Demystified exfoliants

The stage of exfoliation is one of the most important of its routine. It is even the one that gives results almost instantaneously. Indeed, a good exfoliant makes it possible effectively to rid our skin of the thousands of dead cells that it produces per day and that can make it dull and rough. A well exfoliated skin absorbs the products much better, but be careful, before jumping on any product where the word scrub is registered, it is important to know well the types of products that the market offer and the actual effects they may have on the skin. There are mechanical exfoliants, which include everything that requires rubbing action, and chemical exfoliants, which use enzymes or acids to dissolve dead cells.


Mechanical exfoliants are mainly in the form of a cleaner with micro beads or granules. Although it is very common on tablets, it is advisable to be careful with this type of exfoliants. Electric brushes, such as Clarisonic, and washcloths are also part of the mechanical type, but will be the subject of a more specific article.

Mechanical exfoliants can only act on the surface layer of the skin. Despite beliefs and some advertisements, they can not eliminate blackheads or "unclog" pores! Most "scrubs" consist of microbeads or fruit stone granules. They are applied to the face and gently massaged to remove superficial deposits. The problem is that they are often too abrasive (sandpaper on the face). They cause more wrongs than good. The granules are often irregular and very hard. When rubbed on the skin, it may irritate and damage the skin. It should also be noted that plastic micro-beads are polluting and harmful to the environment ... Why not avoid them! For those who want to use a mechanical exfoliator, it should be ensured to find a product that is very soft with granules with regular contours. A washcloth can also be very suitable!

Chemical exfoliants are by far my favorites. Do not be afraid of the chemical word! They are applied to the face, after having cleaned and dried, and are left to act under the moisturizer. The two most common and easy to find types are alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) exfoliants.


The most common BHA is the one based on salicylic acid and the most common AHA are those based on lactic acid or glycolic acid. They each have the property of working on the surface to improve the appearance of the skin. What differentiates them is the ability of BHA to dissolve oil (sebum) and, by the same token, to unclog the clogged pores! This makes salicylic acid an ideal treatment for people who have greasy and / or acne-prone skin but also for those who are trying to get rid of blackheads.


Chemical exfoliants can be found mainly in three forms: gel, lotion and liquid. The liquid (a bit like a tonic lotion) is particularly suitable for those who do not want a heavy product. The ideal concentration of a BHA exfoliator is 1 to 2%, depending on the sensitivity of your skin. It is best to start with 1% and move to a higher percentage when the skin is used to it. It is also important to look at the pH of the product being used, as an exfoliant formulated at a bad pH will not be able to be effective. For BHA exfoliants, a pH of 3 is recommended. For AHAs, the ideal concentration is between 5% and 10%, with a pH between 3 and 4. The chemical exfoliant can be applied morning and evening, once a day or every other day. It is according to everyone's needs, but be careful to start using it gradually to see how your skin reacts.

So, what to choose?

In short, if your concerns concern only the superficial part of your skin (skin damaged by the sun, dry, dull, etc.) AHA exfoliants are all indicated. For those who need to go deeper and act on blackheads and pimples, a BHA exfoliator is what you need.



  • There are AHA and BHA cleaners. They are not optimal since contact with the skin will not be long enough to take effect.
  • Since the exfoliant dissolves the layer of dead cells, it is doubly important to protect the skin with a good sunscreen; Minimum SPF from 30!
  • It is best to have the doctor's opinion if you want to use the BHA together with a retinol prescription or any other prescription of the same kind.





Ahn HH, Kim IH. Whitening effect of salicylic acid peels in Asian patients. Dermatol Surg. 2006; 32: 372.

Davies M, Marks R. Studies on the effects of salicylic acid on normal skin. BrJ Dermatol. 1976; 95: 187.

Green B. After 30 years ... the future of hydroxyacids. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2005; 4 (1): 44-45

Dermatologic surgery, February 2005, p. 149-154.

Cosmetic dermatology, October 2001, p. 15-18

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  • I used the friction effect of the washcloth, but now I will use an exfoliant, because as I grow older, I notice that my complexion is duller and presents some spots ,,,,

    Christiane the
  • Interesting article! I use the BHA 2% since 6 months. It really replaces the scrub that is abrasive. In addition, my spots are erased and my complexion is clearer. Only problem, I do not find it in store or pharmacy, I buy it online.

    Hélène the

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