Exfoliants. They're the first step in most teenagers' skin routines when acne and breakouts appear. They're also most of our first experiences with damaged skin barriers. An aggressive polish with a walnut-based scrub? Guaranteed flakiness and redness. Overzealous use of medicated face washes? Skin as dry as the Sahara desert.
Since the 2000s, liquid exfoliants with ingredients like glycolic and lactic acid have replaced the grainy and gritty. This "alpha-hydroxy" acid class loosens dead skin cells, revealing a fresher complexion, while stimulating the production of new healthy cells.
So, they've improved.
My relationship with them, however, has not.
Sure, I dip my toe in occasionally; it's my due diligence as a beauty editor. But I usually remove said toe pretty quickly. Why? Trust issues.
My first experience with chemical exfoliants came in the form of a glycolic acid apricot-coloured mask. I was sold a dream of an angelic complexion. And, it delivered. Initially. One application left me with the promised bright, smooth and satin skin. Following a more-must-be-better logic, I started using it routinely. With slow horror, I observed my glow vanish, replaced by a sore, bumpy complexion. It felt more "fried" than "angelic." It's called an impaired barrier baby.
As I've gotten older, well-intentioned individuals have insisted there was a chemical solution that would be gentle enough for my delicate, dehydrated, easily sensitised complexion. Their mantra? "Consistency is key,” they promised I'd eventually build up a tolerance. Since, I've tried many, and consistency has simply not been achievable. What has been consistent? Breakouts and tight thirsty skin after one or two uses.
But, as I've gotten older, my skincare goalposts have also shifted. Dark spots have cropped up, and fine lines have become more prominent. After going off the pill, my skin has also become more oily - blackheads and the occasional spot have raised their literal heads.
So, the promises of chemical exfoliants has become more… alluring. And smarter exfoliating ingredients have entered the market.
When I was offered the opportunity to try Go-To’s Gentle Exfoliator, my interest was piqued. As a beauty editor and devotee of The Repair Shop – an essential for anyone who puts their face on the line for a living – this new peachy bottle also seemed to contain a promising blend of ingredients. The main star of the show? Polyhydroxy acids; newer players in the game that offer similar results to their harder-hitting counterparts, and so much more.
Poly-hydroxy acids are considered "next-gen" exfoliants. This is thanks to their molecular structure, which is significantly larger than their close relatives, alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids. While they do gently exfoliate, prompting lazy skin cells to "get up and go", they're also antioxidant-rich humectants. This means they gently loosen dead skin cells while hydrating and strengthening the skin barrier. On paper, perfect for those with skin prone to sensitivity, irritation and redness. Like me.
Lactic acid is the stronger feature in Go-To’s Gentle Exfoliator. It was making me nervous. It's an AHA with the largest molecular structure, meaning it sits on the skin's surface, refining skin tone, texture and pores. (Famously, Cleopatra benefited from lactic acid, bathing in milk to keep her skin soft and supple, as it also has hydrating properties.) Then, aloe vera juice is thrown in for balance. Rich in vitamins c, e and beta carotene, it is used frequently post-sun exposure – something I don't have much experience with thanks to my pale girl status.
Here's how it went.
I started using the Gentle Exfoliator every third night. It is watery, so I have been applying it with a cotton pad post-double cleanse. Are toners essential? Consider them a third step in your cleansing regimen. For me, someone who wears a full face of makeup almost daily, it's a worthwhile additional step.
On application, I felt a tingle. But, in the morning, my complexion had none of the tell-tale redness I usually expect from dalliances with chemical exfoliants. So I persevered. Initially, I did experience a few breakouts. I'd been slacking off on any form of exfoliation or retinol generally, and congestion had been brewing for some time.
This issue soon abated, and smoother, brighter, balanced skin replaced a tight, dry and unbalanced facial landscape. And, it was not just brighter and more even toned. It felt more hydrated and comfortable. This is thanks to PHAs which I learnt not only loosen dead skin cells, but provide a better base for the absorption of other serums and moisturisers. My skincare routine was working as hard as my skin cell turnover.
And, the verdict.
If you have sensitive skin, and you're looking for a solution for dark spots, texture and congestion, Go-To’s Gentle Exfoliator is a win. I've been able to use it every second night, and the results have been smoother, brighter skin without the sting.