The Liquid Exfoliant That Changed My Skin

In search of a lockdown skincare project, one editor puts the internet's favorite exfoliant to the test.

Collage by Maridelis Morales Rosado for W magazine.

I first noticed tiny little bumps on my forehead at some point in my 20s. The kind that didn't ruin a photo, but were noticeable in the right lighting. Still, at the time I thought the only skin worries to watch out for were pimples in your teens and wrinkles in some far-off age. My routine was pretty simple: cleanser (ok, sometimes just bar soap), the occasional St. Ives scrub (I know!), an SPF moisturizer, and a generous dab of Oxy 10 if anything flared up. The internet told me that a liquid exfoliant could take care of those bumps, but at the time I thought any product over $10 was a scam.

Fast forward a few years right into the start of the pandemic. Personal, professional and cultural shifts had opened my eyes to the wider world of skincare, and, besides, I was bored as hell and needed a project. Why not my skin? So I set out in search of a liquid exfoliant to solve the problem. The internet kept pointing me in the same direction again and again: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. The stuff is a hit on Reddit, skincare blogs, and now (increasingly and prominently) TikTok.

The $29.50 price tag was a bit of a shock for a skincare rube like me at the start, but compared to other popular exfoliants from Dr. Dennis Gross and Biologique Recherche (both of which will run you closer to $100), it's a steal. And you don't have to overuse it for it to work: I apply a few drops with a cotton pad once a day, and I've only just now cracked open my second bottle, many months later. Those forehead bumps disappeared in weeks, along with any lingering qualms I had about investing in solid skincare.

Salicylic acid is the star of the show here: its unclogging action has also minimized the appearance of my pores and helped slow the cadence of the occasional pimple that still shows up. My other big lockdown skincare target was the redness that seems to haunt all members of my family. Some users claim the product helps tone things down (it also includes the anti-inflammatory ingredient Camellia Oleifera leaf extract), but I'm using other redness-fighting products with alpha arbutin and azealiac acid, so I can't vouch for Paula's solo effectiveness, but it's certainly not impeding the process. In other words, it's doing what I expected it to do, and if it's working overtime on other problems, well, all the better.