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The difference between chemical and physical exfoliation

21 Feb 2024
The difference between chemical and physical exfoliation

Our skin sheds daily, and this process is called desquamation. The process can slow down due to outside factors (like weather change, for example) or age. The dead skin cells don't shed as they should, and it can cause congestion, breakouts, or uneven, rough skin. That is why many swear by exfoliation since it speeds up the process. Likewise, it preps our skin for the other steps in our skincare routines and allows for better product absorption. What is the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation? Which one is better?

How does physical exfoliation work?

Physical exfoliation is also known as mechanical exfoliation. You use an abrasive substance to remove a layer of dead skin cells. It could be a facial scrub that contains small grains or a facial tool like a sonic brush or a konjac sponge. Alternatively, microdermabrasion also falls under physical exfoliation. Physical exfoliation isn't bad, per se, it all depends on how you do it. In the old days, many would reach for a facial scrub to get rid of dead skin cells. But harsh abrasive scrubs can cause micro-tears and wreak havoc on the skin.

If you must use a physical exfoliant, it is essential to find a gentle enough facial scrub that will not cause irritation. Likewise, try not to overdo it. It can cause problems like skin sensitivity, inflammation, and hyperpigmentation.

How does chemical exfoliation work?


Chemical exfoliants dissolve the intercellular bonds that hold the dead skin cells together. They increase cell turnover, helps ease congestion, and stimulate cell renewal. Chemical exfoliation reveals newer, brighter skin.

Alpha-hydroxy acids are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin. They will cause the dead skin cells to slough off. AHAs are best suited for dry, dehydrated, and mature skin. Beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) is oil-soluble and can penetrate deeper into the pores to dissolve the oily deposits. BHA has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It is better suited for people with oily or combination skin prone to congestion and breakouts. Enzyme-based products offer a gentler alternative as they scavenge the dead skin cells and break down keratin.

Chemical exfoliants are considered a gentle, safer alternative to physical exfoliants. But that doesn't mean you can't overdo it. If you are new to acid-based products, it is best to start slow to see how your skin will respond.

Ishtar's chemical exfoliants


Our bestselling Ultralase range centres around Mandelic acid (an Alpha-hydroxy acid) extracted from bitter almonds. Mandelic acid has been studied extensively, and it is an effective treatment for photoaging, breakouts, and melasma. Because of its unique antibiotic and antibacterial properties, Mandelic acid is a suitable treatment for adult skin prone to breakouts. Likewise, it is safe to use for people with darker skin tones because it carries a lower risk of causing pigmentation issues.

Our Ultralase range includes our award-winning Ultralase Cleanse, which combines 6% Mandelic acid with 6% Gluconic acid (a Poly-hydroxy acid) and has a pH of 3.5. Ultralase Mandelic Gluconic Acid Face Wash produces a soft, dense foam when mixed with water.

Other products in the range include Ultralase 10, a bestselling treatment serum with 10% Mandelic acid and 5% Mandelic acid moisturiser. The strongest treatment product we offer is 15% Ultralase Mandelic acid serum. All of our Mandelic acid serums include a hydrating base of prebiotics and stress-protection molecule Glycoin.

Prep & Glow PHA Exfoliating toner contains 7% D-Gluconic Acid and has a pH of 3.5. It increases cell turnover, improves hydration and smoothness of the skin, and reduces oxidative stress. Prep & Glow PHA Exfoliating toner is suitable for most skin types. Poly-hydroxy acids have the same benefits as Alpha-hydroxy acids but are less irritating for the skin. Bi-Phase Shikimic Acid exfoliant is a bi-phase treatment that conditions and exfoliates the skin. The oil phase contains 2% Salicylic acid and organic White Tea extract. The water phase contains 10% Shikimic acid that gently exfoliates the skin. Bi-Phase Shikimic Acid treatment can be used as a pre-cleanse or as a weekly intensive exfoliating treatment. It is best suited for dull or problem skin. Sebupore Exfoliating facial oil utilises Lipo-hydroxy acid, an ester of Salicylic acid, to clear congestion in the pores. Over time, it helps minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improves the skin texture, and fades hyperpigmentation. The formula also contains Saw Palmetto extract that regulates sebum production. Sebupore Exfoliating facial oil is best suited for oily and combination skin prone to congestion.

Gentle alternatives to chemical exfoliation

  Chemical exfoliation is an essential part of a skincare routine for many. However, what can you do if your skin doesn't tolerate acids? Ishtar's skincare range offers a few gentle alternatives that are more suitable for sensitive and easily disrupted skin. Cleansing Clay is a powder that turns into a milk when mixed with water. It combines Kaolin Clay (to clarify and purify) with Honey and Coconut (to soothe and calm the skin). Pineapple enzymes gently exfoliate the skin. Cleansing Clay is best suited for oily and sensitive skin prone to breakouts. Trizyme Pore Refining treatment combines three different enzymes (Papaya, Pumpkin, and Pomegranate) to gently exfoliate, scavenge dead skin cells, and increase cell renewal. Aspen Bark extract clarifies the pores and soothes inflammation. Trizyme Pore Refining treatment can be used on its own (if your skin is sensitive and prone to breakouts) or alongside one of our more intensive exfoliating treatments.