Ditch the scrub and use a chemical exfoliant

Get ready to glow.

There’s a lot of buzz in the beauty industry about chemical exfoliants. “They’re so good!” “They make my skin light up!” and “What the hell is a chemical exfoliant?”

To be honest, it’s the industry insiders saying the first two things, and most ladies I know saying the last one. My friends don’t seem to know what a chemical exfoliator is, they don’t know how to use it, and they certainly don’t want to give up their precious exfoliating scrub.

Well let me enlighten you, my pretties, because this news could brighten your complexion overnight.

Why should I exfoliate?

Dead skin cells aren’t just the flaky bits of skin we can see peeling off every now and then. Sneaky skin cells that have passed their use-by date stay on the surface of skin and cause your complexion to look dull and lacklustre. Exfoliation gets rid of these dead skin cells, leaving only the healthy skin behind, which gives you a glow. Buffing your skin regularly can also promote new cell growth, which gives you that plump, dewy complexion everyone goes nuts over.

What the hell is a chemical exfoliant anyway?

Chemical exfoliation is another name for what is essentially a chemical peel. But if I say chemical peel, people tend to freak out, mainly because they’ve seen that episode of Sex and the City where Samantha burned her face off. I promise you, chemical exfoliants are not like that.

A chemical peel is basically using acids to essentially dissolve your dead skin cells and really get in there to wash the gunk out of your pores. But get the images of acid melting skin off faces out of your head right this second! Acids are not as harsh as you might think; your regular toner probably has acid in it and you didn’t even notice.

There are two types of acids in chemical exfoliant: Alphy Hydroxy Acids (AHA) or Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA). The most commonly used AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid. If you suffer from acne, you’ll already be familiar with the most popular BHA: salicylic acid.

Why you need to ditch the scrub and use a chemical exfoliant

AHAs are like teeny tiny little skin ninja molecules that get into the upper layer of your skin, dissolving and dislodging all your dead skin cells and generally kicking dull skin’s ass. This formula also promotes healthy cell turnover, leading to that dewy look we all love. Glycolic tends to penetrate that little bit deeper than lactic acid but realistically it’s much of a muchness.

Salicylic acids are a tiny bit different; they do mostly the same thing but they can also get deep into your pores, making it great for people with breakouts but not so great for those with semi-sensitive skin.

What’s wrong with my scrub?

There are a few things that aren’t so great about using manual exfoliants. Firstly, a lot of popular brands use evil little things called “microbeads” to smooth over your skin. These are tiny plastic beads that, when washed down the sink can do a real number on the environment. Firstly, they’re not biodegradable. Secondly, they’re exactly the right size to be swallowed by marine life, stopping them from getting essential nutrients and potentially killing them, and lastly, plastics soaks up all the toxins it comes across into the sewer and delivers them into the bellies of animals who eat them. Not fun.

Eco-friendly scrubs often use natural exfoliating elements such as crushed walnut shell or apricot seed but these can often have pesky jagged edges that can damage and irritate your skin, and cause micro-tears. Chemical scrubs get in there and give a far more thorough, even result with much less damage.

Why you need to ditch the scrub and use a chemical exfoliant

So where does a chemical exfoliant come in my routine?

Simple! After cleansing, before serums or moisturisers. Pretty much where toner would normally go... and since some toners have exfoliating acids in them already, this makes a whole lot of sense. Try Clinque’s Clarifying Lotion 2 (from $29) for skin smoothing, and pore refining. And even though it’s sort of cheating, I would recommend Alpha-H Liquid Gold ($59.95, Technically it’s an “overnight treatment” but it can act as a toner because of its similar ingredients. It’s a cult product for a reason, and uses glycolic acid to hydrate, firm and smooth your skin like magic.

But the real holy grail of chemical exfoliation products lies in their at-home peel-style products. You know those pesky blackhead bumps over your nose and between your lip and chin? GONE with the power of AHA acids. Unlike scrubs, these peel treatments can also deliver much needed moisture-locking and healing properties.

How often you should use these treatments depends on your skin type, but usually every second day, or three times a week is fairly standard.

“Well that all sounds bloody wonderful, Liz, which ones would you recommend?

I would definitely put Dr Denis Gross’s Alpha-Beta Peel (from $23, Mecca) and Go-To Skincare’s Exfoliating Swipeys ($46, on that list. The Alpha-Beta Peel is a two-step process that has both AHAs and BHAs combined to improve skin texture, firmness, radiance and moisture. Exfoliating Swipeys are the brainchild of Zoe Foster-Blake and just require you to swipe and go. Easy peasy, and my skin is smooth and perfectly prepped to take in all the goodness of my serums and moisturisers. I’m also a huge fan of Ole Henrikson’s PowerPeel ($64) and PowerBright ($68 both Sephora) ranges. Each of these is a three-step spa-grade (aka super fancy) treatment, that involves a microdermabrasion exfoliating step, an acidic peel to address skin concerns, and a comfort mask. Other amazing honourable mentions go to DrJart+ Derma@home Peeling (price to come, Sephora), Sunday Riley Good Genes ($154) and Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads ($34.99, Priceline)


Elizabeth Best is a beauty expert and writer with more than a decade of experience working for some of Australia’s most prolific media outlets. She enjoys long romantic walks along the makeup aisle, and fully expects for her profound love of travel and food to bankrupt her one day. You can follow her never-ending obsession with food and makeup on Instagram.