My Favourite Exfoliating (Acid) Products for Every Skin Type

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If you asked most women what the most important skincare item is, I think they’d say ‘moisturiser’. 

I understand why. I used to believe the same, largely due to the fact that ‘anti-aging’ moisturisers are the beauty industries biggest money-spinning cash-cows and the science is made infinitely more baffling than is remotely necessary by marketing and advertising. Millions of us are being bamboozled and buying into cod-science at huge financial expense, when we would be better served by putting investing our faith and cash in less well-marketed products.

Don’t get me wrong, moisturiser is a really lovely thing, and I don’t advocate avoiding it. The right one makes everyone’s skin more comfortable, supple, plump, bright, protected from the elements and furnishes makeup with a smoother canvas. It’s not to be avoided – however oily and spot-prone your skin happens to be, there’s one for you – and certainly has been proven to improve the quality of the surface layer of your skin. However, it doesn’t alter much beneath that top layer. Primarily, because it can’t really get down there.

For real skin improvements or anti aging, you’ll need serums and oils that are composed of smaller molecules so can dig deeper into the lower layers. 

BUT…

NOTHING in a bottle or jar can begin to improve your skin until you take off the (horrible!) layer of dead skin and oil that’s clinging on to its skin station for dear life. You might be thinking “I don’t have a horrible layer of dead stuff on top of my skin!”… but if you’re not exfoliating properly then you do

The good news is, it’s super easy to get rid of. 

And to do that, you’ll need regular exfoliation, in the form of exfoliating toners, acids or treatments. It’s these, not moisturisers that have been the biggest game-changers for me and I spread the word incessantly. 

🎵 I Don’t Want No Scrubs 🎵

Now, I’d counsel against the use of physical scrubs. I take grave exception to and thus veer away from anything beady, abrasive, harsh, scrubby or granular. Although I love that fresh skin feeling afterwards I’ve grown to loathe particles of grit for so many reasons. 

The “best” are so harsh. It’s so unnecessary to scratch your face so violently with something jagged and sharp over and over again, the beads are pointless and don’t work, or are killing the planet, and even with nicer, gentler granules, you’ll miss important sections of the face. It’s altogether an unreliable affair. 

So instead I use MY FAVOURITE cosmetic products EVER…. acids. 

Acids?!

Yes, acids. I know it might sound terribly hazardous but fortunately it isn’t. So many of these are extraordinarily good and using them has been the most transformative thing I’ve ever used on my own face. 

Because I’m so impressed by these acids, I am constantly encouraging people to exfoliate their faces using them. People understandably take some convincing. But once they’re on my band-wagon, they won’t fall off, such is the power of an acid exfoliated face! 

I get the initial apprehension. When I was first introduced to these about four years ago I thought acid sounded scary, that they couldn’t possibly be good for you. For some reason it reminded of girls who used acid bleaches to change their skin colour and thought they sounded ghastly. 

It’s an understandable instinct for the uninitiated. But these are potions composed of natural acids in low, over-the-counter safe dilutes, so the nature and quantities of these acids won’t enable them to do anything drastic to your face, even though the changes can look and feel dramatic. 

The point of a liquid exfoliant is to sweep away the copious amount of dead cells that lazily rest on the surface layer, exacerbating fine dry lines and blocking pores. It leaves skin brighter and smoother, and allows any other products you put on afterwards to actually penetrate and do their job instead of sitting on top of the skin and doing precisely… zilch! 

Life Changing 

For me, there’s life before acid exfoliating and life after it. Now I would never forgo the exfoliants because I know my complexion will suffer. 

Acid exfoliants are the products I believe in more than any other. Chiefly, because their effects are suitably instant and without them all the expensive and brilliant serums won’t reach the intended destination because they’re locked out by the dead layer! These exfoliants have changed the quality of my skin immeasurably and no other category of beauty product has come close to the delirious triumph I feel at defeating my dry, dull, skin. 

The result of resurfacing the skin by loosening off the cells that keep dead skin in place has made me look glowy, made my makeup apply better and reduced the intensity and frequency of the dispiriting problems of dryness, dullness and breakouts. 

If you’re prone to dullness and flakiness or have dry skin these acids will improve the texture and combat sluggish cell turnover and build up of dead skin, these acids are a (cosmetic) godsend.

But they’re also brilliant for oily and spot prone skins, as they clear out the pores and prevent clogging and blackheads. These are perfect for any teen or adult who is carrying the burden of acne – there’s an epidemic of adult acne so it’s not just teens who are suffering and it’s such a psychologically damaging problem. 

Traditional Toners

Liquid acid exfoliants are increasingly, irritatingly and confusingly generally referred to as ‘toners’. 

But exfoliating acid toners are lotions containing AHA or BHA – or a combination of both – and work by furiously slogging away dead skin cells, oils and miscellaneous ‘stuff’ on your face. 

With the dead, dull, grey, dried out layers annihilated, light bounces off the lovely new layer that’s recently been exposed and you get the joy of truly naturally glowing skin. 

Toning was traditionally used with alcohol-laden products and witchhazel to ‘tone’ the facial skin – i.e. dry out the epidermis and give the appearance that your pores had shrunk or closed and tightened the facial skin. Toners don’t close pores because pores simply don’t open and close. A toner with alcohol may temporarily expand the area of the skin around the pore, giving the appearance that the pore has shrunk but it hasn’t, it’s just an optical illusion, but an illusion that also dries out and harms dry and oily skin alike. Dry skin suffer for obvious reasons and oily skin will suffer from the skin squirting out more oil to compensate for the lack of oil now it’s been stripped. 

Tradition toners final job was the weirdest of all. We were – and still are on much of the packaging of these items – told that toner would “remove the last traces of makeup” and residue from your cleanser. I totally believed this when I was a teenager. But let’s be honest, if your cleanser hasn’t removed all your makeup (we’ve all been there and seen the tell-tale orange smears on the towel you’re using to dry your face!) then you really need to cleanse again because your face is still dirty. If rinsing with warm water or a flannel/muslin/washcloth doesn’t remove the residue of cleanser then you need more splashes of water. A rule of thumb is that you need about ten splashes of clean running water and most of use don’t us an adequate number of clean splashes.

So...

Once we have all dismissed the above ‘uses’ as the lies/BS/marketing jargon/old wives tales that they truly are – you can begin to join my club of acid/heads who see toners in a new light and embrace the new generation of toner. 

New Acid Toners

This new generation of toners or liquid exfoliants look like toners, often smell like alcohol toners, and are applied the same way – on a cotton wool disc swept across the face – but contain exfoliating ingredients called AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids like glycolic and lactic acid. Best for dry and aging skin) or BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids like salicylic acid. Better on spotty oily and sensitive skins).

I now have smoother skin than I ever considered attainable thanks to my weapons of choice. And I’ve covered all bases here. There’s something for everyone; not just toner and liquids, there are masks too and even an exfoliating serum.

MY TOP TEN EXFOLIATING PRODUCTS

Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant, £39

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This is known by my family as “the nibbler” and is my favourite pre-party go-to mask. I regularly prescribe “the nibbler” to my family and friends and practically bully them into applying it because I think it’s so lovely. It’s a lovely, gentle yet effective salicylic and lactic acid creamy mask that gives a tingle that almost feels like the dead skin is being nibbled off for the first couple of minutes after application. I really enjoy that as I like a signal that a product is working but if you don’t like it, rest assured it will subside quickly. If I have an important occasion I always use this mask whilst I’m in the bath, prior to putting on another, glow-giving or hydrating mask (Yes, I’m a bit annoyingly over the top and decadent with my double, sometimes triple mask-ing – but once you find a great combo it’s addictive) because I think you need to inject some moisture after this or you’re left a tiny bit dry. It’s a perfect face mask to use as a mid week boost or treatment and I think it would be great for anyone. Give it 20 minutes and you’ll have brightened, beautiful skin. 

Glam Glow Tinglexfoliate Mask, £39

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Okay, this is a complete cheat because it’s not an acid exfoliant. It’s the only non-acid exfoliants I like so I’ve included it. This is a really good, quick clay based exfoliants and since I don’t like most of these, and I love this one, I’ve included it. I own so many clay masks I could plaster every ceiling in my house and build an extension with the contents of my mask drawer. They are also often expensive, even though clay/mud is such an inexpensive ingredient so that annoys me, too. I’d probably put up with the cost with less complaint if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t really like any of them because they’re so horrifically drying on my already dry skin and end up giving me the ‘radiance’ of a clay plant pot. This one however is particularly good, if a little brutal for the uninitiated exfoliator. It errs on the side of burning on me so avoid if you’re sensitive. If you can handle the intensity of it as it dries then it’s worth it because it really makes skin look bright and perky and people will comment positively on your skin! It’s by far my favourite of the Glam Glow range, though online it seems to be the least popular of the 5 Glam Glow masks. This baffles me because I think it exfoliates and brightens fantastically. You can buy a cheaper (£14) tester pot in Boots or Look Fantastic so you don’t have to commit to the larger, more expensive pot immediately. 

Peter Thomas Roth Un-Wrinkle Peel Pads, £34

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I am exceedingly pleased with this little tub of wonder! The pads are saturated with a potent cocktail of acid exfoliants, anti-oxidants and moisturisers. It contains a triple-whammy of acids; lactic, salicylic and glycolic. The 20% acid complex is pretty powerful. You have to rinse this off your face after a few minutes to deactivate it. These are so good, I would recommend to anyone and everyone. They clear the skin better than anything I’ve tried so are fabulous as an evening pre-cursor for an active serum or treatment. A word of warning though: these are alcohol free but smell strongly of nail polish remover/turps/poison and the obnoxious smell pollutes the air for 50 meters. Thankfully for no more than 50 seconds. It’s a price worth paying – both in terms of scent and cash. 

First Aid Beauty Radiance Pads, £24

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I judge exfoliants (and all skincare) on its merits and results, not price tag. I always try to overcome the urge to fall under the spell of expensive packaging and let princess and pauper goodies fraternise in my skincare basket (yes, most people have a cabinet, I have a giant wicker hamper. I wouldn’t recommend it – the rummage is irksome!). When it comes to exfoliants though, I haven’t found a liquid exfoliant that costs less than about £20 that works at all well and even then the £20 ones do tend to be the weaker of these on the shortlist. This is one of those. It’s good but also quite weak/gentle. It’s a perfect starting point for you if you’re new to acid or very sensitive. They do a perfectly serviceable job but don’t exponentially outperformed any of the more expensive products on this list. It’s often considered better to remove a thin layer of dead skin daily than go more extreme peel once or twice a month and this glycolic and lactic 5 percent acid complex between the two is perfect for daily use or if you don’t want to commit to a more expensive acid at this time. 

Ren Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask, £32

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Ren Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask is Ren’s best selling product and a perennial favourite of mine. It was launched in 2005 and I met it a couple of years later and fell in love with it. It was one of the first over the counter peels available to the average consumer and not just the dermatologist office patient and felt completely new to me. Now it’s an oldie but definitely still a goodie. With the inclusion of 10 percent glycolic and citric acids, this is one of the higher AHA strengths available and loosens bonds brilliantly, promotes growth beneath amazingly and gives a super-glowy result in ten minutes flat. It is such a great mask to apply because it feels oddly and addictively like smearing your face in gloopy honey. It smells so deliciously fruity that you’ll be hard pushed not to a)smear enough on your face to ice a three-tier wedding cake or b)consume the contents of the tube with a spoon. It’s not surprising that the scent resembles a healthy desert because it’s filled with a fruit salad of exfoliants deriving from passion fruit, lemon, grape and pineapple and papaya enzyme. None of these are synthetic AHA which can be harsh. This is full of natural goodness so is to exfoliants what a smoothie bowl is to deserts. 

Cane and Austin Retexture Pads, £48

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These are the best option for travel or overnight stays and also the most hygienic. The disposable packaging make them perfect for on-the-go. I’m not very often on-the-go and still find use for them because they’re brilliant. This is stronger glycolic than many at 10% and is technically good for all skin types but will show best results on older skins. It leaves skin flake free moist and soft. The pads are perfectly saturated with the right amount of formula and if it didn’t smell of nail polish remover would be perfect! 

Pixi Glow Tonic, £18

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These, like the First Aid Beauty Pads are among the weaker ones on the market and are probably the best affordable option on the market. It’s suitable for all skins and are a lovely starter option for younger skins or for older skins. It has a 5% glycolic acid and is combined with soothing aloe vera. Some people will take issue with the fact it’s so heavily scented. It’s a nice floral smell to me, but I understand that many people detest fragrance in skincare as it’s so unnecessary and lots of people can’t bear it. The bad news is that this scent lingers so it’s not for sensitive noses. If you can handle fragrance well, this is one of the only ones gentle enough to be used twice a day, every day. 

Sunday Riley Good Genes Serum, £85

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This is one of my favourite products ever. I first tried it in a tiny sample I received with a Cult Beauty order and within days I thought it was best thing I had ever tried. It improved my skin overnight at that point and I thought it was the most magical product. I immediately convinced Mitma Magpie that she needed it, before swiftly pilfering it from her stash. I hadn’t repurchased this for a year or so but I retried it a few months ago and this time the results weren’t quite so instantaneous because my skin is in better condition now and I’m a more regular exfoliator. I still found that with regular use my skin condition improved over time. It says you can use morning and night but the exfoliating effects are so good that if I wear it during the day, my makeup starts disintegrating and pilling into little balls by the afternoon. This proves its effectiveness but also renders even the best serum unusable for day time use. I think it’s better at night anyway. It can be used after the more gentle exfoliants by Pixi and First Aid Beauty and the 40% lactic acid is so gentle and nourishing that you will probably, like me, end up living in a mild state of fear when you’re running low! Every other night is often enough. Although it’s by no means odourless, it’s not spoiled by an obtrusive scent like some Sunday Riley products are for many people (I think her stuff is generally so incredible that I couldn’t care less how they smell and just hold my nose!). This smells rather citrusy though so no such nose-holding necessary. 

Alpha H Liquid Gold, £33

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This is one of the first acid exfoliants I tried and is probably my favourite. It’s not glamorous but is so good it’s invariably the reference point for all the others in my collection and I hold it in the deepest of affection. As do the countless beauty bloggers and youtubers who made an icon out of a product with no advertising spend or editorial coverage. It is also a satisfying example of something I expected would be too harsh- alcohol doesn’t just feature, its comes in second on the ingredients list! It smells so bad and chemical-like that it feels like you’ve mistakenly swiped your nail polish remover pad over your face. It’s not the most pleasant procedure but it is easy – apply it at night-time on a cotton wool disc and don’t follow with a moisturiser or anything else – and is so, so effective. They caution that you don’t use with a foaming cleanser because the foaming agents upset the ph balance of the skin, making this Liquid Gold harsher and we must use only at night, nights per week max, and to follow with SPF the following day. Expect a tingle and expect to be wowed.  

Aveda Botanical Kinetics Exfoliant, £18

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Aveda were way ahead of the pack with this product, launching it over 20 years ago. It has long been a favourite of mine, because it gives amazing glow really quickly and provides flake-free smoothness without any stinging or reddening thanks to the lavender and chamomile that work well for my skin. It’s great on problematic skin because of the salicylic and can be used daily in the evening. It’s effects are immediate so it’s fantastic before a party or special occasion. good for a quick perk up before a party as it works so quickly. Sensitive snouts won’t be pleased because it’s heaving fragranced with Aveda’s Pure-Fume aroma. I quite like the smell but I like the results more. Plus it’s one of the more affordable options so one to try if you’re on the fence. 

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So, there you go… my top ten

It might sound excessive but this is my favourite skincare trick and I have a constant working plethora of exfoliating products on the go use several simultaneously. I think of all of these I’ve reviewed like an exfoliating wardrobe, picking and choosing what I feel my skin needs are on the day, the occasion it’s for, or time of day. 

Nobody needs ten, but if you can, I would suggest you try and buy a couple if you can. A stronger or more potent one for evenings, a lighter one for days or when your skin feels a little more sensitive. 

Have to execute restraint not to perform more exfoliating than is acceptable. As a Somewhat unrestrained person by nature, this is difficult for because the effects are so wonderful and so fast that I haven’t always practiced what I preach here and the results have sometimes not been pretty! 

How do I know if I’m over-exfoliating?

Proper exfoliation should bring only goodness. Your skin should feel lovely, refreshed, invigorated, glowy, smooth, radiant and healthy. We want to avoid painful, burning, blistered, red, dehydrated, raw or sore patches of skin at all costs so don’t be over-zealous or terrorise the skin with too much, too often. 

If you find yourself suffering from an exacerbation of burning, reddening, tightness, flakiness, stinging, increased sensitivity to your usual skincare products, acne, increased pigmentation, broken capillaries or milia that you’ve not previously experienced, then you probably ought to adjust your regime temporarily and knock the exfoliating on the head until you’ve restored good balance. While in the transition back to balanced skin, treat the skin as sensitive and dehydrated and cleanse with gentle cream or balm cleansers. I find rose products amazing to help soothe sore skin. 

Risks and Caution

Although gentler than they sound, I’d still caution that if you’re sensitive to start mild formula at first. Although, even if acids irritate you at first, most people can build up a tolerance gradually, and work up to higher strength from one of the weaker products. 

I always advise avoiding alcohol in these (in most cosmetics actually) because it’s drying (although there are exceptions to this above. Liquid Gold, I’m looking at you!) and doesn’t do dry or oily skins any favours. 

 Lastly – and critically – you’ll need a broad spectrum sunscreen in the aftermath. The only good thing about dead skills cells is they have some UVA absorption properties and because the acid has gently nibbled away the dead upper cells and hastened their departure and exposed lovely fresh new baby cells below, these new baby cells are vulnerable to the suns damaging rays. So protect them with SPF to avoid undoing all your good work. 

Go forth and Exfoliate (safely)!

Your skin will thank you profusely and people will notice you’re looking well! Don’t take my word for it… well, actually please DO take my word for it!

If you can resist the natural instinct to avoid putting acid on your own face, then do a test using an acid toner on one half of your face only for a couple of weeks. I guarantee you’ll feel and see the difference and become a devotee like me in a fortnight – max! 

And if you do try any that you’d like to recommend, please tell me. I’m not one to rest on my skin laurels and remain consumed by my desire to outsmart my finicky skin and find something better, so all recommendations are very welcome! 

Links to buy these products:

Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant: https://www.lookfantastic.com/dermalogica-gentle-cream-exfoliant-75ml/10365454.html

Glam Glow Tinglexfoliate Mask: https://www.lookfantastic.com/glamglow-youth-mud-face-mask-50g/10604494.html

Peter Thomas Roth Un-Wrinkle Peel Pads: https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/peter-thomas-roth-unwrinkle-peel-pads.html

First Aid Beauty Radiance Pads: https://www.lookfantastic.com/first-aid-beauty-facial-radiance-pads-60-pads/11054489.html?gclid=CPCWv8LW-dECFaW_7QodVNcKyw&gclsrc=aw.ds&dclid=CPeZ2MLW-dECFeiM7QodY5MJ3A

Ren Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask: https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/ren-glycolactic-skin-renewal-peel-mask.html

Cane and Austin Retexture Pads: https://www.spacenk.com/uk/en_GB/brands/c/cane-%2B-austin/10%25-retexture-pad-MUK300003637.html

Pixi Glow Tonic: https://www.lookfantastic.com/pixi-glow-tonic-250ml/11200055.html

Sunday Riley Good Genes Serum: https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/sunday-riley-good-genes.html

Alpha H Liquid Gold: https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/alpha-h-liquid-gold-night-treatment-serum.html

Aveda Botanical Kinetics Exfoliant: https://www.lookfantastic.com/aveda-botanical-kinetics-exfoliant-150ml/10541414.html