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Exfoliation 101

Exfoliating products have recently been one of the most highly hyped products among all skincare lovers. Do you know what it is, their different types, and how to make the best out of it? If you want to learn more about exfoliation, from the basics to incorporating them into your routine, this article is for you!

What does exfoliating do?


Exfoliation is the process of removing the dead skin cells on the top layer of your skin. It will help reveal a newer and fresh looking skin and allow your skin to glow like it never did before. Do you know that the exfoliation process is a normal physiologic thing that your skin can naturally do? The enzyme on the top layers of our skin can break the bond between the dead skin cells on our skin naturally. However, as we age, you could probably notice that your skin looks dull a lot easier than your younger self. This is caused by a reduction in the rate of the natural exfoliation process by our skin, and this is when exfoliating products can come into play.

Types of exfoliation

Exfoliation is generally divided into three types:

  1. Physical exfoliation: Scrubs, face wash device, cotton pads
  2. Chemical exfoliation: AHA, BHA, PHA
  3. Enzyme exfoliation: Papain, Bromelain, Pumpkin enzyme

Let’s discuss each one of this category so that you’ll know which one will suit best for you.

Physical Exfoliation


Physical exfoliators work by removing the top layer of your dead skin cells by mechanical friction between the surface area of the exfoliators and your skin. It works only on the most superficial layers of your skin. Example of physical exfoliators ranges from scrubs, face wash device, to cotton pads. Physical exfoliators are not meant to be used daily and can be a great exfoliating option for teenage skin. Try to avoid physical exfoliation when you have sensitive or currently irritated skin since it can worsen your condition. Scrubs that we can generally find in skincare products are sugar, salt, coffee, jojoba seed, oatmeal, and even microbeads plastic (try to avoid this last one at all cost due to its’ negative impact after effect for our environment, especially the ocean). Although, when used properly, scrubs can be a great way to give an instant exfoliating effect, people tend to rub the scrubs a little bit too harsh for their skin which will lead to irritation. If you’re opting for a gentler scrub, oatmeal, and jojoba seed is your best bet out of all the other options mentioned above.

Librarian tip: Rub your scrub GENTLY in a circular motion, passing the skin area 2-3 times max. Don’t do it for too long, and don’t rub with excessive force! This will lead to over-exfoliation and further skin irritation.

Chemical Exfoliation


Chemical exfoliators can work on the deeper layer of the skin by breaking the bond between the dead skin cells. Their effect can be more gradual than physical exfoliators. Chemical exfoliators are generally divided into three different kinds based on the shape of their molecule:

  1. AHA (Alpha hydroxy acid)
  2. BHA (Beta hydroxy acid)
  3. PHA (Poly hydroxy acid)

AHA or alpha hydroxy acid is usually derived from fruits and can be found as glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid. AHA is water-soluble, which means that it works only on the superficial layer of the skin. Its’ humectant properties help retain moisture on the skin to keep the drying effects away. It makes them especially great for people with dry skin. Although people with oily skin can benefit from it and BHA or beta hydroxyl acid is more commonly found in skincare product as salicylic acid. BHA is oil-soluble, which means that it can work deeply into the nook and cranny of your skin. Salicylic acid has also been proven to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, oil-control properties. That’s why it is an excellent exfoliating alternative for those with oily and acne-prone skin.

PHA or poly hydroxyl acids work similarly to AHA. However, due to their large molecular size, they are less likely to penetrate deeper into the skin. When you’re new in the exfoliating world, you can start by using PHA-containing products.


Enzyme Exfoliation


They are considered the gentlest despite it being the least effective out of all three; Enzyme exfoliators are the least known but can be a great exfoliating option as well. Enzyme exfoliators are usually derived from fruit enzyme. They work by breaking the protein bond between dead skin cells, just like chemical exfoliators. Some example of enzyme exfoliators is bromelain from pineapple, papain from papaya and pumpkin enzyme. This category of exfoliators is considered the least stable; temperature, pH, and temperature can affect their enzyme and effectivity. That’s why they are more commonly found in sheet masks which are single-use products since they can be tricky to formulate.

How to exfoliate face?

For any of you who just started your exfoliating journey, we make sure to curate the best exfoliating products at Skin Library. But before you pick your exfoliating product based on your skin need, let’s learn how to start your exfoliating journey:

  1. Start with a product containing a lower percentage

Always start with a product in the lower percentage range. The percentage of exfoliators in a product varies. Instead of jumping straight to the highest possible, you should always start with the lower percentage.

  1. Start using them at a lower frequency

You may wonder how often you should exfoliate your face; we recommend you ALWAYS read the instruction labels carefully. Some products are formulated to be used daily while others are formulated to be used occasionally, like 1 – 2 times a week. Although if it mentioned daily, always start by using the 1 – 2 times weekly and increase the frequency for every 2 weeks until your skin builds up the tolerance on the recommended frequency

  1. Be mindful of any changes on your skin (Don’t be greedy)

Observe the changes in your skin, both positive and negative. Know your skin’s threshold, and don’t go overboard with exfoliators. Because when you’re exfoliating too much, you might compromise your skin barrier, and you’re risking yourself on over-exfoliating your skin

  1. If you already know your skin tolerance, you can build up the percentage, frequency or even combine some of the products for maximum effect

When you feel comfortable enough using exfoliating products, you can try to mix and match your products to get the best effect out of the exfoliating products. A combination of physical and chemical exfoliators can be a great combo for any advanced user.

Some of our exfoliating products curations for you to pick:

1. Beauty of Joseon AHA Bubble Toner

AHA exfoliant toner

A chemical exfoliator in the form of a bubble toner, with 3% AHA to give you the best yet gentlest exfoliating effect. This toner will keep your dead skin cells away from your skin.


2. Acwell AHA BHA PHA Exfoliant Cleanser


For anyone with acne-prone and congested skin. We got you covered with this Acwell AHA BHA PHA Exfoliation cleanser. BHA can clear out the gunk on your pores deeply, combined with AHA and PHA for brightening. It will keep your skin clear and clean.


3. beplain BHA peeling ampoule



4. Dr. Oracle Enzyme Powder Wash


Containing the papain and bromelain enzyme from both papaya and pineapple. This enzyme powder wash will give you a gentle exfoliation and prep your skin for your following skincare routine so that it can absorb better.



5. Axis-Y PHA Resurfacing Glow Peel



Takeaway: Exfoliating can change your skincare game for good. It will shed the dead skin cells and allow newer, better-looking and glowing skin to show itself off. However, with tons of exfoliating products available on the market, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the number of options. That’s why understanding each of the benefit and function of exfoliators can help you narrow down the best one that fits your skin’s need. From physical exfoliators, chemical exfoliators, to enzyme exfoliators, we’ve covered them all!


Claudia Christin

- By Claudia Christin (@funskincare)

MBBS, Ph.D. (Dermatology)


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