Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliants 101 + Know Your Acids

There is always a misconception when we hear exfoliants. It does not necessary mean “microbeads” or “scrubs”. It could simply mean acids. Also, I think most of my clients naturally freak out when I mentioned acids. I think we tend to forget that our skin’s acid mantles pH is at 4.5 to 5.5pH. Therefore, unlike the more abrasive exfoliators, by using products containing alpha or beta-hydroxy acids or hydroxyl acid (HA) – it actually helps to gently get rid of the dead skin cells on our face.

Our skin naturally exfoliates, but these kinds of products can help to speed things up just a bit. Cell turnover decreases as we age, therefore if you haven’t been exfoliating for about a week or two, you would tend to feel “roughness” on your face. Depending of the type of exfoliants and skin type that you have, you could either do this daily or weekly (although I would lean towards a weekly option to avoid over exfoliation).

Let’s just break it down:

Physical Exfoliants

What are they?

These are viewed as the “traditional” exfoliants, to put it simply- scrubs. When I was younger I had a habit (a bad one) to really “scrub” my face with exfoliants. I felt that the harder I worked the product onto my skin, the better i.e. I would be able to get rid of more blackheads especially around my nose area. Over time this had made my skin even more sensitised.

My first facial scrub experience was the St.Ives Apricot Scrub. It was definitely my go-to exfoliant as a teen. This product is infamous for containing (you guessed it), nut shells). Scrubs that contain fruit pits and nut shells are considered as large exfoliants and a definite BIG NO-NO, especially not for your face.


For those of you who aren’t aware about the recent controversy surrounding the brand, this product is in the middle of a legal issue. Two women have filed a $5 million class-action lawsuit against St. Ives’s parent company, Unilever, after claiming the scrub caused irritation due in part to its “sandpaper”-like feel on the skin. But that’s not all: The lawsuit also claims the scrub may accelerate the aging process, as the remnants of walnut shells used in the formula can lead to inflammation.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of the whole scrub saga is that the suit says the product claims to be “dermatologist tested,” but some experts aren’t fans.

It’s not that bad…

Just as long as you select a scrub that contains gentler ingredients (i.e.: sugar)/ microbeads instead of fruit pits or nut shells, it’s all good. These gentler options would still cause micro-tears in the skin but are definitely a better option. Sugar granules are tiny enough not to be irritating, but powerful enough to get the job done. Fresh Sugar Face Polish is a cult favourite. However, I am aware that “fragrance” is considerably high on their ingredients list- meaning they use quite a fair amount of perfume in this product.

Due to my facial eczema I normally avoid anything that contains fragrance as I have no use for it. Not only would this potentially agitate my skin, but overall I’m just not a fan of artificial perfume in my skincare products.  I believe that synthetic fragrance doesn’t belong anywhere else other than in a bottle of perfume.

Fresh Sugar Face Polish Ingredients List

Sucrose, Propylene Glycol Dicaprylate/Dicaprate, Peg-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Stearalkonium Hectorite, Fragaria Vesca (Strawberry) Fruit, Propylene Carbonate, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candellila) Wax, Mangifera Indica (Mango) Seed Butter, Limonene, Fragrance (Parfum), Limnanthes Alba (Meadowfoam) Seed Oil, Fragaria Ananassa (Strawberry) Seed Oil, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Oil, Macadamia Ternifolia Seed Oil, Prunus Domestica Seed Oil, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Water (Aqua), Tocopheryl Acetate, Potassium Sorbate, Citral, Geraniol, Linalool, Citronellol, Bht.

In terms of micro-beads, if you live in the UK you would be aware that the government has put a ban on such products. Microbeads are small enough that they can pass through water filtration systems, and ultimately end up in the stomachs of marine life (and if you eat fish, in your stomach too).

There is also microdermabrasion. These are the type of professional exfoliants that are carried out by licensed aestheticians. For the purpose of this article, I may leave this topic for the next write-up.


My ultimate guilty pleasure (exfoliant-wise) is Khiel’s Epidermal Re-Texturing Micro-dermabrasion. I’m no longer able to get this in the UK as it contains microbeads. I’ve a bottle left that I bought in bulk while I was in New York, in which I am using it sparingly. Shhhh… However, I am slowly switching to chemical exfoliants as I find physical exfoliant does not exfoliate equally throughout.

Chemical Exfoliants

What are they?

There are two main types:

  1. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): AHAs are geared toward skin rejuvenation (like anti-aging and evening skin tone) due to their exfoliation properties. Some of the most common AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. And on natural products you might also see the term “fruit acids/ enzyme” on the jar. Fruit acids contain blends of AHAs like glycolic, lactic, and malic.
  • Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane (but it can also be made synthetically in the lab).
  • Glycolic acid is the smallest acid in size, meaning the molecule can get deeper into the skin. In the long run, it can increase the overall thickness of the skin by boosting collagen and elastin production.
  • Glycolic acid may not be suitable for sensitive skin as it can cause dryness and redness, so reach for lactic acid instead
  • Lactic acid’s chemical structure is a bit more complex, but it is better for sensitive skin.
  • Lactic acid improves discolorations and age spots. This acid is more gentle on the skin. And because it is derived from dairy, it aids in correcting pH imbalances. It’s the same stuff that your body naturally produces after a vigorous workout that causes muscle cramps (*mind blown*).

I would highly recommend Philosophy’s Microdelivery Peel if you have quite resilient skin. I’m was a fan of the product but I found that it makes my skin turn red right after. It’s a great product because it combines physical exfoliant (Step 1: Vit C Peptide Resurfacing Crystals- which to me it’s just a fancy name for orange enzyme sugar scrub) and chemical exfoliant (lactic + salicylic acid activating gel). *Update: Please note that this product contains some rather questionable ingredients i.e.: Diazolidinyl Urea, Methylparaben and Propylparaben. Knowing this, I will not be repurchasing the product. 

I would recommend Ren’s Glycolactic Radiance Renewal Mask as it is quite gentle (a combination of glycolic + lactic). The product smells like fresh citrusy orange, you basically apply and leave it on for about 10 minutes and wash it off. Feels like a baby’s bum right after. I like that this product does not contain any questionable ingredients and contains 100% natural fragrance.

2. Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): Salicylic acid is the most common BHA.

  • In its raw form, it’s a white crystalline powder that dissolves in oil.
  • Salicylic acid is best for oily, acne-prone skin types because it is compatible with oils. Therefore it can get into the pores to help reduce acne. That’s why salicylic acid is one of the most popular options for acne washes and spot treatments.

*Note: Not every acid is an exfoliant. Take kojic acid, for example. It’s actually a skin brightening agent, not an exfoliating ingredient.



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