Chemical Exfoliation: What Is It and Is It Good for You?

It’s important to love our skin by treating it right. Facial cleansers, moisturizers, and clearing mists are great ways to control oily skin and stay looking ageless. However, there are times when our skin just doesn’t love us back.

When zits, pimples, and blemishes start to wreak havoc, it’s important to start using the right exfoliators to reduce their appearance and prevent more issues in the future. Chemical exfoliation is a popular way to treat acne, but is it safe?

What exactly is chemical exfoliation, and is it good to use for fighting back against pesky pimples?

What is Chemical Exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin. It’s a great way to improve the appearance of skin without having to go through too much trouble. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical.

Physical exfoliation, also called mechanical exfoliation, uses a tool such as a brush or sponge to physically scrub away dead skin cells or small blemishes. Mechanical exfoliation tends to feel more gratifying than chemical exfoliation, as it leaves the face feeling supple and smooth. 

Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, uses chemicals to gently dissolve skin cells. Most face washes and gels are chemical exfoliators. Popular chemical exfoliants include alpha and beta hydroxy acids.

Physical and chemical exfoliants are often combined, such as using a physical loofah to apply a chemical body wash to your skin.

Is Chemical Exfoliation Safe?

Chemical exfoliation sounds a lot more intense than it actually is, likely because we often associate chemicals with harsh, irritating compounds. 

Luckily, both physical and chemical exfoliation are safe as long as you use them properly and do a bit of research before using them.

Know Your Skin Type

Before using any type of face or body cleanser, it is important to know what type of skin you have to correctly identify which exfoliation method is best. Those with dry or sensitive skin might need something more mild, as chemical exfoliants tend to remove moisture. If this is the case for you, go for a milder chemical exfoliant and use a non-abrasive physical exfoliator, such as a washcloth.

However, if you have oily skin that feels a bit thicker, you can use a stronger chemical exfoliant with a brush or sponge to really help reduce oil build up on the skin.

Be Gentle

It’s important to apply exfoliators gently so you do not irritate the skin. For cleansers and face washes, apply in a gentle, circular motion with light pressure, rinsing off with lukewarm water. Never use a chemical exfoliator if you have open wounds, cuts, or have sunburnt skin.

Remember to Moisturize

Since exfoliation can dry out the skin, it’s important to moisturize after a cleansing routine. Be sure to use a moisturizer that matches your skin type so that you don’t reverse the benefits of the cleanser. For example, if you have oily skin, use a water-based moisturizer instead of one that primarily uses oil.

Types of Chemical Exfoliation

When it comes to exfoliation, there are a number of different options and ways that you can apply them. It might take some experimentation to find a practice that works best for your skin and daily routine.


Facial cleansers are usually liquid scrubs that can be applied to the face morning and night. This is one of the most popular and accessible ways to exfoliate, however, be sure to check that the ingredients will align with your skin type and prevent any irritation from occurring.


A trend that is rising in popularity is the use of exfoliating and detox masks. These are applied to the face and left to dry for about 10-15 minutes before being removed. These are typically used after a facial cleanser.

Some exfoliating masks peel off, meaning they harden on the skin’s surface and are then peeled off in one piece. While these may help remove debris and blackheads, they are generally more irritating than alternative methods. Peel off masks should not be used often and shouldn’t be used if you have dry or sensitive skin.

Hardening masks will get a bit more stiff, but they do not peel off. These can be wiped off with a cloth damp cloth or rinsed with water. Hardening masks are usually less abrasive and can apply to a more versatile set of skin types.

Detoxing masks specifically can help to purify the skin and restore vitality, rather than just help cleanse the surface. A healthy detox can help hit the “reset” button on the body, helping to bring a sense of youth and equilibrium. 

Natural Exfoliators

While chemical exfoliation is safe and can have proven benefits, some harsh chemicals might not be suitable for everyone. Not to mention, artificial chemical exfoliants are not sustainable and are almost always tested on animals, making some options less ethically sound than others.

Exfoliation can be a natural process and there are a number of organic compounds that can restore moisture to the skin just as well as the most common chemical treatments. Namely, blue spirulina algae is a marine-based organism that is full of proteins, vitamins A & E, iron, calcium, and phosphorus, which help to provide a deep detox cleanse and control oily skin.

On top of that, it can decrease inflammation and tone the skin, helping to encourage cell turnover and metabolism for a healthy glow.

This works because marine microorganisms have developed unique survival properties that protect themselves against UV radiation, pollution, and physical damage. These types of properties can make them immensely beneficial to skincare, especially when used regularly.

The great thing about natural exfoliants is that they are suitable for all skin types. Since the ingredients are naturally occurring and safe to handle, you won’t need to worry about irritation, redness, or stinging that is often associated with other artificial exfoliants.

Other Ways To Maintain Skin Health

Using cleansers and exfoliants is only half the battle. It’s important to maintain healthy holistic habits to keep blemishes and wrinkles at bay.

Protect Yourself From the Sun

While vitamin D from the sun is important for skin health and mental health, being consistently exposed to harmful UV rays can lead to age spots and wrinkles. It can also result in long-term changes to the skin’s collagen. Not to mention, it can increase the risk of skin cancer.

Using sunscreen of at least SPF 15 is the best way to prevent sun damage. Apply generously and reapply every two hours, especially when swimming or perspiring.

Be sure to use one of your cleansers or exfoliators once you come back indoors, as sunscreen is oil based and can lead to breakouts and oily-feeling skin.

Limit Hot Water Exposure

While hot showers and baths feel relaxing, they can take a toll on the skin after prolonged usage. This is because hot water can remove healthy oil on the skin, leaving it feeling dry and  exposed.

Limit your time in the shower, and when washing your face, opt for warm water rather than hot. In addition, be sure to moisturize whenever you feel like your skin is starting to dry out -- we recommend moisturizing at least once a day as best practice.

Consider a Full Detox

Detoxing doesn’t mean a liquids-only diet that will make you feel awful. In fact, a healthy detox every now and then can help rejuvenate your entire body and keep you feeling energized.

When detoxing, it is crucial to give your body essential nutrients from fruits and vegetables as well as necessary proteins from beans and meats. A detox isn’t about taking things away, it is about giving your body what it needs to regenerate.

A full detox combined with the proper exfoliation method can be one of the most effective practices in reducing skin blemishes and providing a sense of full-body health.

In Conclusion

Exfoliation is a term that has often been viewed positively, but the word “chemical” seems to denote harsh and irritating qualities. However, chemical exfoliation is a safe and effective way to help cleanse and rejuvenate skin as long as it is used properly.

Cleansers and facial masks are the most prominent ways to apply chemical exfoliants. These work to dissolve skin cells on the surface. These are often combined with physical exfoliants, like brushes, for more effective usage.

While chemical exfoliation is generally safe, they are typically made with synthetic materials and tested on animals. Opting for natural, sustainable skincare products is a better way to feel just as good as you look.



How to safely exfoliate at home - American Academy of Dermatology

Cosmetics Alpha Hydroxy Acids - FDA

Sun-Damaged Skin - Harvard Health