Are you stressed about having dull, rough, or bumpy skin with acne scars, or hyperpigmentation? Or are you looking for a simple-but-effective solution to get clear skin and prevent clogged pores which may lead to breakouts, blackheads, and enlarged pores?
Exfoliation can be one of the best ways to get rid of all these unwanted problems, such as pimples, dull complexion. Have you crossed paths with the famous term—’10-step Korean skin care routine’? Exfoliation is one of the critical parts of the Korean women's beauty regimen, and it's something that each of us can easily do at home.
If you use the right product for exfoliation, your skin will experience a faster rejuvenation process, making it look more youthful and feel smoother.
Still unsure how to do it right? Here is the K Beauty World's comprehensive guide to learning how to properly exfoliate your skin, along with a list of ten of the best Korean exfoliators you can feel good about integrating into your beauty steps.
What is exfoliation?
At the most basic level, exfoliation simply means the process of removing dead skin cells or dirt from the skin's surface using a chemical, granular substance or tool as known as a scrub.
Exfoliating can help cleanse the skin, speed up the skin renewal process, smooth skin texture, even out skin tone, and prevent the formation of blackheads and whiteheads.
Skin peeling also helps unclog congested pores, which can be a cause of acne breakouts. If your skin is riddled with dead cells, a potent serum or moisturizer may not be able to penetrate deep into the skin and do its job, making these steps less effective.
Why is it Important to Exfoliate?
Our skin naturally sheds dead skin cells through normal daily activities and regenerates itself in a cycle of about 28 days for an adult and 3-5 days for a baby—that's why babies have such a soft complexion.
Sometimes the dead cells are not shed as often as they should due to various factors such as genetics, sun damage, environmental stressors, dryness or oiliness.
With age, the natural skin shedding process (skin turnover) and oil production also decreases. This causes dead skin cells to continue to accumulate on the skin's surface, leaving the skin dry, lacklustre, flaky and patchy.
A regular exfoliation routine can prevent these problems and give the skin on your face and body a healthy, natural glow and vitality.
What is the best type of exfoliator?
Exfoliators can be categorized into two different types, designed for different skin types and needs—physical (mechanical) and chemical. All offer equally great benefits, but for the best results, choose the one that best suits your skin type.
Physical exfoliators involve manually scrubbing or rubbing the surface of the skin with mechanical exfoliating tools or products that contain some types of rough/slightly abrasive materials or physical particles that rub against the skin to slough off the dead skin layer.
Commonly known fine granules of physical exfoliants include sugar, salt, walnut shells, sand, rice bran, clay, baking soda, pumice stone, and silica.
If you want to soften and smooth your skin texture and remove visible flakes, a physical exfoliation is a great way to get quick results.
Some mechanical examples include:
- Face scrubs/Wash-off masks
- Peeling gels, lotions, creams
- Exfoliating mitts
- Peeling pads
- Dry brushes
- Facial sponges
- Pumice stone
- Microneedling or derma rollers
Chemical exfoliants are acids that weaken the bonds between skin cells, making it easier for dead skin cells to break away. They can penetrate deep into the pores and extract built up dirt and impurities from the skin.
The most common chemical exfoliants added to cosmetics and skin care products are alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA), polyhydroxy acids (PHA), lipohydroxy acids (LHA), plant-based enzymes and retinols.
These leave-on exfoliators are available in various concentrations and forms, such as facial cleansers, serums, essences, toners, masks and creams.
You would benefit most from a chemical peel if your skin problems tend to stem from the deeper level of the skin, such as acne, whiteheads, or blackheads.
What are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)?
Naturally derived from fruits, nuts, milk or sugarcane. AHAs are tiny molecules of hydrophilic (water-soluble) acid. They exfoliate and dissolve dead skin cells on the surface of your skin and stimulate the renew of the skin cell process.
Alpha hydroxy acids help smooth out pigmentation spots, fine lines, wrinkles, and acne scars while brightening and even out your skin tone.
The most popular AHAs in cosmetics include glycolic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and mandelic acid.
What are beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)?
In skin care, the most common of these is salicylic acid! It is extracted from willow bark, wintergreen leaves and sweet birch bark.
As an acid exfoliant, salicylic acid is lipophilic (oil soluble) and works by softening and dissolving keratin. It easily penetrates deep into pores and clears out excess sebum and dead skin cells while preventing blackheads, whiteheads and acne breakouts.
(Related blog post: What is the difference between AHA, BHA, and PHA?)
What are retinoids?
Retinoids are the umbrella term for retinol products—a class of skin supplements derived from vitamin A. They improve skin texture, pigmentation, skin tone and reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production. Retinols help protect skin from free radicals and promote cell turnover, leaving skin clearer, smoother and more radiant.
There are several topical retinoids on the market, including retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, alitretinoin, bexarotene, retin-A, retin-A micro, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, and isotretinoin.
They differ in concentration—over-the-counter(OTC) preparations containing a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient are suitable for retinol newcomers. If they don't work, you should consult a dermatologist, as prescription retinoids have a much stronger formula.
What are the benefits of exfoliating your skin?
Exfoliation helps to restore the natural process and bring fresher, healthier cells to the surface of your skin. With newer cells, your skin can retain moisture better and allow skin care products to penetrate more effectively. As a result, your skin looks ultra-dewy and feels baby-soft, with a healthy, natural glow.
Additional benefits of retinoids include:
- Unclogs pores
- Diminishes the appearance of sun damage, enlarged pores
- Increased cell turnover
- Clears out breakouts and acne
- Smooths rough, bumpy texture
- Lighten skin pigmentation, acne scars
- Enhances the effectiveness of products
- Reduces the signs of aging
- Evens out skin tone
- Stimulates collagen synthesis
- Hydrates skin
How often should you exfoliate?
The frequency of exfoliation depends on your skin type, concerns, personal preferences, and the strength of the formula.
If you have very oily skin, you can get away with exfoliating every other day or as often as needed. For skin that’s dry or sensitive, do it once or twice a week, and for normal to combination skin, it’s recommended to exfoliate two to three times per week.
Helpful tips: It is a good practice to start with once or twice a week and add more days depending on how your skin reacts!
How do you choose an exfoliator for your skin type?
If you have oily skin that is prone to acne and blemishes, use either a physical or chemical exfoliant with salicylic acid, which can help clear out clogged pores that often lead to breakouts.
Dry and sensitive skin is already more fragile so rather than using a physical exfoliant, use a chemical exfoliant with AHAs such as glycolic acid or lactic acid.
It helps enhance the skin’s moisture-retaining ability and fade pigmentation faster by accelerating skin cell renewal process and stimulating collagen production.
10 best Korean chemical and physical exfoliators
Benton Aloe BHA Toner
Powered with 80% Aloe barbadensis leaf extract to hydrate and soothe irritated, dry and troubled skin. Snail secretion filtrate repairs damaged skin, improves skin texture and tone, whilist BHA eliminates flakes, dead skin cells and impurities.
This soothing toner is made of gentle and clean ingredients, making it suitable for all skin types—especially sensitive, dehydrated, red and blemished skin.
❤️ Shop Now for Benton Aloe BHA Toner
Some By Mi AHA BHA PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner
This toner is currently one of the most popular in the global beauty market, especially in Southeast Asia. The mix of AHAs, BHAs and PHAs work together to slough off dead skin cells and excess sebum while preventing breakouts.
In addition, this multi-tasking toner contains tea tree extract, which acts as a zit zapper and pore purifier, contributing to clearer, healthier-looking skin.
❤️ Shop Now for Some By Mi AHA BHA PHA Exfoliating Toner
Huxley Sweet Therapy Scrub Mask
A purifying scrub mask helps buff away dead skin cells with natural ingredients to reveal a clean, soft appearance. Formulated with natural exfoliants such as sucrose and walnut shell powder for gentle exfoliation.
The main ingredient, prickly pear seed oil and cactus extract, has a powerful antioxidant effect and helps to nourish, hydrate, calm and cool the skin.
❤️ Shop Now for Huxley Sweet Therapy Face Scrub
Cosrx AC Collection Calming Liquid Intensive/Mild
An upgraded version of Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol, a fast-acting liquid is a hypoallergenic exfoliator that speeds up the calming process of cystic acne, blemishes.
With the CentellAC-RX formula, which contains three legendary soothing ingredients—Madecassic acid, Asiaticoside and Asiatic acid.
With 60% propolis extract, BHA, zinc PCA and AHA, this chemical peel helps maintain the skin's oil and moisture balance while clarifying and repairing damaged skin.
Pyunkang Yul Peeling Gel
This Obagi-type scrub offers deep moisture while removing unwanted skin cells and makeup residue. Filled with betaine salicylate, extracted from sugar beet and allantoin from comfrey leaf and root, which provides soothing and healing effect.
Free of parabens, synthetic fragrances and dyes, this hypoallergenic exfoliating gel has a gel-like texture that transforms into a milky foam upon contact with water.
❤️ Shop Now for Pyunkang Yul Peeling Gel
Isntree Clear Skin BHA Toner
Great for oily, combination and acne-prone skin, this toner contains natural exfoliants—Salix Alba (willow bark extract) and betain salicylate, a blend of salicylic acid and betaine derived from beet.
The seaweeds complex - hijiki, sea staghorn, sea trumpet and agar—is loaded with numerous vital nutrients and minerals that help detoxify and improve overall skin condition.
This gentle exfoliator gets rid of unnecessary keratin inside the pores to make skin clearer and more radiant, and enhances the absorption of active ingredients in the next steps of the skin care routine.
❤️ Shop Now for Isntree BHA Toner
Klavuu Pure Pearlsation Revitalizing Intensive Peeling Gel
An effective yet non-irritating exfoliating solution is formulated with ECOCERT-certified cellulose from pine trees. It effectively peel away dead skin cells and waste, improves skin texture, and restores your natural glow and radiance.
This microplastic-free formula contains Korean pearl extract and a nutrient-rich seaweed complex that hydrates, brightens and replenish the skin's moisture barrier. Suitable for all skin types.
❤️ Shop Now for Klavuu Revitalizing Peeling Gel
Cosrx AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
Although this is a high-acid formulation, this is a very mild toner that can be used for all skin types. Enriched with 10 percent willow bark water and glycolic acid, which provides gentle exfoliation to improve skin clarity and resurface skin.
Featuring natural mineral water, panthenol and allantoin to soothe and hydrate the skin. This gentle peeling solution helps reveal a brighter, clearer complexion while minimizing the appearance of blackheads, whiteheads and pimples.
❤️ Shop Now for Cosrx AHA BHA Clarifying Toner
Cosrx Two in One Poreless Power Liquid
This pore-tightening toner cleanses and clears up congestion, impurities and excess sebum with beta salicylate, a gentler form of salicylic acid (beta hydroxy acid).
Filled with willow bark water that also contains BHA, which acts as a natural exfoliant to minimize the appearance of enlarged pores and blackheads, leaving skin looking visibly clearer and feeling smoother.
❤️ Shop Now for Cosrx Poleless Liquid