Acids, enzymes or scrubs? How to choose the best exfoliator

Acids, enzymes or scrubs? How to choose the best exfoliator


noun            /eksˈfəʊliənt/

  1. a cosmetic product designed to remove dead cells from the surface of the skin

Acids, enzymes and scrubs are all exfoliants, which all help to remove dead skin cells to reveal fresh, young, glowing skin.

Our skin sheds naturally every day, but over time this natural process can stop which can result in dull, flaky or dry skin, clogged or congested pores, bumps, or uneven skin tone.

Using exfoliators can help remove the built up layer of dead skin cells, and reveal fresh, young, glowing skin.   It can help with unplogging pores and help to prevent blackheads.

And we all know that smooth, fresh skin can help our foundation look better and last longer.

Overexfoliating can cause redness and sensitivities, so keep your exfoliation to a few times a week

But which is the best exfoliator for you?


Acids work to dissolve the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells at the surface of your skin. Once the ‘glue’ is gone the skin cells shed off to expose fresh young skin.

The three main types of acids in skincare are:

AHA = Alpha Hydroxy Acid 
BHA = Beta Hydroxy Acid
PHA = Polyhydroxy Acids – the ‘next generation’ of AHA

AHA’s are water soluble and help to remove the surface layer of skin. The most common AHA’s that you might see in your skincare are Lactic Acid and Glycolic Acid, although you might also see Malic acid, Mandelic acid, Tartaric Acid or Citric acid.

AHA’s also stimulate collagen production, which can help with the appearance of fine lines.

BHA is oil soluble which lets it penetrate into pores as well as helping to exfoliate the outer layer of skin. The most common BHA are Salicylic Acid and Betaine Salicylate.

Salicylic acid is known to fight bacteria, and is a proven anti-inflammatory, and is often recommended for people with oilier skin types, that may be struggling with acne, blackheads, whiteheads or milia

**If you’re pregnant, your doctor may suggest to hold off using BHA’s so be sure to consult with him or her before starting on acid exfoliation

PHA’s work exclusively on the surface of the skin as they are not able to penetrate as deeply as AHA’s and BHA’s, which means that they are less likely to cause irritation to the skin, and they are also attract water molecules (humectants) so they help to moisturise the skin. The most common PHAs are Gluconolactone, Galactose, and Lactobionic Acid.

PHA’s also help to combat glycation, which is a process in which sugar that we have digested weakens collagen and elastin (a process called glycation), which can speed the effects of aging, and can flare up skin conditions such as rosacea and acne.


Enzymes in our skincare work to dissolve the dead (keratinized) skin cells that are on the surface of our skin without damaging the fresh skin cells underneath the surface.

Most of the enzymes in our skincare come from fruits, vegetables or grains like papaya (papain) , pineapple, pumpkin or rice.

Enzymes are generally considered safe, even for those of us with sensitive skin, and many people who can’t tolerate acid exfoliation are able to use enzyme exfoliators as they are a much more gentle way to exfoliate and brighten the complexion.

Enzymes are my favourite exfoliators as they are so gentle.  I love the Tatcha Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powders (available from Mecca)

Physical Exfoliation (aka Scrubs)

A physical exfoliation is anything that uses rubbing or scrubbing to remove the outermost layer of skin.

This could be a brush, a rough sponge such as a loofah, a scrub that contains granules or a device such as a Clarisonic.

You’ll know when you are using a product that is used for physical exfoliation as it will generally feel rough, or gritty on the skin.

This is my least favourite method of exfoliation for the face, as many products on the market can be unnecessarily harsh on the skin (I’m speaking to you St. Ives!!), which can lead to irritation and dryness. It’s not recommended for people who are acne prone, or that have active breakouts, as the exfoliation process may also create micro-tears in the skin spreading bacteria from one are of the face to another, making breakouts worse.

If you do prefer a physical exfoliation look for products that are gentle, don’t rub your skin too hard and don’t use the product more than two (or at most three) times per week.

Which of these methods are the best?

Everybody is different, so ‘best’ is subjective.

If you have oily, acne prone skin you could benefit best from products containing BHA’s.  

For those of us with sensitive skin a more gentle enzyme, or a PHA might be the best choice.

For most of us though, an exfoliator is an essential step to gorgeous, glowy skin

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Sally is a makeup artist, a beauty junkie and a coffee addict, who loves finding new products and techniques and using them to give her clients an amazing experience – every time.

To book in for makeup, hair or beauty services contact me and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can

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