Tuesday, September 2, 2014

In My Skincare Routine: Acid Toners & Exfoliating Pads Overview

Exfoliating toners or pads with AHAs and/or BHAs are one step in my skincare routine that I make sure not to skip. My combination skin gets clogged very easily, and at any given time I'm fighting both active breakouts, blackheads, various lumps and bumps as well as hyperpigmentation from past imperfections AND sun damage. I've been trying different products for the 'acid tone' stage of my routine for over a year now, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on the strength and effectiveness of the ones I tested, so you can navigate the choices a bit more easily if you're new to the daily exfoliating game.
First off, let's start with exfoliating pads. Remember the alcohol-laden drugstore pads from your teenage years of fighting acne? These are not very different in principle, but much kinder for your skin; I try to look for alcohol-free, fragrance-free pads with a short and sweet ingredients list whenever possible. In the order from the most gentle to the strongest:

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads ($30 for 60 pads, contain lactic & glycolic acids, as well as cucumber, Indian gooseberry, lemon peel and licorice extracts, suitable for sensitive skin): If I had to choose my absolute favorite from the all the pads I tested, these would be it. These pads do exactly what it says on the packaging: smooth skin's texture, brighten its tone, tighten the pores, all in a non-drying, gentle, lightweight formula. The FAB Facial Radiance Pads are my favorite to use in the morning, because they don't aggravate my skin, and the actual liquid the pads are soaked in has a clear, fragrance-free, non-sticky and non-greasy formula. I do cut the pads in half, so I consider spending $30 every four months to be a reasonable price for happy, glowy skin. Will repurchase.

St. Ives Scrub-Free Exfoliating Pads ($5.99 for 60 pads, contain lactic acid, fruit extracts and Vitamin E, suitable for daily use and sensitive skin). I know - St. Ives of the peach kernels?! This is one of the very few alcohol-free drugstore options I was able to find, however scented with a fruit punch fragrance. In short, they're not bad: gentle, non-sticky, non-drying. However, they're not as effective as the First Aid Beauty Pads; I just don't feel that they keep clogs and breakouts at bay as well as the FAB ones. So yeah, I cheaped out, but they're just not as good. Still a good option if you're on a budget or deciding whether exfoliating pads are something you'd like to try.

Peter Thomas Roth Un-Wrinkle Peel Pads ($45 for 60 pads, contain glycolic, lactic, salicylic and linolenic acids, as well as aminoacids, Vitamins A, D, E, C and F, green tea, chamomile and aloe vera, suitable for daily use and all skintypes). Uhm, yeah, these are gooood - although better for evening use due to some reddening tingling and a somewhat greasier formula. Depending on your skintype, the brand suggests different frequency of usage, but I've gone with daily on my combination but sensitive skin and they've been working great. The instructions say to let the solution sit on the skin for a couple minutes and then rinse with water, but honestly, I just spritzed some hydrating toner on top and let it be. These unscented, alcohol-free Un-Wrinkle pads claim to minimize the pores, clarify the skin, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and even out skintone. I can't vouch for fine lines, but my pores do seem tightened, the texture of my skin is smoother after use, and serums and moisturizers absorb better on top. I really like these pads, I just wish they were cheaper - and don't try to save by getting the less expensive PTR Max Complexion Correction Pads, as those contain both alcohol and fragrance.

Dr. Denis Gross Extra Strength Alpha Beta Peel Packettes ($145 for 60 two-step packettes, contain glycolic, lactic, mandelic, malic, citric and salicylic acids in the first step, retinol, phospholipids, yarrow extract and various antioxidants in the second step; stronger version of their regular Alpha Beta Peel, suitable for all skin types). I looked high and low for information on how often you're supposed to use these pads (the regular strength ones can supposedly be used daily), and couldn't find anything - but in my experience, these are too strong to be used every day. Unfortunately, the first (exfoliating) step contains alcohol, and it does feel stingy and makes my face more red, but the whole routine isn't overly drying or harsh if used with caution. I whip these out once in a while at night, when my regular exfoliating pads/ toners are not quite cutting it in unclogging my pores. I think these packettes are effective, but the price point is a bit prohibitive; I'd rather spend less money on a good exfoliating mask that can be used many more times than these packettes.

Cane + Austin Retexturizing Treatment Pads 10% Glycolic ($60 for 60 pads, contain Vitamins A, C & E, coenzyme Q10, phospholipids, antioxidants, witch hazel, recommended for daily use and all skintypes). So I've only had a one-time use sample of these Cane + Austin pads, so I can't vouch for longterm results. While these pads have a simple enough ingredients list and contain no alcohol, they do contain ACETONE (and ammonia. Oh, and some menthol). Wait. WHAT?! The pad smelt like nail polish remover, stung my face and made me look red and sore. Pass.

Alpha-H Liquid Gold Power Peeling Pads (~$60 for 30 pads, unavailable in the US and possibly discontinued, contain 5% glycolic acid, glycerin, licorice extract and hydrolized silk, to be used every other night on the T-zone and problem areas). These are supposed to be soaked in the famous Alpha-H Liquid Gold exfoliant, and if that's the case, I'd better stay away. These do contain alcohol, and they sting and sensitize my skin. They did help to get rid of some flakes, but did nothing for my clogged pores and breakouts; well, maybe not nothing, actually made them look more red and angry. If Liquid Gold works for you, then great, but I wouldn't exactly recommend these for sensitive skin.

Now, acid toners! I've only tried two so far, and still have a couple more on my radar, so I'm sure I'll churn out an addendum to this overview once I test out more liquid stuff. Again, from the most gentle to the strongest:

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($23 for 4 oz/118 ml, frequently available on sale for $18, contains salicylic acid, hydrating and absorption-enhancing methylpropanediol and green tea extract, fragrance and colorant-free, recommended for all skin types but especially combination/oily, to be used once or twice a day). I'm on the fence about the famous 2% BHA Liquid - on one hand, it's easy to use, non-irritating and non-drying, but on the other, it has a strange consistency that's slippy to the point of oily, and it doesn't seem as effective as First Aid Beauty or Peter Thomas Roth pads. I think this Paula's Choice exfoliant is a decent, gentle acid toner, but I wouldn't count on any miraculous results. Also, way better than Paula's gel BHA exfoliant.

Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner ($18 for 8 oz, contains 2% glycolic acid, aloe vera and grapefruit extract, recommended for combination/dry skin types to be used twice a day). This alcohol-free but not fragrance or colorant-free toner worked very well for me in the beginning, but as the time went on, it started irritating my skin until I broke out in an itchy rash on my cheeks. Here's my full review in case you're curious about this product, but in short, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone with sensitive skin, and even if your skin isn't sensitive, please be cautious and don't use it more than once a day - it can definitely be drying if used more often.

Phew, that was a lot of information! I hope this comparison was helpful if you're looking into trying a daily exfoliant. My plan for tweaking the exfoliating step in my skincare routine is to repurchase the First Aid Beauty pads for use in the mornings, and look for another acid toner to alternate with Un-Wrinkle pads in the evenings - maybe the Pixi Glow Tonic, or the REN Clarimatte. What are your favorite exfoliating products?


  1. This is a great timely post because I've been testing out the $$$ Philosophy Micro-Exfoliating Triple Acid Brightening Peel and the stock is finally dwindling. Was just looking at the FAB Radiance online last night as a potential replacement. I do really like the Philosophy peel but each pad comes in its own sachet and can't be used twice although it's large enough to do so. The benefit is that it's so good that I can go makeup free the next day! Definitely a splurge to keep in mind before a grand occasion.

  2. I've been using the Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix pads which work well but can occasionally sting because of the alcohol in the ingredients. Pixi Glow Tonic has been on my wishlist for ages too, but now I'm thinking I'll try the FAB pads first. Shipping is waaaay too expensive for the Glow Tonic!

  3. I have used the Dr. Gross pads a long time ago. While it was super effective, it was somewhat irritating for me, too. My other favorites are from Exuviance and Radical Skincare. I can't use them everyday but twice a week seems to work for me.
    Thanks for this post. It is really helpful! :)

  4. Ah, great to see so many exfoliators in one post, love to compare and contrast and I hate alcohol on my skin too, so many useful warnings! Definitely noting down Liz's Philosophy pads recommendation, along with the First Aid Beauty ones....

    I alternate daily between Olay anti-wrinkle toner (for BHA) and Pixi Glow Tonic (for AHA) and they are both gentle and reasonably priced. My only gripe is Olay do not list the concentration of salicylic acid, though it is reasonably high up the ingredients list...but the uncertainty makes me want to test a certified 2%er to see if I'm missing out!

  5. Love reading your thoughts on all of these!! I've been using my lactic/mandelic acid pads for awhile now, but have ordered quite a few glycol products to try - pads and serum. Among those is the blogger fave (well, not yours ha ha) Alpha H, so after reading your thoughts on the pads I'm slightly skeptical but hopeful it'll be different for me. I also ordered some glycolic pads from Glycolix Elite as another option. We'll see!!

  6. Since I bought my Clarisonic Plus a few years ago, I never really looked back. I used to use it daily, then I cut it back to once in 2 days and now, I only use it on a weekly basis. It has served me well (still serving me well), and I have no complaints whatsoever. Money well spent, actually :-)

  7. Thanks for this massive review!!! PC's BHA has always been my HG but I agree it has that "slippy" finish -- I usually top this off with Hada Labo hyaluronic "toner" before proceeding to the next step and it feels a bit more "cushiony" that way than some of the peel pads I've tried before (PTR & Dr. Denesse).
    So the First Aid & PTR beat PC, huh? When you said that FAB & PTR are better, do you notice less redness/irritation/breakouts with them? I am totally curious about FAB, seems like a good brand to try.

    1. That's a good tip with the Hada Labo hydrating toner - I've been trying to use PC's BHA in the mornings and I find that once I apply a moisturizer over the top, my skin doesn't seem as slippy anymore.

      The FAB pads are super gentle and slightly more effective on my skin than PC, plus they're more lightweight in feel (no slip as in the PC). The PTR ones can be a bit more tingly than both FAB and PC, but not to the point of making my skin red and angry, and they seem to have a stronger effect; they leave the skin a bit more smoother and get rid of flakes more effectively. Hope that helps! Oh, and you can get a deluxe mini of the FAB pads on Amazon for about $10 I think, so it's a small investement in case they don't beat PC for you :)

    2. Thanks for the Amazon tip! Will def check it out.

  8. Thanks for the great review! Acid exfoliation along with adding nonfoaming cleansing and oils have transformed my skin. (Caroline Hirons doctrine) I haven't tried FAB or PTR unwrinkle - both are on my list. I have the Biologique Recherche P50 - love for evening, and use Pixi Glow in am (really like - picked up while travelling in London so not sure how I will replace!) I do like Alpha - H Liquid Gold - it isn't a toner, more a treatment to use 2-3x wk. I find it quite helpful, but almost like their Rejuvenating Night cream with glycolic acid better.

  9. This is really interesting. I usually rely on manual exfoliation and clarisonic on a daily basis, and in the winter I like to use Bioderma Sebium Serum a couple of nights a week and I love it. I'm going to investigate further ;) xx

    Gyudy’s Notes Of Beauty

  10. Everyone's talking about first aid beauty these days, it's a shame I can't get my hands on it in Belgium :( I like this post a lot since I'm usually clueless on what to use for exfoliating. I have used many different exfoliators, such as the Vichy one, the Garnier one, the Rituals one, the La Roche Posay one, but never seem to do anything different to my skin!

    xx Anine

  11. I've had the PTR pads on my wishlist for so long and think I just need to hurry up and buy them! I also use the PTR 10% glycolic acid moisturizer and serum, not every day, just when my skin needs them. What I do use every day is the Reviva Labs Glycolic acid toner, its far more superior to the Maria Badescu, its stronger and packs quite a punch, but my skin is noticably much clearer since I added it to my rotation and I always have it in my arsenal - HG material! Great review!


  12. Thanks to your post, I finally know what PIXI glow tonic is for! Anyway, I am making a transition from physical to chemical exfoliator so I should keep this post bookmarked for reference. Right now, the Freeman Pineapple enzyme mask is serving me well and I also like using japanese "whitening" facial wash (they don't really whiten but they tend do be really good at removing dead/dull skin in a non physical way) and use a facial oil to further soak those dead skin and make them crumb away.

  13. Thank you so much for this post, my lovely -- it could not have come at a better time! I'm trying to transition M into chemical exfoliants right now (his beard gets ingrown and then breaks out, which... is apparently a thing that happens to 20somethings with curly hair??), but there's a LOT out there to sort through.

    I think we might start with the FAB pads, if they're silicone-free, but I'd still be curious to hear what you think of Glow Tonic if you try it out! :)

  14. Bless this post, tbh. I've been struggling with enormous pores, hyperpigmentation and the whole army for the past few year (like really, skin? Can I just catch a break?) and somehow I've never really dabbled in the acids and exfoliating pads. Have heard plenty of good things about the FAB pads (FAB is a general favourite of mine in the first place), and will definitely be making a purchase whenever I can afford it.

  15. Stridex alcohol pads are awesome and contain bha for less than $5 fr 90pads