoliating acids for your skin type. Have any more questions? Leave a comment below! I’m always ready to get down and nerdy.

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