Chemical Vs. Physical Exfoliation

Posted by Azadeh Shirazi MD on

We get asked a lot - “chemical or physical exfoliants?” Typically, we will recommend chemical exfoliants in order to avoid abrasive facial scrubs.  Chemical exfoliants are acids that essentially slough away dead skin cells, congestion and debris from your epidermis.  These byproducts would otherwise congest the skin, clogging and irritating the pores.  Congested skin then leads to a bunch of different problems — such as surface dryness, texture, inflammation and/or unordinary sebum production.  When exfoliating, it allows ingredients to penetrate deeper into the skin to work their magic and help keep our skin (and it’s microbiome) at a happy state.  There are multiple types of chemical exfoliant groups that serve similar purposes, but use different actives to achieve different results.  Between AHAs, BHAs, and Azelaic Acid, there are many means to exfoliate your skin.  Let’s dive into a fun little breakdown of our chemical exfoliants to gain a better insight on which ones to pull from at different points in time. 

Chemical Exfoliants

CLASSIFICATIONS:   Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), Azelaic Acid, & Ferulic Acid

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

TARGETS:   Hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone & surface dryness

AVOID:   If your skin barrier is damaged; in combination with retinoids; in combination with Vitamin C

MOST COMMON TYPE OF ACID(s):   Glycolic and Lactic Acid

  • GLYCOLIC ACID - Think glow; colorless acid that is derived from sugar cane.  Molecularly the smallest AHA, so it seeps deeper than lactic and other acids, but not as deep as BHAs.

  • LACTIC ACID - Think texture and tone; derived from milk or fermented alternatives.  This acid helps hyperpigmentation and age spots, which can consequently reduce the appearance of large pores. 

OUR PICK:  ClariFY Pads; Gly/Sal Body Spray

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

TARGETS:   Acne, sun damage & scarring

AVOID:  If your skin barrier is damaged; in combination with retinoids; in combination with benzoyl peroxide


  • SALICYLIC ACID - Think acne treatment; derived from willow tree bark through chemical isolation.  It also soothes redness and inflammation, which makes this for me, 10 times better than benzoyl peroxide. 

OUR PICK:  ClariFY Pads; Gly/Sal Body Spray

Azelaic Acid

TARGETS:  Acne, rosacea, pigmentation and surface dryness

AVOID:  Safe to use in conjunction with most ingredients

WORKS WELL WITH:  AHAs, BHAs, and Retinol

RECOMMENDED:  For all skin types, especially acne and rosacea-prone skin

OUR PICK:  Azelaic 10

We heart chemical exfoliants, because they help decongest our skin and help product penetration. So, yes: skip the St. Ives Apricot Face Scrub and opt out for a chemical exfoliant!  


AHAs: AziMD Skincare ClariFY Pads; AziMD Skincare Gly/Sal Body Spray; Sunday Riley Good Genes

BHAs: AziMD Skincare ClariFY Pads; AziMD Skincare Gly/Sal Body Spray; Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil

Azelaic Acid: AziMD Skincare Azelaic 10; The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment


Dr. Azadeh Shirazi, MD is a Board-Certified Dermatologist.

Specializing in medical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatology, Dr. Shirazi received her undergraduate and medical degrees from the University Of Kentucky College of Medicine. After doing a Research Fellowship at Harvard Medical School at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, she completed her residency training in Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in addition to completing her training in dermatology and cosmetic surgery at the University of California San Diego.

She has received multiple research scholarships from iconic institutions including Harvard University and the University Of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has several peer-reviewed publications to her name.