Tips, News & Trends

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation: Which One is Better for You?

By Katrina Yee @amabiebeauty


Why Should You Exfoliate and How Often?

Exfoliation is a lot like washing dishes.  You can let the dishes pile up a bit, but you should wash them if you want to keep them (and your kitchen) clean and looking their best. Exfoliating is beneficial for all skin types as it removes dead skin cells from your skin’s outer layer and encourages new and fresh skin cells to form.


Dead skin cells can cause bacteria, clogged skin, acne and they may leave you with a dry and flaky finish to your complexion. When you exfoliate properly, it can also help to rid acne by clearing out dead skin cells that clog pores. New, fresh skin cells are free from any impurities and will leave your skin feeling smoother and softer. Though this process does happen naturally, purposely exfoliating is beneficial for aging skin and as it will slow down the process.


But when you're overdoing it, you're also getting rid of all those healthy skin cells, which protect your skin's natural barrier so be sure not to over-exfoliate.  In a perfect skincare world, you would and should exfoliate regularly, about twice a week in order to shed off the dead skin cells and let your skin truly shine.  


Now that you know this, you should also know there are 2 types of exfoliating: physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation. They both technically do the same thing—shed off dead skin—but they do so in very different ways. As chemical exfoliation becomes increasingly popular, it is important to understand the difference and benefits of both and which is better for your skintype.



What is physical exfoliation and what should I avoid?


Physical exfoliation is anything that helps to physically or manually rid skin of debris, typically with the use of small grains, a brush, or a scalpel. The great thing about physical exfoliation is the instant gratification of a fresh, glowing and smooth face. The physical massage stimulates circulation so your cheeks look naturally rosy and your complexion probably looks more “awake.” Not all physical exfoliants are created equally and how you use them is critical to your skin’s health. Scrubs do work effectively but they need to be used very gently.   


Like all skincare products, you should always make sure to check out the ingredients just in case the exfoliating agents are too large.

Avoid exfoliants such as:

  • Fruit pits and nut shells, such as apricot and walnut shell powder
  • Sugar
  • Baking soda
  • Facial brushes (like Clarisonics)


Some of these “exfoliant” ingredients are too large and too harsh for your skin, which can cause irritation and redness. Facial brushes are often overused and can create chronic irritation as well.   Also if you’re too rough with your scrub, it can backfire by making your skin irritated or exposing the raw tissue to bacteria and infection.  This is why physical exfoliation has a tendency to cause micro-tears in the skin. In fact, physical exfoliants can be too harsh for some skin types and is not always dermatologist recommended. 


What’s a micro-tear?
Sounds terrible, right?! They are, but don’t panic. Micro-tears are created by agents that are too sharp or jagged, causing little tears in the skin. By tearing the skin, it can leave it prone to infection which is not going to leave you with a healthy complexion at all! In fact, many dermatologists are not fans of physical exfoliants because of how they can result in micro-tears. Our resident dermatologist Dr. Li Kang at HKU Hospital told us, “If you look under a microscope, you can see rough, etched tears made to the epidermis, as a result of improper physical exfoliation.”  It’s extremely important to handle physical exfoliating with gentle care and make sure you’re using one that will help your skin and not harm it. 


Are there other forms of physical exfoliants?
A very gentle physical exfoliator would be a konjac sponge. It’s similar to using a nice soft sponge on your face and gentle enough to use daily with a cleanser to softly scrub your skin.  You do have to make sure you keep it clean from bacteria and replace it regularly. This exfoliation type would be recommended for those who cannot stand even the mildest acids in chemical exfoliators.

Another physical exfoliation type is microdermabrasion.  With a licensed professional, they will do the facial scrub for you, to make sure it’s even and gentle enough for your skin. This type is especially ideal for those with scars, wrinkles and stretch marks. 

There is also dermaplaning which involves gently pulling a knife across your face! Shocking, right?  It sounds a bit like shaving, but it’s a small blade to slough off dead skin cells as well as any unwanted facial hair.  It can even help makeup go on smoother too!


What is chemical exfoliation and what should I avoid?

Chemical exfoliants remove dead skin cells with the use of chemicals (acids!) to aid in new cell turnover, revealing smoother and brighter skin.  But don't be scared by the idea of putting acids on your face! Chemical exfoliators use low-percentages of gentle acids that are safe for skin, and are actually great for people with sensitive skin because they are gentler.  They also reduce the risk of over-scrubbing and can penetrate the skin deeper than a physical exfoliant for more long-lasting results.  So you may not get instant gratification, but you will notice the difference after a month or two of regular use.

Another amazing benefit about chemical exfoliators is that they do more than just smooth your complexion—they can help stimulate collagen production, reduce wrinkles, firm skin and brighten!

Chemical exfoliators can come in various forms, including cleansers, toners, serums and sometimes even moisturizers.  Be careful when mixing targeted topical treatments that may already be harsh, like retinols or retinoid.  When they are coupled with an exfoliator, it could lead to flaking, redness and irritation.   


What are the typical chemicals I should look for?


Chemical exfoliators come primarily in two types: AHA & BHA


  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are derived from natural substances and are ideal for exfoliating dry skin/ normal/ sensitive skin.  They help improve skin concerns regarding sun damage, uneven texture and pigmentation.  They work by melting the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together to the outer layer of the skin and keeping the uppermost layer of skin free of pore-clogging debris so new cells can reveal themselves.  Note that since AHAs are water soluble, they do not penetrate very deep into pores.


  • Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs are oil soluble ingredients which go deeper into the skin and pores for a thorough cleanse.  BHAs are recommended with those with acne-prone, oily skin and those concerned with blackheads, large pores and milia since it can better penetrate through pore-clogging material.  Salicylic acid is probably the most familiar BHA as an active ingredient for treating acne.  BHAs also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.   


Is it possible to use both?
Yes! Since AHAs and BHAs work in different ways to exfoliate the top layer of skin, it is in fact safe to use both. BHAs break down the bonds between cells while AHAs cause the cells themselves to detach. Either are available in varying percentages, and you can work your way up to penetrate deeper into the pores.  Be sure to start off with a very low percentage so that your skin can get used to it first. 


My skin is too sensitive and doesn’t like AHA or BHA, can I use other ingredients for chemical exfoliating?

Yes! Those with very sensitive skin or skin that reacts to AHA/BHA can instead try fruit enzymes.  Papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple) are gentle exfoliants that are not nearly as harsh as BHAs or AHAs. Fruit enzymes break down the keratin (the protein that protects epithelial cells from damage or stress) in skin and target only the outermost layer of the epidermis.  It is important to speak to a dermatologist before proceeding because enzyme exfoliators can be a bit tricky.  They can become unstable depending on their environment and may risk of affecting the healthy cells underneath the skin.

There is also Polyhydroxy acids (PHA), which function the same as AHA, but cause less irritation due to their larger molecular size. They are especially beneficial in treating sensitive skin types that may not be able to tolerate AHA.  They provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits as well as assist with exfoliation. They promote a mild peeling by acting at a top surface level to smooth skin and improve overall tone. PHAs are also known for attracting moisture to prevent skin moisture loss while effectively exfoliating.


Any chemical exfoliation recommendations?

Always.  At ShopAmabie, we are huge COSRX fans and recommend our selection of chemical exfoliations from this iconic Korean skincare brand (famous for helping users heal and improve their skin and acne). 


Dry Skin / Normal Skin / Sensitive Skin:

We recommend using the COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid.  This gently exfoliates skin and helps to reveal brighter, more even-toned complexion.  It contains Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Water containing natural AHA and Glycolic Acid(AHA) that gently exfoliates and moisturizes skin. Other properties contained in this liquid are vitamins, and natural moisturizing ingredients that can refine without stimulating the skin. Using this helps to improve the appearance of the skin by looking it healthier and more vital. It is gentle enough on irritated and sensitive skin.


Oily Skin / Acne Prone Skintype:

If you are battling with oily skin or acne, we recommend Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid.  It is clinically proven to reduce the formation of blackheads and excess sebum.  With Betaine Salicylate, 4% BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid), it safely strengthens skin while deeply cleaning pores.  The Betaine salicylate provides extended exfoliation, which means even after the product has been removed and evaporate, it is still hard at work exfoliating! With White Willow bark water and B5 water, it has great anti-wrinkle and moisturizing effects as well.



Combination Skin Type:

For those with combination skin and combined concerns of needing exfoliation a little bit stronger than just AHA but less intense than BHA,  we recommend COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner. It is formulated with AHA, BHA, and Purifying Botanical Ingredients to soothe, refresh, and soften skin.  It maintains skin’s optimal pH level and works to refresh, and soften the skin and helps prevent the formation of future whiteheads and blackheads. In the formulation of the AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner, mineral water (as opposed to purified-water) for your skin’s health, natural AHA to even skin tone, and natural BHA to smoothen and soften skin.


Extremely Sensitive Skin Type:

For those who don’t like BHA/AHA, we would recommend trying the Cosrx PHA Moisture Renewal Power Cream. It is a very gentle exfoliating and hydrating cream for sensitive skin.

It contains 3% PHA which is a peeling component with high molecules.  The PHA Moisture Renewal Power Cream instantly hydrates while locking in essential moisture overnight.  It gently exfoliates while soaking the dead skin cells on the skin unlike AHA and BHA. This next generation facial exfoliating cream helps the skin appear smooth, dewy, and moisturized. This advanced, moisturizing cream is rich but never feels greasy.  Recommended to those who feel irritation from AHA.


Should you use a physical or chemical exfoliator?


Now you know there are actually all types of exfoliators, from tubes of grainy gels that we feel over our skin and creams to colorless liquids that seep into our skin – and it’s possible to use both types! It really depends what you want from your exfoliator. If you want rosy red cheeks, super smooth skin and that instant cleansed gratification, then perhaps you may choose physical exfoliation.  However, if you want a deeper penetration and/ or have sensitive skin, a chemical exfoliant may be a better choice for you.  For instance, when you’re cleaning a cup, you wouldn’t only clean its exterior, you would also clean the inside of the cup (at least I hope!!).  Just make sure you alternate them in your weekly skincare routine and do not over exfoliate! So which will you choose this week?