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?