If we lived in a perfect world, the adjectives “tired”, “dull” and “sluggish” would never appear in the same sentence as “me” and “my skin”. Alas, we live in an imperfect world, and sometimes you ~simply must~ have that extra gin martini, or skip your beauty sleep to meet a deadline.

When it comes to having a complexion that is suffering from the blues, choosing gin martinis over beauty sleep is definitely not going to help. It’s a problem that can quite obviously be remedied by getting more sleep and drinking less, but despite being well-intentioned here at THE FILE, we also identify as realists. A girl’s gotta #TGIF. Following on from that, ageing and winter are most definitely not on our side. Unless you have somehow structured your life around chasing an endless summer, and on that journey you happen to have stumbled upon the fountain of youth, then we are afraid the effects of these last two things are unavoidable.

As we age, all kinds of undesirable things happen to our skin. Our cell turnover rapidly decreases, along with naturally occurring oils, hyaluronic acid, and collagen. In winter, as our skin goes into hibernation, the same thing essentially happens to us all, regardless of age. Cue a face that looks like it just spent five years in a dark room with nothing to watch but Gilmore Girls. Imagine.

So how does one return a lagging complexion to all of its former glory? By having a literal AHA (or BHA) moment. And, what exactly is an AHA or BHA, you ask? Bear with us. We’ve called upon the goddess of beaming skin, Melanie Grant, to run us through the entire gamut of chemical exfoliation.

“Chemical exfoliators work by dissolving the glue that holds the dead skin cells together, thus allowing them to come away,” says Grant. “In other words, they remove the uppermost layer of dead skin cells, leaving a glow-y, smooth, polished complexion without scrubbing.”

When it comes to using a chemical exfoliator or a physical scrub, Grant says it’s better to steer clear of the latter all together — especially scrubs with apricot or walnut kernels, which can cause micro-tears in the skin leading to inflammation and long-term damage. And what if we get really addicted to the life-changing benefits of intense skin renewal? Can we go wild and use a whole line-up of products in the same week or evening?

“This really depends on your skin type and the potency of the products that you’re using,” says Grant. “It’s important to seek guidance when combining multiple active products in your regime as they can cause irritation, inflammation and sensitivity. The key is balance — you only need a couple of active products mixed in within a gentler restorative skincare regimen.”

There are three main categories of chemical exfoliator: your alpha hydroxy acids, your beta hydroxy acids, and your enzymes. And within these there are even more subcategories! (Don’t fret, we will spell those out for you in our product reviews below).

Here is a quick breakdown of the essential acids, according to Grant:

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

“AHA’s, such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, are water soluble, so they can’t penetrate very deeply. This makes them suitable for most skin types.”


Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

“BHA’s, such as salicylic acid, are oil soluble, so they can penetrate into the pores, removing dead skin cells, oil and debris. This one’s great for acne prone and oily skin types.”



“Enzymes are great for sensitive skin types as they’re super gentle and only break down completely keratinised cells on the uppermost layer.”

Oh, and one last thing. Chemical exfoliators makes your fresh, glow-y baby skin super sensitive to sunlight, so always, always, ALWAYS use a high SPF sunscreen. And now for the fun part! Here’s our picks for the best chemical exfoliators on the market, plus one from Melanie for good measure!


Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner


There’s a reason Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner is known within beauty circles as a “holy grail” product. Perfect for incorporating into your daily skincare regimen, the low concentration of glycolic acid, grapefruit extract and aloe vera lends you incredibly fresh, bright, clean, pore free, bump-free skin without that tight, tingly feeling.


Dermalogica Daily Resurfacer


Remember what Melanie said about alpha and beta hydroxyl acids? Well, the Dermalogica Daily Resurfacer contains both, working to combat congestion, encourage collagen production and resurface for an overall brighter complexion. The huge plus is that they come in single dose packets, making them perfect for sleepovers or weekend getaways with your lover. Just keep a few in your wallet and whip out in case of a dull skin emergency.


SK-II Resurfacing Treatment


SK-II’s miracle patent, Pitera, and BHA are a serious power couple with long-term potential (and can hold a mean conversation at a dinner party). Expect clear, pore-free, translucent bump-free skin after using the SK-II Resurfacing Treatment. Just don’t expect it overnight. This formula is incredibly gentle, so it’s not going to give you instant results like SK-II’s cloth mask. HOWEVER, use this nightly for a week and you will not be disappointed.


Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment


If you haven’t met Paula already, meet Paula now. She’s the no-frills, no-nonsense mother hen of the beauty world, spruiking a line of affordable, high-tech products. With 10% glycolic acid, the Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment gives you a hardcore hit of renewal without the irritation, making it perfect for combatting the fine lines and loss of elasticity that comes with age.


Medik8 Blemish Control Pads


Medik8’s Blemish Control Pads pack a powerful punch of salicylic acid, countered with anti-inflammatory allantoin and hydrating glycerin. If you have congested, problematic skin that just won’t quit, you can use these morning and night without fear of any irritation. Otherwise, you can do what I did and whip them out to combat a particularly moody, hormonal breakout.


The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2%


A serum that exfoliates, brightens, hydrates AND costs less than a Big Mac meal? Umm, yes please. Formulated at the optimum pH level for penetration sans irritation, The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% is the gentlest and most hydrating of the bunch (and may I say, one of the most effective with prolonged usage), making it the perfect choice for sensitive skin that has just had enough with winter.


Waterlily Refining Serum


This baby contains practically everything that is guaranteed to make your skin calm, bright and luminous. The Waterlily Refining Serum’s glycolic and lactic acid works to refine wrinkles and blemishes, while the potent blend of melanin inhibiting botanicals targets pigmentation and prevents any further damage taking place. It’s thick and white like sunscreen, but absorbs instantly leaving zero residue or shine.


Melanie's Choice — Cosmedix Pure Enzymes


While we had her, we asked Melanie to reveal one of her favourite peels, and she nominated the Cosmedix Pure Enzyme mask. Addressing hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and generally parched, scaly skin, this has fast become our dry weather go-to. Slather on, leave for 5-15 minutes and know that an impossibly bright, detoxified complexion awaits.


Words, Rose Howard