We’re never done waxing poetic about the long-lasting benefits of chemical exfoliation, especially when it concerns the best exfoliant for brown skin. Not only does exfoliation accelerate the skin’s natural cell turnover process; it’s also the best way to combat a handful of common issues that may otherwise take longer to heal, such as acne or discoloration. While the degree of an exfoliant’s effectiveness depends on a person’s skin type and lifestyle choices, there are certain ones that produce better results in brown skin.
More specifically, they gently tackle the conditions that affect us most without altering our skin tone or causing irritation.
The Primary Concerns
Generally speaking, there are a lot of skin issues to unpack, whether it’s the result of genetics or our everyday habits. For Black women, the most prominent concerns are usually uneven skin tone, hyperpigmentation, and textural changes.
The reason these affect brown skin more frequently than Caucasian skin is that melanin-rich skin has more reactive melanocytes.
“Melanocytes are the cells that make pigment,” says Specific Beauty founder and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd. “Any irritation, such as a pimple, turns on those melanocytes and produces a dark spot.” And while fairer skin also experiences dark spots, the problem appears more prominently in darker shades.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Michelle Henry agrees, noting that hyperpigmentation is one of the primary complaints she receives from Black women in her office. More often than not, she’ll recommend dark spot correctors, such as SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 or antioxidant-rich products like the SkinMedica Lumivive Kit to protect against blue light and free radical damage.
However, regular chemical exfoliation promotes longer-term results and over time can altogether reverse the effects of discoloration.
Overall, Dr. Henry recommends Black women stick with gentler exfoliant products to reduce the risk of excess irritation, which often leads to dark spots.
“I love glycolic acid because it exfoliates without drying out the skin,” she says, adding that it’s also an exceptional humectant, meaning it will help your skin to retain moisture after a clarifying cleanse. Glycolic acid is also an ideal cleansing option for oily skin, which experts recommend applying to dry skin since water neutralizes the ingredient, making it less effective.
Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says kojic acid, linoleic acid, and citric acid are all helpful to even skin tone and reduce the appearance of sun damage. Linoleic also contains anti-inflammatory properties, which can help guard your skin against breakouts, which ultimately leads to hyperpigmentation if you’re picking at them.
“Hyaluronic acid also helps to hydrate the skin to improve skin texture. These ingredients can be found in a lot of the Specific Beauty products including the Advanced Dark Spot Corrector Pads which help with evening skin tone as well as the Lighten & Brighten Eye Cream,” she says.
For the most part, these acids can be found in topical products such as cleansers, toners, serums and masks. However, if you’re looking to try a peel, Dr. Woolery-Lloyd says it’s best to get one done in a dermatologist’s office; especially when using salicylic and glycolic acids.
“Typically the dermatologist uses an applicator sponge, brush or gauze to apply the peel and then neutralizes or removes the peel after two to three minutes,” she says. “The other acids that I discussed are typically found in skin-care products at concentrations that can be applied directly to the skin with your fingertips. Also, oftentimes, products with acids are formulated in pre-soaked pads, which make it easier to apply the product.”
Most topical chemical exfoliants don’t go above 10 percent in concentration, though there are rare exceptions, like the Drunk Elephant Babyfacial at a whopping 25 percent. In those cases, you should consult with a pro before using, limit your use to a couple times a month or at least spot test before applying to your entire face.
Also, remember that your exfoliants should be applied after your cleanser and before your moisturizer. Should your cleanser contain chemical acids, Dr. Henry isn’t against throwing a physical exfoliant into the mix too. “I love using a spin brush to increase the abilities of a glycolic acid wash. This makes the wash and even more potent exfoliator,” she says. “One of my favorites is the Proactiv Cleansing Brush.”
Should you want to incorporate any of these acids into your routine, here are some top-rated options.
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Kojic Acid: Glo Skin Beauty Brightening Polish
Made with eco-friendly jojoba beads for added physical exfoliation, this post-cleansing treatment gently polishes the skin, leaving behind a brighter, more radiant complexion.
Kojic Acid: Admire My Skin Ultra-Potent Brightening Serum
This two percent hydroquinone formula more than lives up to its name with salicylic acid, azelaic acid, lactic acid, and vitamin C all included for fading dark spots and brightening the overall complexion.
Salicylic Acid: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
This award-winning toner is a two percent salicylic acid formula that targets acne, redness blackheads and more to improve texture and dullness.
Salicylic Acid: Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil
This quick-absorbing dry oil, also made with tea tree oil, should be applied at night after cleansing to treat breakouts and clarify pores.
Glycolic Acid: Insta Natural Glycolic Acid Peel
No synthetic dyes or other harmful ingredients to be found in this gentle at-home peel infused with glycolic acid, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and sunflower seed oil.
Glycolic Acid: Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème
Made with bakuchiol, a natural form of retinol, this rich night cream targets dark spots and fine lines as you sleep.
Linoleic Acid: Pura D’Or Organic Rosehip Seed Oil
Rosehip is just one of many all-natural oils rich in linoleic acid boosting collagen production and reducing hyperpigmentation.
Linoleic Acid: Dr. Dennis Gross Clinical Concentrate Radiance Booster
This pro-strength serum can be mixed in with your other skin-care products to enhance their effectiveness, as well as brighten the complexion.
Citric Acid: Snow Fox Cooling Foam Cleanser
A gentle, brightening face cleanser infused with the cooling effects of peppermint oil, soothing properties of aloe vera and exfoliating power of citric acid.
Citric Acid: Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum with Echinacea GreenEnvy
Meant for use two to three days a week, this serum utilizes AHAs to gently exfoliate the skin and honey to hydrate afterward.
A version of this story was originally published in December 2018.