Last updated on Mar 9th, 2021 at 11:06 am

If you’ve never used a chemical exfoliator, you’re missing out on some serious skincare benefits – they do so much more than just remove dead skin. But first, let’s break down the differences between chemical and physical exfoliators…

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Chemical vs physical exfoliators

Physical exfoliators (aka scrubs) contain granules that physically work away at dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliators contain enzymes, alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxyl acids (BHAs), that dissolve dead skin cells. They come in multiple forms – toners, masks, exfoliating gels, peels, etc.

Physical exfoliators can damage your skin

Scrubs can feel very satisfying to use – especially for those with oily skin. It goes along with a ‘clean’ feeling that can’t really be replicated by any other type of product.

BUT, scrubs can be really harmful to your skin – when you look at freshly exfoliated skin under a microscope, it’s covered in small cuts and tears (I’ve seen this first hand!).

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Not only do these cuts and tears lead to premature ageing, but over an extended period this is likely to cause inflammation, which can lead to a myriad of other skin problems. It’s also detrimental to acne-prone skins as it will slow down healing and spread bacteria.

The benefits of using a chemical exfoliator

Chemical exfoliators have so many added benefits in addition to exfoliating your skin. Depending on which ingredients are used, chemical exfoliators give you an instant glow and speed up cell turnover in the long run. They can usually also be combined with other active ingredients for an even more potent product.

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Are there any reasons not to use chemical exfoliators?

There aren’t any universal downfalls to using chemical exfoliants. Of course, there are many variations available, and you might need to try a few before you find one that suits your skin type perfectly.

Read more: What is your acid mantle and is it important? 

Types of chemical exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators that use enzymes

Papaya, pineapple or pumpkin extracts are most frequently used in enzymatic exfoliants. If you’re new to chemical exfoliators or have sensitive skin, a papaya or pineapple enzyme is a great mild option to start with. Pumpkin is great, but it packs a punch, so pay close attention to the clock when you use one of those.

Enzymes have taken flack for being unstable (and thus ineffective) ingredients, but I’ve never had less than great results in the 15 years that I’ve been using them. I can personally recommend each of the products below.

Enzymatic exfoliators to try:

Chemical exfoliators containing AHAs

Alpha hydroxy acids – most commonly glycolic acid – are used in a variety of formulations, from toners and moisturisers to masks – at the end of the day they’ll all exfoliate your skin.

In addition to giving you bright and radiant skin, these products also leave you with a glow and speed up cell renewal. AHAs are most often combined with other actives, so if you’re after an all-rounder this is probably the best route for you.

AHA exfoliators to try:

Chemical exfoliators containing BHAs

BHAs are great for oily and problematic skins as they’re oil soluble, which means it goes right into the pores and dissolves oils there. They’re also very anti-inflammatory, which is equally great for acne.

BHA exfoliator to try:

  • Environ Sebumask, R200 (find a stockist here)