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Here's Your Complete Guide To Chemical Exfoliants

AHA, BHA, what do they all mean?

If you didn't know by now, exfoliating is a VERY important step in your skincare routine, even though it is not a step that you do daily like cleansing or toning. Exfoliating helps in sloughing away the accumulated dead skin cells on your face in order to let new cells grow. Excessive build-up of dead skin cells can result in clogged pores and super oily skin, which can eventually lead to new breakouts

Exfoliating is important because as you do so, your skin cells regenerate, making it easier for your skin to drink up all the good stuff from your other skincare products. Also, regular exfoliation leads to smoother, brighter and softer skin.

There are two types of exfoliants widely available in the market right now: physical and chemical. Keep scrolling to find out more about the two!

Chemical exfoliants vs Physical exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants—aka AHAs and BHAs—may sound foreign and scary, like something out of a mad scientist's lab, but they are actually very gentle and can help the skin a lot when used properly and in small doses. Chemical exfoliants break the bonds between skin cells and loosen up the dead skin so that it can be easier to remove.

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Chemical exfoliants are divided into two categories: AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acid). AHAs (such as lactic and glycolic acid) help in loosening up the dead skin to reveal a new layer. They are also great for refining lines, smoothing out wrinkles, and unclogging pores. Meanwhile, BHAs (such as salicylic acid) have great anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, so it's a popular choice for those with oily, acne-prone skin.

On the other hand, physical exfoliants are pretty much self-explanatory. They are products that usually have ground up nuts, shells or grains. You see them as face or body scrubs. As you (gently!) rub it on your skin, the dead skin cells are buffed away, leaving behind smoother and brighter skin. 

Physical exfoliants are the more accessible option, although they have gotten a bad rep over the last few years with the issue of the walnut face scrub from Kylie Jenner's skincare line, Kylie Skin, as well as the issue of the St. Ives Apricot Face Scrub being *too* abrasive. 

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Pros and Cons

Chemical exfoliants


  • Especially great for people with sensitive or acne-prone skin as it won't further irritate already-inflamed skin.
  • It does not cause micro grazes or cuts as it does not involve physically rubbing the skin.
  • AHAs work great for *gently* removing dead skin.
  • BHAs are amazing at penetrating deep into the pores.


  • The results may not show as fast as when you use a physical exfoliant.
  • It can sting and burn the skin when used at a high percentage. (Tip: Begin using actives at 2% and work your way up once you're sure that your skin can handle it.)

Physical exfoliants


  • They will show much quicker results because of the use of force in scrubbing.
  • They are cheaper and won't break the bank.
  • They are very accessible and readily available everywhere.


  • It can be easy to overdo usage, which can cause microtears and abrasions in the skin which are very damaging in the long run.

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Product Recommendations

These are some of the best chemical exfoliators in the market right now for every skin type:

Normal:  Pixi Glow Tonic

This skincare superstar stays at the top of everyone's list of holy grails (or even bucketlist to try!) and it is almost always sold out. Its main ingredient is glycolic acid, which gently accelerates cell renewal to reveal a more *~glowy~* and luminous skin. It also has ginseng to energize the skin and aloe vera for added hydration.

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Pixi Glow Tonic, P1950, BeautyMNL

Dry: Son and Park Beauty Water

This famous Korean bestseller has willow bark and papaya extract that helps slough away dead skin cells and leave behind plump and glowing skin. It boasts a low pH level of 4.5, which will reset the skin's natural pH after cleansing. It also has lavender water, rose water and orange fruit extract which help to boost hydration.

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Son and Park Beauty Water, P1,400, Althea

Oily: COSRX One Step Original Clear Pads

These pre-soaked pads with betaine salicylate and willow bark water will control your skin's sebum production while gently exfoliating your skin, but it won't dry it out. Pro tip: You can cut the pads in half so that you save money but still get results!

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COSRX One Step Original Clear Pads, P810, Calyxta

Combination: ACWELL Licorice pH Balancing Toner

This toner is super popular among skincare lovers with its high concentration of licorice water which will brighten your skin's complexion. It also has peony and green tea extract to reduce inflammation and erase pigmentation, dark spots and acne scarring.

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ACWELL Licorice pH Balancing Toner, P990, Kbeautycafe

Sensitive: Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner

Using acids on your face when you have sensitive skin can sound pretty terrifying, but worry not, because this toner is alcohol-free and it contains aloe vera to help soothe and hydrate your skin, as well as reduce inflammation.

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Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner, P700, Kbeautycafe