Dropping Acid: Making Chemical Exfoliation Work for Me

01 Dropping Acid

Acids and I have a long turbulent history together.

Most recently, I flirted with Biologique Recherche’s P50 Lotion (see my beginner’s guide to buying P50), Sunday Riley Good Genes (40% lactic acid), and Pixi Glow Tonic (5% glycolic acid).

Before that, I had regular rendezvous with Neova Reveal Exfoliator gel (20% glycolic acid) and Peter Thomas Roth 10% glycolic acid toner (link to my review).

The appeal of uncovering new baby skin after sloughing off the top layer–with acne marks, sunspots, large pores, forehead lines, and slight textural imperfections–was undeniable.  And when you regularly follow Caroline Hirons–a big proponent of acid toners as a regular part of a routine–it’s hard not to feel as if you’re handicapping your skin’s full potential when you omit acids. It’s like writing blog posts instead of the brief that’s due tomorrow and still expecting to get that promotion.  ::quickly looks away::

03 Chemical Acid ExfoliationCaroline Hirons & Acids

Ms. Hirons has written extensively on acids and especially acid toners on her blog.  She even has a Top 10 list and recommends having multiple acids in your stash: “Different strengths and different acids do different things.”

For a quick primer on how to use acid toners, watch her video below (set to start at the 6:00 mark).  Stick around to the 7:00 mark, where she says she “literally almost buff[s] it [a red spot] with an acid.”  Yeeeeeeah, that didn’t go so well for me.

My Experience with Acids

Dabbling with acids over the years has led me to recognize the classic signs of overexfoliation.

Small, red bumps (not zits).  Red, raw-looking areas.  Rough, flaky texture.  Stinging when applying moisturizer.

So I should know better, right?  Yet a mix of arrogance and FOMO led me to push my skin to the limits–past the limits even.

Last summer, I bought several trial-size bottles of Biologique Recherche P50 Lotion–a cult-status acid toner featured on Ms. Hirons’s Top 10 list and countless blogs.  The enticement of not only potent acids but also new acids was too great to resist.  Lactic acid!  Malic!  Phytic!  The ingredient list could have literally said “New Acid” and I would have bit.

02 Chemical Acid ExfoliationI tried responsibly easing my way into P50, starting with applications once a day, every other day.  I quickly moved into nearly daily applications and then twice-daily applications.

At the same time, I was using my Curology (then named PocketDerm) prescription lotion–with 0.06% tretinoin.  If you’ve used tretinoin, then you know that 0.06% is nothing to sneeze at.  (Heck, the doc started me off at 0.08%!)  Although tretinoin thickens the skin over the long run and on a deeper level, it causes flaking (exfoliation and irritation) at the surface–or at least it does if the concentration is high.

After a few weeks of regularly using P50 Lotion and Curology, I had to admit defeat.  The classic signs of overexfoliation were all there.  Constant redness and roughness, especially on my nose and inner cheeks. I noticed it every single day when applying foundation.

And when I tried Ms. Hirons’s “buffing away a red spot” method?  Boy, did I overdo it.  The combination of acid exfoliation and physical exfoliation from the cotton pad and firm buffing meant that my spot was rubbed raw to the point of bleeding.  Brilliant me did this TWICE.  ::face palm::

My skin was just not as hardy as I thought it was (or maybe it’s just not as hardy as it was when I was younger and oilier).  With that realization, I decided to cut back dramatically on acids.  (Cutting out Curology was never a thought; it contains medication that controls my acne.)

04 Curology Tretinoin and Chemical ExfoliationSo I went from nearly daily use and sometimes twice-daily use (along with daily Curology use) to a schedule of using Curology for 2 days, acids for 1 day, Curology for 2 days, acids for 1 day, and so on–making sure that I never use the two in the same routine.

I also adjust as needed–sometimes using Curology for a whole week and skipping acids completely.  I’m also using less potent acids than P50 Lotion.  Pixi Glow Tonic, for instance, is a gentle acid toner with only 5% glycolic acid.  And when I do use acids, I frequently stick to a “donut” zone–only the forehead and edges of the face, avoiding my nose and inner cheeks.

My skin looks and feels much better as a result!  No more redness and roughness.

Lesson learned: LISTEN TO YOUR SKIN. Don’t let FOMO blind you to YMMV.

15 Replies to “Dropping Acid: Making Chemical Exfoliation Work for Me”

  1. I have my curology on the way and I was worried how it would fit in my exfoliation routine between my own collection of acid toners & AHA, it is good to see your experience so I know to ease back on my chemical exfoliants. Thanks for the review!

    1. You can always ask your Curology doc about how to work the prescription into your routine. That’s what I did when I started. I think my doc advised me to cut out acids and then slowly re-introduce them once my skin adjusted to the tret.

  2. My skin doesn’t handle acids very well anymore either, especially now that I’m on tret. It’s really frustrating because nothing fades my PIH as well as AHAs. Good Genes has been sitting in my Sephora cart for months and I need to keep reminding myself of how badly my old 8% lactic acid toner (which was allegedly gentle) made my skin burn every time I see it. Maybe I’ll give the Glow Tonic a try!

    1. Yes, Good Genes might kill your skin! I have to use it as a serum because the moisturizer neutralizes the acid; I left it on for 30 minutes once to use as a peel aaaand that definitely roughed up my skin.

  3. Been. There. Sister. Friend. I jumped into the world of acids like a goshdarn trooper, also convinced that my face was a cinderblock of toughness. Six months later I realised that while not making things worse, constant acid use was doing absolutely nothing for my skin.

    Now I just use less, I don’t look for % or pH anymore (I know, I’m a sinner), just super gentle exfoliators. What people use to pH adjust are what I use instead.

    The truth was hard to accept though 😦 So many skincare pretties..

  4. About three weeks ago I decided it was a good idea to start doing AHAs again–because when I was younger I had no problems. Nothing could go wrong, right? SO WRONG! Curse you, less resilient, aging skin!

    I did an AHA three times a week and the Cosrx BHA Returning A-sol for pH-adjusting toner nightly. After a week I had the worst breakout I’ve ever had. Closed comedones on both cheeks and a little bit down my jaw and neck. Now I’m slathering moisturizer all over and I’m just getting back to normal.

    Donut zone–so genius I’m going to take that into consideration!

  5. I’m STILL trying to figure out how often to do AHA and BHA. Right now I’m doing acid – rest – acid – rest – acid etc and I feel like its not enough. *sigh* the struggle is real!

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