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L'exfoliation des peaux acnéiques.

Is Exfoliating Acne-Prone Skin Recommendable?

Exfoliation is an essential step for soft skin and a radiant complexion. But if you have acne, you may be reluctant to use this type of skincare. However, is exfoliation good for acne? If so, what is the best exfoliator for acne-prone skin?

Acne, a Common Condition and Often a Source of Insecurities.

Acne vulgaris is the most common skin condition worldwide.

According to recent estimates, 

acne affects about 650 million 

teenagers and adults worldwide.

It appears during adolescence due to hormonal fluctuations, and can persist into adulthood or appear later in life. Acne is typically accompanied by complications, such as scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Research from 2016 also suggests that acne contributes to psychological and emotional distress.

If you have acne, you've probably been overwhelmed by the skincare options on the market. From textured scrubs to chemical peels, exfoliants are must-have skincare products. But how do you exfoliate your skin when you have acne?

Is Exfoliation Good for Acne-Prone Skin?

Short answer: Yes.

Some exfoliants can help reduce the appearance of acne and fade acne scars. However, it's essential to choose a product that is both gentle and effective for your acne-prone skin.

Physical exfoliants known as mechanical scrubs require manual rubbing, which can irritate skin already inflamed by acne. They should therefore be avoided in cases of acne.

Chemical exfoliants, called peels, use acids and enzymes to renew your skin and improve its texture and appearance. Some chemical peels are specially formulated to be non-irritating and gentle enough for exfoliating acne-prone skin.

What Exfoliating Skincare Ingredients Can I Use for Skin With Acne?

Effective chemical exfoliants contain certain acids that help remove dead skin cells, unclog pores and improve skin texture.

  • Retinoids

Retinoids include vitamin A, its metabolites and derivatives (both natural and synthetic). Retinol, retinoic acid and retinal are the three forms of vitamin A available. When applied to the skin, these compounds help remove blackheads and soothe inflammation. They also stimulate skin cell renewal and act directly on blackheads and microcysts. They fight bacteria accumulated in pimples, such as P. acnes.

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

These water-soluble acids exfoliate your skin's surface. They are known to improve your skin's texture, elasticity, and density. There are several available in skincare products. Glycolic acid, derived from sugar cane, is renowned for its ability to exfoliate the upper layers of the epidermis, as well as for its astringent and cleansing properties. It also has moisturizing properties, thanks to its stimulating effect on cell renewal and hyaluronic acid synthesis. Lactic acid is obtained by fermentation of milk and certain fruits. In addition to its keratolytic properties, researchers have shown that it improves skin hydration. Due to its higher molecular weight than glycolic acid, it penetrates less deeply and is less irritating than glycolic acid.

  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHA)

Compared to AHA, BHA acts on the skin surface and inside the pores. In skin care, the main BHA used is salicylic acid, a fat-soluble acid. Originally extracted from willow bark, this active ingredient has interesting properties for the care of oily skin prone to imperfections. Thanks to its antiseptic action, it prevents the growth and proliferation of fungi, viruses and bacteria, such as Cutibacterium acnes, the microorganism responsible for inflammatory reactions in acne.

  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs)

These work like AHAs, but are less likely to cause side effects such as irritation and stinging. Being larger molecules, PHAs don't penetrate as deeply, and are gentler on sensitive skin. They also have moisturizing and antioxidant properties. The three main PHAs used in cosmetics are gluconolactone, an antioxidant that effectively fights inflammation; galactose, which stimulates collagen production; lactobionic acid, recognized for its moisturizing properties.

Caution: in the event of severe acne, consider consulting a dermatologist for treatment and prescription products rather than immediately turning to over-the-counter products.

What’s the Best Exfoliator for Acne-Prone Skin?

The best exfoliator for acne-prone skin is a BHA, as the seboregulating properties target blackhead formation and prevent the pore clogging that causes blackheads. BHAs are also anti-inflammatory. In fact, salicylic acid is involved in the arachidonic acid cascade, inhibiting the synthesis of prostaglandins E2, the molecules responsible for inflammatory and painful effects. When used for exfoliating acne, it soothes painful pimples and visibly reduces redness.


  • SMITH W. P. Epidermal and dermal effects of topical lactic acid. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (1996).

  • HEARING V. J. & al. Applications of hydroxy acids : classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology (2010).

  • ARIF T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology (2015).

  • ROTSZTEJN H. & al. Lactic and lactobionic acids as typically moisturizing compounds. International Journal of Dermatology (2019).

  • Abad-Casintahan F, et al. Frequency and characteristics of acne-related post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. (2016).

  • Hazarika N. The psychosocial impact of acne vulgaris. (2016).


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