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Liquid exfoliants are exactly what they sound like: treatments containing specific acids that increase cell turnover and dissolve dead skin tissue. Cosmetic chemist Ginger King explains that there are five types of acids that typically appear in these exfoliators: glycolic, salicylic, lactic, phytic, and mandelic.

King says glycolic acid is the strongest of the five acids because its molecules are very small. “All of the other acids have bigger molecules and may take longer to work,” she says. That doesn’t mean the other acids don’t deserve a chance, because each one has its benefits.

Exfoliators that contain salicylic acid almost always have a potency of 2 percent, allowing them to ward off acne and bring down inflammation. Lactic acid, which is derived from milk and naturally produced by muscle tissues, has moisture-retaining properties, making it what board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD calls an ideal choice for those with dry skin. Mandelic and phytic acids are the most gentle of the five and best suited for sensitive skin.

According to board-certified dermatologist Kavita Mariwalla, MD, using a liquid exfoliant can help the skin-care products that follow to penetrate more effectively, as they can dissolve the connection between skin cells. “Think of it like loosening up cement between bricks,” she says.

Even with all of this information, sifting through these products may not seem intuitive, which is why we’ve tapped the pros for their top picks. Read on to learn more about Dr. Zeichner and Dr. Mariwalla’s recommendations for the best liquid exfoliants.

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