Chemical or physical? What exfoliating *actually* does, and the 5 very best products to use.

If you ask any beauty editor, they'll tell you that exfoliating is a non-negotiable step in your skincare routine. Whether that be a physical or chemical exfoliant, you'll want to use one regularly.

Not only is it a crucial product to get clear, glowy skin but it also makes your skin feel so damn smooth.

Watch: Here are seven ways to improve your skin while sleeping. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia

When it comes to choosing the right exfoliator, you need to consider your skin type and what exfoliator will suit you specifically. So to make things easy, we're here to share everything you need to know about exfoliators and the best ones on the market.

What does an exfoliator do?

To put it simply: an exfoliator removes the buildup of dead skin cells.

Why should you exfoliate?

While your skin sheds dead skin cells regularly, it doesn't get them all. And the leftovers can tend to accentuate fine lines and make the skin look dull. So you want to exfoliate multiple times a week to remove the buildup of dead skin so that your skin looks even, clear and glowy. 

Not to mention, if you apply your serums and moisturisers on top of those layers of dead skin, they won't penetrate through and do their job properly. So you really should exfoliate.

What is a physical exfoliator?

A physical exfoliator is any exfoliating product that requires you to manually scrub it into the skin. Think, your traditional facial scrubs, powders and brushes.

What is a chemical exfoliator?

Chemical exfoliators refer to acid or enzyme-based exfoliators. While an acid might sound harsher than a physical exfoliator, it tends to be more gentle as it removes a buildup of dead skin cells by dissolving the glue that binds them together. 

The most common chemical exfoliators include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA), such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, or beta hydroxy acids (BHA), such as salicylic acid. There's also polyhydroxy acid (PHA), which is a more gentle acid for those with sensitive skin.


These products are oil-soluble (meaning they can't dissolve in water) and can penetrate deeper into skin. Chemical exfoliants are also less abrasive on the skin, so these days, they are the preferred exfoliator option for many.

The best exfoliators for your face.

As the beauty industry is rapidly growing, there are plenty of exfoliators to choose from. But how do you know which one is right for you? 

We've rounded up the best exfoliator options for oily, combination, dry, sensitive and mature skin, and explained what each does differently. But before you commit to any, you'll want to do your product research first.

Alpha H Liquid Gold, $59.95.

Alpha H is a cult classic chemical exfoliator. It uses alpha-hydroxy acids, including glycolic acid (great for pigmentation, light scarring, fine lines and dullness) to smooth out texture and firm overnight.

What skin type should use it: mature skin.


Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub, $49.

This option is great for someone who likes manually scrubbing their exfoliator but also wants the deeper penetration that chemical exfoliants give. It's formulated with glycolic acid to unclog pores and refine texture, and includes granules (environmentally friendly jojoba beads) and tea tree oil, so it's great on acne.

What skin type should use it: acne-prone or oily skin.

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser, $61.


This is a gentler, everyday option. The ExfoliKate is an exfoliating cleanser that removes makeup while scrubbing the skin and removing impurities. It's also both physical and chemical, as you scrub it in yourself, while it includes enzymes, glycolic and lactic acid.

What skin type should use it: All skin types including sensitive. 

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, $27.


These pads might look little, but my gosh they're mighty. Containing a powerful dose of five alpha and beta-hydroxy acids, antioxidants and vitamins, these work to remove anything that's stopping your skin from appearing clear and glowy (think excess oil, texture and pigmentation).

If you're after something strong that really works, these are a must-try.

What skin type should use it: Every skin type (but be careful if you're sensitive).

Ole Henriksen Pore-Balance Facial Sauna Scrub, $39.

Now, this last one's a fun one. The Ole Henriksen Sauna Scrub is both a warming and cooling scrub that works to unclog pores and remove excess oil. It also includes our favourite ingredients: glycolic and lactic acid, to lift and loosen those pesky dead skin cells. Plus, it has a refreshing mint scent!

What skin type should use it: combination and oily skin.

What's your favourite face exfoliator? Let us know in the comments!

Feature image: Instagram/@katesomervilleskincare @drdennisgross