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The Best Korean Physical and Chemical Exfoliators

Looking for the solution to dull, rough, or bumpy skin? Got stubborn clogs causing breakouts and enlarged pores? Feel like your products aren’t absorbing well into your skin? Adding exfoliation to your skincare routine can help with all of these issues—if you use the right exfoliator for your skin. I was excited when the Glowie Co team asked if I’d be up to write about the best Korean exfoliators, especially since their selection includes all of my favorites. So let’s get down to it!

Exfoliation: An Overview

At its most basic level, exfoliation simply means the removal of dead skin. But not all of it.

The entire outer layer of skin is composed of flattened dead skin cells and naturally occurring lipids, arranged in a brick and mortar structure where the dead skin cells are the bricks and the lipids are the mortar. Again, we don’t want to removeall or even most of these dead skin cells. That would leave your skin too thin, unable to retain moisture internally or to protect against external irritants. 

What we shoot for with exfoliation is the removal of just enough of the uppermost dead skin to reveal smoother, softer, brighter, and clearer skin underneath. As new, living skin cells are produced in the deeper layers of skin, they push the existing layers of skin up to the surface. Over time, the outermost layer can become flaky and rough or prone to clogs. A buildup of unshed dead skin can also cause your complexion to look less radiant than before.

Some form of exfoliation can benefit most people’s skin, as long as you don’t overdo it. Start out slowly, using gentle exfoliators rather than the strongest peels or scrubbiest scrubs you can find, so that you can get a sense of your skin’s tolerance. And get to know the kinds of exfoliators available so that you can make an informed decision about which ones to try for your skin.

Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation

Broadly, exfoliators can be divided into two categories: chemical and physical.

Chemical exfoliators work by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing the cells to loosen and slough off. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are chemical exfoliators. AHAs are water-soluble and best for exfoliating at the surface of skin for improved texture and brightness, as well as the treatment of fine lines and closed pimples. BHAs are oil-soluble and best for clearing open, enlarged pores, as I recommend inmy three-step pore clearing routine.

Both AHAs and BHAs come in varying strengths, ranging from fairly mild products suitable for frequent use, like the ones in this list, to very strong peels that should only be used when you’re very confident in your skin’s tolerance and your ability to take care of freshly peeled skin afterwards. 

On the gentler end of the spectrum, meanwhile, enzyme exfoliators derived from pineapple or papaya also count as chemical exfoliators. Similarly to AHAs and BHAs, pineapple and papaya-derived enzymes break down the bonds between dead skin cells, but at a much lower rate that’s more suitable for skin sensitive to exfoliation.

Skinfood Pineapple Peeling Gel

Physical exfoliation involves the use of an abrasive product or tool to physically remove dead skin cells. Scrubs will be the most familiar products in this category and can also range from very gentle to extra intense. “Peeling gels” or gommage peels also fall under this category, however, since most of them rely on the very mild exfoliation of the little balled-up bits of product to remove dead skin cells. “Peeling pads” that do not contain any AHA or BHA ingredients also typically work via physical exfoliation using the textured surfaces of the pads.

There’s a place for both chemical and physical exfoliation in skincare. If you just want to remove visible flakes or soften and smooth skin texture, physical exfoliation will get the job done quickly. If your concerns originate at deeper levels of skin, however, like hyperpigmentation, acne, or enlarged pores, regular chemical exfoliation will be more effective. Just remember that chemical exfoliation, particularly using AHAs, is photosensitizing. The fresh new skin that chemical exfoliation reveals is more sensitive to sun damage than the older dead skin you sloughed off, so daily sunscreen is even more of a must than usual.

The Best Korean Physical Exfoliators

When it comes to scrubs, I am ahuge fan of Skinfood. The inexpensive, food-themed K-beauty brand makes a huge range of physical exfoliators that are budget-friendly and enjoyable to use.

Skinfood Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask

If you’re looking for a very soft and gentle physical exfoliator, I recommend theSkinfood Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask. The rice ingredients in this mask will provide a bit of subtle brightening, and the scrubbing particles in this mask are soft and rounded for an exceptionally mild product.

Skinfood Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask

Skinfood Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask

For something a bit scrubbier, I like theSkinfood Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask. I have a tub of this in my shower right now. The sugar granules in this sweet-smelling mask sweep away flakes and superficial roughness more intensively than the rice mask.

Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Wash Off Mask

If you have pretty hardy skin and want a fairly strong physical exfoliator,Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Wash Off Mask is a delightful-smelling option. The sugar grains in this scrub are more densely packed in the product, providing a more abrasive effect.

Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Wash Off Mask $11.50

For these and all other delicious-smelling Skinfood scrubs, I must warn you: they don’t taste good. Just because the Black Sugar Strawberry scrub smells like beautiful strawberry jelly, doesn’t mean it tastes like that. Don’t put it in your mouth. You’ll be sorry!

The Best Korean Chemical Exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators are rarer in K-beauty than physical exfoliators, in part due to strict regulations around the use of ingredients like BHAs and probably also in part due to the formulation limitations of chemical exfoliators. Effectiveness of a chemical exfoliator is determined by factors like the concentration of the AHA or BHA and the pH of the product, with a lower pH freeing more acids to affect the skin.

COSRX’s claim to fame when the brand first attracted attention came from their budget-friendly and effectively formulated chemical exfoliators. Years after I first tried them, these remain my favorites and most common recommendations.

COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid

For rough, bumpy skin that’s prone to closed clogs, or to refine skin texture overall,COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid is a great starter product. With 7% glycolic acid at a relatively low pH, it’s potent enough to renew skin more quickly over time, but not strong enough to quickly cause overexfoliation.

CosRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid contains 4% of the gentle beta hydroxy acid betaine salicylate at a moderate pH. Again, it’s effective enough to clean up and reduce the appearance of open pores over tie, but not so strong that most skin will easily suffer irritation. I still use this on my nose every night.

Don’t Overdo It

I like all of the exfoliators I’ve listed above because they’re milder than many other options out there, but even so, take exfoliation slowly and carefully, especially if you’re new to it. Overexfoliation can cause a whole host of new skin problems, like excessive sensitivity and irritation, increased roughness, new breakouts, and dehydrated skin. Cut back on exfoliation if you notice any of those signs or if your skin begins to look or feel noticeably thinner, and let your skin get back to normal before you exfoliation again (more gently this time).

Don’t neglect sunscreen, and care for freshly exfoliated skin by using calming and hydrating sheet masks and your favorite moisturizing creams to seal hydration in. And enjoy your fresher, smoother, brighter skin!