Revealing fresh, dewy skin isn’t just about sloughing off dead skin cells—it’s about targeting issues from the inside out with layer-penetrating acidic exfoliants

As a beauty- and youth-obsessed nation it seems we’ve been trained in the satisfaction that comes with (somewhat aggressively!) scrubbing off layers of skin in hopes of revealing something more beautiful beneath it. And although there’s merit in the pursuit of that end result, the way to go about it is not always with a rugged and rough product. “Hands down, using a well-formulated AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid, also salicylic acid) exfoliant is preferred to a scrub,” says Paula Begoun, a.k.a. The Cosmetics Cop, founder of the Paula’s Choice skincare and cosmetics line and author of multiple best-selling books on beauty.

While unevenly textured granular scrubs can irritate, actually clog pores or damage the skin, making tiny cuts “as it sands away at the surface,” AHAs and BHAs penetrate the superficial layers to gently eliminate buildup. “Scrubs only reach the very top layer of dead skin cells, but when skin becomes thickened with many layers of dead skin cells, scrubs are useless in removing the deeper damage.” In addition, tools like Clarisonic rotary brushes should be used for extra manual exfoliation carefully, since overdoing it will have the reverse effect.

But exfoliating isn’t only about achieving baby-butt-soft skin. It’s youth-enhancing, plus it’s great for attacking acne. “BHAs have an extreme advantage for acne-prone skin because they are oil-soluble and can penetrate clogged pores,” says Begoun of products such as her Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant and Lotion Exfoliants. Also, BHA is related to aspirin, making it an ultra effective anti-inflammatory, and it has some antibacterial properties, which kills acne-causing bacteria, she adds. But that’s not all. It also helps fade discolorations and reduces redness, making it ideal for those prone to blackheads or blemishes with oily or more sensitive skin. A new BHA9 spot treatment, which Begoun says has amazing overnight results, is launching this October. AHA formulas (like Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant) work primarily on the skin’s surface, offering hydration as well, making them better for dry or sun-damaged skin that’s not prone to blemishes.

Think of acid-based liquid exfoliants as multitaskers: both AHA and BHA formulas have been proven through “extensive research to reduce blemishes, build collagen, smooth the skin’s surface, reduce wrinkles and even provide some tightening of the skin.” Murad’s AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser and Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Acne Clearing Gel are rooted in the same active ingredients, proving it’s not only about sloughing off skin. Used regularly—“twice a day for most people, once a day or once every other day for more sensitive skin”—after cleansing and toning, but before spot treatments and moisturizers, and at the correct strength for your skin (Paula’s Choice products range from one to 10 percent), these powerful products can really affect big complexion changes.