Chemical vs Physical Exfoliants

What is an exfoliant?
An exfoliant is a product that removes layers of dead skin cells, uneven texture, white heads & black heads from the top layer of your skin. It also helps with getting rid of bacteria on the surface of your skin. This can be done either with some sort of vigorous abrasion physically taking place, or it can be done chemically where a product is simply just applied to the skin & the chemical itself does the work for you.  Examples of physical exfoliation are: micro bead cleansers, abrassive face scrubs, wash cloths, spin bush head cleansers etc. Chemical exfoliants are classified under AHA’s & BHA’s. You can read about the benefits & differences between these two here. In brief, AHA’s (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) & BHA’s (Beta Hydroxy Acids) are two types of chemicals that can be applied to your skin to gently exfoliate without the use of any scrubbing or any abrasion.

physical exfoliation

I find explaining the difference in types of exfoliation  easier when I use my real life experiences. When I first started suffering with acne, I didn’t understand what was happening to my skin & in turn I was grabbing anything I could find to clean my skin. I did a lot more harm than good. I was using contradicting products, & too many of them at the same time. One product I used almost daily (yes daily!) was St. Ive’s Apricot Scrub, the one for blemished skin which contains 2% salicylic acid (BHA). This scrub was basically a physical AND chemical exfoliant. Being 100% honest, I did see the slightest improvement in my skin, but I now know that is due to the fact that my skin responds very well to salicylic acid (BHA) treatments. However, I was irritating my skin at the same time & the rough granules (crushed walnut shells) in the scrub was only making my skin red & probably tearing the surface of my skin to spread more of the bacteria from active acne around.

At this point I find it important to mention that not all scrubs are made with granules derived from shells. There are other scrubs available for your skin that have microbead technology. These are small round beads made of plastic which companies try to suggest are better for your skin because the particles are not sharp & are all uniform. Not only do I find this type of exfoliant ineffective but it also poses a large threat to both our environment & our ocean life. When we use these scrubs on our skin and rinse them away, the plastic microbeads then enter our water system & eventually end up in our seas & oceans. Plastic is the most prevalent form of pollution in our seas that pose a huge threat to animal & plant life in the ocean. I would never recommend these types scrubs.

A problem I kept having was texture on my skin, which I would describe as bumpy rough patches of skin on areas of my face that used to be normal pre-acne. So everyday, I would scrub my face to try to even out the texture & get a smooth canvas & I neglected to moisturize my skin. In turn I was stripping the oils from my skin, I was aggravating it further, I was spreading around the bacteria & I wasn’t re-introducing moisture after I stripped it. My face would get oilier faster than usual which would make me want to scrub it even more. You can tell by now that this is a viscous cycle & I was doing this for months on end.  All of this made me realize that I wasn’t understanding my skin. It was trying to tell me something important but I wasn’t listening. Something was imbalanced & it was my job to fix it.

chemical exfoliation

I started researching what acne was & how I can exfoliate my skin  without causing further harm. One product that kept showing up was either AHA or BHA. These are basically the two forms of chemical exfoliants. I know the word “chemical” sounds scary when thinking about skincare, but the truth is almost everything has chemicals in them. We just have to determine whether its harmful or useful.

Now I needed to narrow down what AHA’s & BHA’s were used for individually & how I could benefit from them. I learnt that BHA was the same chemical as my trusty salicylic acid, and that when used properly it could change your skin. I already know my skin reacts well to salicylic acid so I looked up a few brands that made it & stumbled upon Stridex Touch pads. There were many other brands that offered salicylic acid but I wanted to try something that was inexpensive, easier to obtain & one I can try without worrying about investing too much in the case that it didn’t work for me. This is a drugstore product that costs roughly about $3-$5 depending on where you buy it. With 90 pads in the container, I would be covered for upto 3 months using just this. I had a friend who was planning to visit Grenada from the United States & she offered to bring this for me. Bless her heart, she brought me 11 containers! I haven’t even gone through all of them yet & I’ve been using them for over a year every single night.


These Stridex pads are basically round cotton pads soaked in 2% salicylic acid which you would wipe over the surface of your skin & then heavily moisturize your skin. No abrasive product with harsh granules is involved. No scrubbing involved. If you suffer with acne, you understand how important this is. I started using Stridex touch pads & immediately I saw a difference. My skin felt cleaner, smoother & brighter. I applied moisturizer & went to bed & the next morning my skin was radiant. For the first time I saw vibrant, fresh skin without any harsh particles ripping into my skin.

There are definitely a few pros to using physical exfoliants. Anytime I wear makeup, I find my Clarisonic Mia useful. This is definitely physical exfoliation but with a tool. Its a spin brush head which pulsates on your skin when you move the brush in circular motions. It is supposed to get your skin 6 times cleaner than if you use just your hands. I find this tool helpful to clear away makeup from my skin. See my full makeup removal routine here.

makeup removal

In short, it gets every scrap of makeup off my skin. I usually only wear makeup a few times a month. If I haven’t worn makeup in weeks, I limit the use of my Clarisonic to once a week. I use it along with my Tea Tree Cleanser from The Body Shop or my  Green Tea Gel Cleanser from St. Ive’s.  Since discovering BHA, I haven’t touched any form of face scrub with particles.

Chemical exfoliation has literally saved my skin from so many issues.  I haven’t yet used any forms of AHA’s but I do know that its very helpful with aging skin, helps with skin turnover & can gently reveal new vibrant skin.

In conclusion I would recommend that if you suffer from uneven skintone, uneven texture, blackheads, whiteheads & clogged pores, that you look into chemical exfoliants. Even though physical exfoliation can deep clean your skin down into your pores they may cause more harm to your skin if used too often. Chemical exfoliants however can be used safely everyday to get rid of texture, help with signs of aging, reveal fresh vibrant skin and help with breakouts over time.

Thanks for reading! x


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