I think this Paula’s Choice exfoliating acid is much better than the iconic BHA - here's why

It’s my new skincare staple

Laura holding Paula's Choice Mandelic Acid Liquid Exfoliant
(Image credit: Laura Mulley)

For years US skincare brand Paula’s Choice was something of an industry secret; the name’s not particularly catchy, the product titles are long and the packaging isn't the fanciest, but founder Paula Begoun is so knowledgeable and—most importantly— the products really work.

One Paula’s Choice product in particular could always be found in beauty editors’ bathroom cabinets: Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. Before the skin benefits of alpha and beta hydroxy acids were common knowledge there was this, a leave-on salicylic acid-based liquid that banished blemishes and under-the-surface bumps without drying out the skin. It truly is one of the best skincare acids and a cult product. 

Google ‘Paula’s Choice’ and this is the product that appears most frequently—but I think its latest exfoliator deserves just as much praise. The new Skin Perfecting 6% Mandelic Acid + 2% Lactic Acid Liquid Exfoliant (see what I mean about the long product names…?) is Paula's Choice's most gentle AHA yet, helping to smooth, soften and brighten even sensitive skin types. This is thanks to the mandelic and lactic acids bonding with an amino acid to slow their rate of absorption, reducing the risk of potential irritation. In addition, the brand claims the mandelic acid in this is ‘as gentle as water’.

As someone forever in search of glowier and more even-looking skin but has been known to overdo acids more than once in the past, I had to try this out.

What is mandelic acid and how does it benefit the skin?

“Mandelic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that works by exfoliating the outer layer of the skin, promoting cell turnover, as well as stimulating collagen production,” says Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Self London. “It has a larger molecular size compared to other AHAs (i.e. glycolic acid), which can make it gentler and less irritating.” 

“Mandelic acid is beneficial for individuals looking to address concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and uneven skin tone,” Dr Anjali adds. “It's particularly effective for those with acne-prone or sensitive skin, as it has antibacterial properties too.”

What is lactic acid?

Lactic acid is another large-molecule alpha hydroxy acid and one that’s especially hydrating, as it binds to water molecules. This makes it a great choice for those with dry or sensitive skin who also want all the skin cell-sloughing benefits of AHAs.

According to the Paula’s Choice website, lactic acid also boosts the skin’s production of ceramides, an essential component in a strong skin barrier.

How to use AHAs like mandelic and lactic acids

Exfoliating acids should be swept onto skin with a cotton round after cleansing and before applying your serum and/or moisturiser. You can use them in the morning or evening (experts don’t recommend both), but be careful about using them at the same time as other strong active ingredients such as retinol or vitamin C. For this reason I prefer to use mandelic acid in the evenings, alternating between nights when I use a vitamin A product.

Dr Anjali agrees, advising to gradually increase frequency and strength as tolerated. “And always follow up with sunscreen during the day to protect your skin from potential sensitivity to sunlight,” she adds.

an image of Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 6% Mandelic Acid + 2% Lactic Acid Liquid Exfoliant next to reusable cotton pads

(Image credit: Laura Mulley)

I’m usually wary of using glycolic acid as I’ve experienced irritation from it in the past (admittedly probably my own doing, using it too frequently or at too high a percentage), but I’m forever after glowier, more even-looking skin.

I find that 2% BHA leaves a slight film on the skin but this new 6% Mandelic Acid sinks in really quickly, leaving my face feeling nicely conditioned and not at all dry. It also layers brilliantly with other products. Although I’m a little dubious of claim that mandelic acid is ‘as gentle as water’, I don't feel the faintest hint of a tingle or redness.

I’ve been using it every other night, alternating with my retinol, and following it with simple hydrating skincare like Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Serum and Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré Nourishing Moisturiser. My skin is looking noticeably better—brighter, more even and healthier—which is why I’d call this one of the best exfoliating acids you can buy.

If you like the sound of mandelic acid, here are two more must-haves...

Laura Mulley
Beauty Contributor

Laura is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist and contributor to Marie Claire. She has also written for titles such as OK!, The Sun, Good Housekeeping, Eliza, Women's Health and i News, and was previously beauty editor at Reach Plc. During her career Laura has tried and tested thousands of products, interviewed some of the biggest celebrities and industry experts, and travelled all over the world to write travel features.