Nov 14, 2014

Clear Skin : Exfoliation Is Key part I (Salicylic acid)

Every one needs to exfoliate their skin. It is so important that we slough away those dead skin cells and stimulate cell turnover on our skin. This will help you achieve clearer skin because these dead skin cells could potentially clog those pores. Clogged pores could lead to milia, whiteheads and blackheads.

I know when I say exfoliation, many tend to have the impression of physical exfoliators which have those beads that scratch the surface of the skin. Exfoliators don't have to come in the form of exfoliating beads. Increasingly, there is a whole new market dedicated to chemical exfoliators. I'm talking about salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid and retina/retinol.

Do you remember trying a product for the first time, and it gave you the softest, smoothest skin that made you fall in love with the product? Chances are, they have chemical exfoliators inside.

I have found that many companies secretly put one of these exfoliators into their products because they know us ladies love products that takes our skin to a whole new level. I remember trying out the La Roche-Posay Sensi White Cleanser, and I immediately fell in love with how smooth it made my skin feel. Only to find later that it was because of the salicylic acid added inside!

People who know me will know I have a big heart for chemical exfoliators. I love it, I always recommend it and I use it every single day. What pains me is that products specially labelled "Exfoliator" are way overpriced. This post will hope to show you that there are now tons of companies who add effective chemical exfoliators into every-day products. Exfoliators doesn't have to be expensive, at least not anymore. In fact, my holy grail exfoliators are all drugstore.

Shocking, I know.

Be warned, this post will be a long one. Bear with me here because I have scoured tons of drugstores, websites and high-end places hoping to offer to the ladies ( and gentlemen who may be considered) a whole range of products that would cater to the different needs, and budget of different people.

I'm going to start it all off with the chemical exfoliators first. Mainly because this is the component most ladies are unaware of, and also because this is the most exciting part.

Salicylic Acid 

A type of Beta-Hydroxy Acid ( BHA), this product is commonly used in acne-fighting products because of its ability to get right down into your pores to clean things out. Most products with salicylic acid tend to contain only 0.5 % salicylic acid. The better ones offer a 1-2% salicylic acid, with 2% being the maximum you should go. I know a handful of people on the internet have tried salicylic acid, and claim that it didn't work on their skin. I believe that most likely, the salicylic content in their products were not potent enough.

From experience, I've found that salicylic acid is the type of ingredient that 'secretly works behind closed doors'. That is, you won't be able to see it treating your current breakouts. Rather, it works to slow or prevent future breakouts. 

Even though this ingredient is the most readily accessible in both drugstores and sometimes high-end places, those offering higher potency salicylic acid are not. There are also an increasing number of what I call, hybrids. Where they combine both AHA and BHA in one product, which I will mention the products in detail in Part II.

If there was one salicylic acid product I recommend, it would be: 

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo [+]

Previously just known as Effaclar Duo, it has slowly become a cult favourite in the beauty community over the recent years. I believe it was because of honourable mentions by Ruth Crilly aka Amodelrecommends and Tanya Burr three years back.

( Do note that the product mentioned is the international version. The US version is more like a spot treatment, and it contains additional benzoyl peroxide.)

I have used this for 3 years now, and I am on my 4th or 5th tube. I use it once during the day, and I only use a pea-sized amount sparingly on my T-zone area.

I really like this product. I love the formula of it and I love that it works. In contrast to what it claims on their website, this product does not offer '24-hour long lasting hydration' nor 'long lasting mattity'. It does however, live up to its 'fresh gel cream' that 'absorbs quickly for a non-oily finish'. 

Again, it is one of those products that works to slow or prevent new breakouts. I have read reviews that 'this product does nothing for my skin' or ' this doesn't work'. I truly believe that it does work, it is just that it prevents breakouts which might be why you can't see its effects. 

When I was hospitalised last year due to some minor infection, the only thing I could use on my face was a cleanser. So for five days, my skin was terribly oily, and without my trusty products, my skin became terribly clogged up with white heads, black heads and milia. I was horrified. When I was discharged, I haven't had the time to unclog my pores. So I only used this as my only source of salicylic acid then. I kid you not, the blackheads which was protruding out of the skin surface, sunk in.

Yes, just by this product alone.

When a close friend of mine had milia breakouts all over her face, I recommended this product to her. She tried it and true enough, her breakouts improved so much there after. She is already on her 3rd bottle ( she applies it liberally) and she loves it as well. 

What I love: 

- The packaging - airtight and hygienic

- 40 ml of product, which is a third more than the usual 30ml bottles for the same price

- Lightweight, non-oily formula

- Effective at preventing breakouts

- Has salicylic acid & LHA ( Beta lipohydroxy acid)

LHA is similar to salicylic acid, but gentler and better. It is said to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-comedogenic properties. 

(For those interested in the whole biology behind it: source )

- Zinc PCA :  

Reduces sebum production, prevents wrinkle formation and anti-bacterial (source)

( oddly, this is not publicised by the La Roche-Posay team

- Niacinamide :

Improves hyper-pigmentation and yellowing of the skin, and helps improve skin elasticitysource)

- Piroctone olamine :  anti bacterial properties

Interestingly, it also has anti-fungal properties, and best known for its use in anti-dandruff products.

I guess it's always nice to know my face is protected from fungal attacks? source 1 pg 13 

What I do not like : 

- the starting price is SGD 38.90 , which is quite pricy just for a salicylic acid product

Tip: Watsons, Guardian and NTUC Unity often have these 20% sales that come from time to time. I always take the opportunity to restock on my effaclar duo then.

Although the concentration of salicylic acid is not released, I know for sure that this product is not at the 2% level as those deliver quite a stinging sensation. My hunch is that this hovers around the 1% level. I really recommend this because the combination of ingredients they put in with the salicylic acid is highly commendable. 

Those in Singapore, you'll be pleased to know that there is a workshop hosted by La Roche-Posay and Watsons in December 12, where you get to learn more about their products, get a free skin care analysis and get exclusive sales details here . Sign ups end by December 5!

Vichy Normaderm Tri-Activ Anti-Imperfections Hydrating Care (50ml)  / 
US version: Vichy Nordamerm Anti-Acne Hydrating Lotion

I have bought at least 4 or 5 bottles of these, including the old formula and of course the newer Tri-Activ one. ( I like the old formula better but let's not go there) I have since switched to the La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo for reasons to be discussed below, but this still gets a honourable mention because of its great ingredients.

- LHA ( Beta lipohydroxy Acid) :

I mentioned above how great this ingredient is. Sadly, not many brands carry this LHA, and I'm not surprised that like La Roche-Posay, Vichy carries it as well. If you're not aware, both Vichy and La Roche Posay are owned by L'oreal.

- Glycolic acid:

Glycolic acid is an Alpha-Hydroxy Acid ( AHA) and is a chemical exfoliant that is able to slough away the dead skin cells on the skin's surface. Commonly used in anti-ageing products for its ability to reduce appearances of fine lines as well. 

(read more about glycolic acid in my post Clear skin & Anti Aging: Glycolic acid )
-50 ml bottle :

This is awfully generous amount for the price of SGD 39.00 in Watsons and Guardian.

(Again, buy it during those 20% off sales)


Vichy did one great job with the scent because this smells amazingly fresh and it's just such a delight putting it on your skin. The scent has a hint of cucumbers, but nothing overpowering.

What's not so great:

- The consistency

I'm not in love with it. It leans more to the cream side rather than the gel side of the spectrum. For someone with a pretty elaborate skincare routine, having a light and fast-absorbing product is key. Unless you're one with less than a handful of products in her routine, I'd prefer the light gel consistency of the Effaclar duo much better.

- Oil control

Named Singapore's No. 1 Oil control moisturiser, I found that it does not do much to control oil production. It is for this reason I stopped purchasing this as I didn't want to layer another oil controlling primer on top of this moisturiser. I found the combination too thick on the skin, hence the switch to. ( It does not,howeber, make this Vichy product less competent)

This would be great for those with normal skin or even those with very slight oily skin.

-The packaging

Having been through a decent number of bottles, I found that nearing the end of its life span, the pump would get stuck in the bottle. So getting those last bits made it extremely difficult. I had to manually pull out the pump every single time.

Overall, the combination of the three exfoliants alone makes it a great product, and I would still recommend it.

2% Salicylic acid products:

I have found some drugstore products that might just work. I recommend having the 2% salicylic acid products in the form of a cleanser or a mask just because leave-on creams may be too irritating for the skin, especially in the beginning. With a rinse-off product, you can train your tolerance level by gradually increasing the duration of how long they sit on your skin, and how often you use it per week.You know your skin the best, so if it gets too much, wash it off. Be sure to moisturise after as well. 

However, if you have normal, sensitive skin with only mild breakouts, I do not recommend trying 2% salicylic acid at all. Side effects on skin with low tolerance includes dryness, redness and itchy sensations.

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash

This product contains 2% salicylic acid. At SGD 15.80 for 175 ml in Watsons and Guardian, it is a very affordable cleanser.  I have used it before, and I don't recommend it for every day use as this does cause the dry and tight feeling. Although it contains chamomile and aloe extracts to try to soothe the skin, I have found their effects to be minimal. So I would still use this sparingly and I would treat it as a 'mask'. Where I would put it once every 4 days or so, depending on your skin tolerance. I recommend using a moisturiser afterwards to prevent any flakiness as well.

Pores Be Pure Skin Clarifying Mud Mask 

For those new to this brand, it is an Australian brand.This mud mask contains Kaolin clay, Strawberry extracts, Yarrow extract and Rosemary extract. Again, with 2% salicylic acid.

I really liked this mask because it was the most gentle of the lot and was able to help with oil production on my oily skin. I know they don't publicise this as a 2% salicylic acid product but in Singapore, there was an additional label stating the active ingredients, which was how I came to know about it. 

I bought mine a year or two ago from Watsons and I believe it was less than SGD 15. I have seen this product in Sasa as well. However, I no longer am able to find this brand anymore and I'm a bit upset because I really liked this product. It is available in the US, parts of Europe, Sweden, Norway, Hong Kong and Malaysia. You can check out their website and the full list of countries here.

For those that still want a leave-on product that is still potent in concentration:

I recommend the Paula's Choice BHA products below. What's great about all of them is that they have 2 or 3 types of formula's for their 1% BHA and 2% BHA products. They also exist within range of pH ( about pH 3 - pH 4) which is the optimum range of pH for salicylic acid.

What's great about Paula's Choice is that they have samples in the form of sachets for you to try before you make a purchase as well. 

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Other than the mild irritation, I found that most of her BHA range sat oily on the skin. Do be warned if you're one who stays away from such textures.

Also, I'm not sure if it's just my bottle, but I found that it leaks when it lies horizontal to any surface. I accidentally toppled mine and I didn't realise until there was a pool of product surrounding it.

At USD 26/AUS 32.30/SGD 41 , it may come of pricey at first, but do keep in mind you are also paying for 118 ml or 4 fl.oz as well. 

There is an anti-ageing formula of this which is the Paula's Choice Resist Daily Pore-Refining Treatment With 2% BHA. On the website it states to be 'the first daily-use BHA product that combines a light-as-water texture with 2% salicylic acid, anti-ageing peptides, repairing ingredients, and antioxidants'.

Here are products I wouldn't recommend: 

St. Ives Naturally Clear Green Tea Cleanser

This is another drugstore find at SGD 10.80 offering 2% salicylic acid. At first glance I thought that this was a really affordable find. Although it has  green tea and olive extracts, it has 'Menthyl lactate' - a type of menthol salt. I mentioned in my previous post Clear Skin : It All Starts With The Cleanse on my dislike for products with menthol. It's an unnecessary ingredient that really irritates the skin. So for this reason, I would give this a pass. 

Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser 

I remember being so intrigued by their claim: 'time release salicylic acid'. I was even more impressed by the ingredients. Despite the low percentage of salicylic acid (0.5%), the mixture of amino acids like your proline, glutamic acid, arginine etc, anti-bacterial agents from tea tree oil and zinc gluconate, Retinol, Anti Oxidant: Vitamin C from ascorbic acid and hydration from Hyaluronic acid left me very impressed. 

As a result, I immediately asked for a sample of it. Trying it out, I noticed a slight cooling sensation from it. Hurrying through the internet for the ingredients list again, there I saw menthol. Don't know how I missed it out, with such an impressive list of ingredients, it sure left me disappointed. At SGD 70.00 for 200 ml at Sephora, it's not something I can recommend. 

Likewise can be said about the Murad Clarifying Cleanser ( 1.5 % salicylic acid) SGD 61.00 at Sephora.

Maybe I was being over ambitious, but I originally planned to include Salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid all in one post. I decided against it so there would be a part II to this coming up soon so stay tuned! Part II wil cover the hybrids that have both AHA + BHA in one product too.

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P.S I'm sorry this post took so long. I was and still am in the midst of exams. Please be patient with me till then. Thank you for those who took the time to read my post!


  1. i get really dry skin in winter so this was a really useful post! thank you :) id love it if youd comment back xx

  2. I honestly think that if I had started exfoliating earlier in life, I wouldn't have had such bad acne in high school! Thank you for this post! I will definitely be checking some of these products out! xx

    1. I'm glad it helped :) Thank you, I hope you'll stay tuned for the upcoming posts about exfoliation too!