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Welcome beautiful people! I am Laura, a beauty lover and chocolate addict. I love to share my thoughts on the best (and of course the worst) of all things beauty related.

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Unpacking Exfoliation: Physical vs. Chemical

Exfoliation is the key step to getting gorgeous clear and glowing skin. By adding an exfoliant into your routine once or twice a week, your skin can make dramtic improvements. But exfoliation can be a little bit scary if don’t understand skincare. So I thought I’d put together a bit of a guide of what exfoliants I use regularly. 

In the market today, there are two main types of exfoliation - physical and chemical. Both basically do the same thing - remove dead skin cells - but go about doing this in very different ways. During this post I am going to share the difference between the two, as well as my favourite physical and chemical exfoliants. If you want more information, I would highly recommend checking out this post from Nudie Glow

Physical Exfolation

Physical exfoliants are essentially anything considered a scrub - a grainy type product that you buff into the skin to remove dead skin cells. They buff away using friction and will often leave you with instantly soft feeling skin. Physical exfoliantsl are often considered to be extremely rough and harsh on skin, however this is untrue. When you find a good physical exfoliant that works well for your skin, they can be really gentle on the skin. What you need to be careful about is how rough you go about your exfoliation. If you’re using a physical exfoliant too often, scrubbing for too long or being too rough on your skin, then your skin can end up being left feeling irritated and looking red. Go gently with physical exfoliants - they are amazing when used well. 

I use a physical exfoliant maybe once a week, sometimes every two weeks when I’m being particularly lazy. After cleansing, typically before I put a mask on, I will pull out a physical scrub and use a small amount to soften my skin and remove any excuse dirt and grime from my face. I always use physical exfoliants on damp skin, massaging a small amount in circular motion over my face. I will only massage for about 30 seconds before removing as I don’t want to irritate my skin in the process.

I am quite picky with my physical exfoliant, but I do have four that I would recommend if you are in the market for something new.

Clinique Pep Start*

This cooling hybrid formulation gently dissolves dirt, excess oil and impurities whilst sloughing away dulling dead skin cells to reveal a fresh, glowing complexion. Infused with papaya extract for a gentle but effective enzymatic exfoliation, supported by the manual action of natural silica and bamboo beads. 

The newest physical I own, but a quick favourite. It is thick and quite grainy, making it easy to exfoliate quickly and effectively. It's my go-to exfoliant when my skin needs a quick pick me up in the morning. A small amount of this scrub goes a long way!


Obagi Exfoliating Cleasner*

Obagi 360 Exfoliating Cleanser is a daily face wash that promotes clear pores and a healthy complexion by removing debris, dirt and oil from deep within pores. Gentle mechanical exfoliation  removes dead skin cells that otherwise would leave the complexion dull and sluggish.

This is very similar to the Clinique Pep Start, a creamy and grainy cleanser that is super easy to use for both a quick and effective scrub. It says that it can be used daily, but personally I don't because again, if you are using exfoliants too regularly it can irritate your skin and dry it out (which I don't need). I use a small amount on damp skin, massage in and then rinse off.

Arbonne RE 9 Advanced Prepwork Cleansing Polish*

A fresh start to your daily regimen. Formulated with exfoliants from lingonberry and apricot to gently buff away dull surface skin cells, makeup and excess oil, leaving skin feeling fresh and looking brighter. Gentle enough for use twice a day.

This exfoliant is quite different to the other two. It is lighter in consistency, less grainy and comes in more of a gel formula. It gives a more gentle exfoliation of the two, making it good for using more regularly. While I still wouldn't use it twice a day, I would use this one more than once a week.

Frank Body Creamy Face Scrub 

Effective yet as gentle as can be, this cream cleanser helps you bid farewell to dirt and makeup without drying out the skin. Infused with antioxidant-rich green coffee bean extract, soothing marshmallow root and echinacea extract, detoxifying charcoal and a moisture-replenishing blend of coconut, grapeseed and sweet almond oils. Skin is left seriously clean but comfortably soft and supple.

The Frank Body scrub is honestly one of my favourites. While I currently don't own it, it is on my list to repurchase very soon. It is a creamy version of their body scrub with some beautiful added extras. It is gentle on the skin and over time I noticed a huge improvement in how my skin looked. Gets a big tick of approval from me.

 Peter Thomas Roth FirmX Peeling Gel*

A peeling gel that visibly rolls, lifts, and sweeps away dead skin cells when massaged onto skin. Multiaction enzymes (pineapple, pomegranate, and keratinase) along with cellulose effectively peel and help uncover a smooth, fresh, new complexion without drying, irritating, or causing undue stress to skin. It removes impurities and decongests clogged pores for a youthful, radiant look.

Now this exfoliant could be considered more of an enyzmatic exfoliant than a chemical exfoliant, but I wanted to share about it anyway. Enzyme exfoliation is generally better for sensitive skin because you can’t over-exfoliate like you can with other products. Enzymes digest only the dead skin cells attached to the upper layer of the skin, which means that you won’t damage the healthy skin underneath. This peeling gel works on the top layer of skin, while also containing hyaluronic acid which penetrates deep into the skin to rehydrate and plump the skin. You take a small amount, and on dry skin massage it in until small beads start to form. Then you rinse off. If you want to continue the exfoliation, leave it on for five minutes before rinsing. 


Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation is quite different to physical exfoliation. Instead of physically scrubbing your skin, chemical exfoliation uses acids to aid in cell turnovers. Acids sound scary. There was a time when I was terrified to use them because my skin was quite sensitive and I was worried about how my skin would react. In actual fact, acids and chemical exfoliants tend to be more gentle than physical, because you can't really be too rough with chemical exfoliants. In saying that, all skin reacts differently so make sure you patch test before covering your face in a chemical exfoliant. 

Most chemical exfoliants will feature two types of acids - AHA's (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) or BHA's (Beta Hydroxy Acids).  AHA's tend to be your glycolic and lactic acid, which treat the upper layer of your skin and help with concerns such as pigmentation, uneven skin tone and texture, and sun damage. Your BHA's tend to be the salicylic kind of acid, which penetrate through the skin to help with reducing clogged pores. BHA's are great for helping with blemishes, blackheads and excess oil and sebum production. 

I love my chemical exfoliants and use these quite regularly in my routine. I have serums that I use daily, as well as other more intense chemical exfoliants that I use once or twice a week, when my skin is looking particularly bad or in need of a boost.

Medik8 Glycolic Activator*

The Glycolic Acid Activator is an exfoliating formula that effectively sloughs away dead skin cells to smoothen the skin and maximise absorption of the moisturiser and subsequent skincare products.

Designed to be used in conjunction with the Balance Moisturiser*, this exfoliant is an extra addition to your skincare routine. You apply a couple of drops to your skin BEFORE applying the moisturiser. I love glycolic and this is no exception. It helps my skin look clearer and brighter, while also helping to reduce my acne as well. I like that I can add this to my routine without having to change other products out.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel

Designed as a daily, at home dermatologist visit, these easy to use pre-soaked pads are infused with exfoliating alpha and beta hydroxy acids delivered through a two step process. Formulated to reduce fine lines, minimize pores and reveal a fresh, radiant complexion. 

This little miracle worker contains the best of both worlds - AHA's AND BHA's. These pads are my favourite form of exfoliation. While they are designed to be able to use daily, I use them maybe two or three times a week, or when my skin needs it (mostly because they are quite pricey). They work wonders and my skin looks amazing after using them (come the next morning). It helps clear out blemishes and also to leave my skin looking bright and even. They are wonder pads.

Pixi Glow Tonic*

Oxygenating, exfoliating facial glow tonic with ginseng and fructose for normal to dry, dull and aging skin. Helps tone, firm and tighten the skin and removes dead skin cells for healthier looking skin. Alcohol free.

I have been using the Pixi Glow Tonic for close to 6 months now and I absolutely love it. It is a gentle exfoliating toner that I use after cleansing. I simple saturate a cotton pad and then wipe it across my entire face. My skin has looked clearer and more even since I started using it. Unlike other Glycolic Acid toners, this has not irritated my skin at all. It is definitely one of my favourites.

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum

Make your beauty sleep really count with this hard-working resurfacing serum; the ultimate must-have addition to any skincare regime. By blending 12% glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric and salicylic acids and raspberry extract, this intensive night treatment combats an endless plethora of skin concerns for a total skin rejuvenation.  

This is another gem that ticks multiple boxes with both AHA's and BHA's. It is a super simple serum that works wonders. With Glycolic, Lactic and Salicylic Acid you get the best of everything. I have only ever used mini versions of this so far, but I love it. It leaves my skin looking so clear and my blemishes less frequent. 


And there ends my massive post on exfoliation. I do help this has helped you to understand the difference between some exfoliants a little bit more. I use both Physical and Chemical exfoliants in my routine to help my skin look it's best. I would say that I use physical more frequently than chemical, but using a mix in your routine will give you the best results.

I'd love to hear what your favourite exfoliants are. Let me know in the comments below xx  

*DISCLAIMER – Products with * have been sent for trial/review purposes. Although this product was sent for me to trial and review, all views and opinions are 100% honest. All opinions are based purely from my own experiences. The Life of Laura is not by a professional or expert. Please do not confuse my opinions with professional advice.

**This post contains affiliated links.


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