A Comprehensive Guide to Exfoliants: Both Chemical and Physical

Do you have an exfoliator incorporated into your skincare routine?

If not, you should! Exfoliating 2-3 times a week helps keep your skin soft and glowing.

There are two main types of exfoliators today: Chemical exfoliators/peels, and physical scrubs.

Chemical Exfoliants

Each of these compounds functions a bit differently from the other, so let's talk through some of those differences.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)

  • If you see your esthetician regularly, you've probably heard-of or been treated-with a chemical peel containing Glycolic Acid or Lactic Acid, both of which fall under the AHA category. 
  • As we age, our skin's natural cell renewal rate declines, which can lead to those pesky fine lines and wrinkles that seem to sneak up overnight. AHA's primary function is to give those skin cells a boost, and help them regenerate quickly and abundantly.
  • Boosting the cell turnover rate in such a manner helps to promote smooth, young-looking skin.

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)

  • This form of hydroxy acid presents itself in products that contain Salicylic Acid or Willow Bark Extract, both of which present significant antimicrobial properties.
  • Beta Hydroxy Acid does it's most powerful work in the stratum corneum - the outermost - layer of the skin, as it's rich in lipids (fats), and salicylic acid is readily dissolved in fat.
  • BHA is great for sloughing off all the tiny dead skin cells, and giving that cell turnover rate yet another boost.
  • Because of its aforementioned antimicrobial properties, BHA proves quite effective in the care of acne-prone, sensitive skin.

Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA)

  • This acid is considered a "new age" AHA and presents itself on your product label as gluconic acid.
  • It's found naturally in bees' royal jelly and honey, as well as in fermented beverages and foods (wine, kimchi, sauerkraut, etc), and is often used in the food industry to regulate the pH of consumable products.
  • In skincare, it is quite effective at gently exfoliating and boosting cell turnover rate while also providing moisture. Its gentle nature makes it well-suited to sensitive/acne-prone skin types.

MOST of the time, you'll see the Hydroxy Acids in facial care products, since it's generally not recommended to assault your face with physical exfoliants, and their benefits are quite effective for fighting signs of aging. That brings us to...

Physical Exfoliants

Physical exfoliants are all the scrub-tastic skin buffers we've always known. I'd say there are two categories within physical exfoliants.

Moisturizing Scrubs

Sugar, salt, pumice, ground up nuts or shells, seeds, oh my!

Anything you can mix with a cream or oil and scour away flakes and dead skin while ALSO moisturizing the freshly exposed layers underneath, I'd categorize as a moisturizing scrub.

Moisturizing scrubs are great for:

  • your feet to help soften dry spots and remove build-up of dead skin
  • your legs to help promote circulation and soften excess keratin production ("chicken skin")
  • rough elbows
  • man hands - my husband LOVES using our sugar scrub to deep-clean his hands from work dirt that normal hand washing can't get to.
  • your LEGS again to help get a closer, softer shave. Shave, scrub, shave again. Trust me!

Scrubby Items

Admittedly, I'm not very sure what to call this category, BUT I'm pretty satisfied with my super-technical term, tbh.

This category includes dry brushes, scrub pads, wash cloths, luffa, bath poufs, pumice stones, etc.

Scrubby Items™ are generally used on their own (dry brushes, pumice stones) or along with a cleanser (scrub pads, wash cloths, luffa sponges, bath poufs).

A few tips that include these types:

  • Use a dry brush before you shower or soak, while your skin is dry. It'll remove dead skin cells and over time give you SUPER soft skin. (awwww yeah)
  • Use a baby wash cloth or one of our crochet poufs to wash your face. The tight knit on them is a great gentle exfoliant. Hit your eyebrows, nose, and lips with the cloth or pouf, too, to keep the teeny flakes at bay.
  • If you use a pumice stone, file, or luffa soap on your feet, be sure to scrub in ONE direction. Scrubbing back and forth can cause cracking. Been there, heed my warning!

You should FOR SURE be exfoliating, whether by chemical or physical means is your choice. I will say, though, that it is generally not recommended to use the more aggressive scrubs (sugar, salt, etc) on your face.

The skin on your face is quite delicate and easily injured. Using scrubs with jagged particles like salt or sugar can cause micro-cuts on your skin and, in turn, lead to some pretty uncomfortable irritation.

SOME facial scrubs are okay, but only if they utilize super fine particles like extra small pumice or clay. All-in-all, I'd just steer clear and gently exfoliate with your pouf or baby wash cloth, and see your esthetician regularly for exfoliating treatments.


I repeat DO NOT.

Do not. Scrub your face. With the well-known and cheap Saint of apricot scrubs (catch my drift?).

And while I'm at it, try keep your scrubs biodegradable and eco-friendly. No micro beads like the OTHER well known and cheap Hut of scrubs (again, not naming names, know.)

It's not good for the Earth or your plumbing.

Happy Scrubbing!


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