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Exfoliation 101: ABC’s of Chemical Exfoliation

Anyone that knows me knows that chemical exfoliation is one of true loves. There are only a few things in my book that rival soft, bouncy, silky skin. It wasn’t until I discovered chemical exfoliation about a year and a half ago that I realized what an essential step it is in my skincare routine.

So back up…what is chemical exfoliation, or peeling, as it’s called in Korea? The basic foundations of chemical exfoliation are BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids) and AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and newbie on the K-beauty scene PHAs (polyhydroxy acids). All three work individually or together to reveal bright, smooth, glowing skin.

All about BHAs – the oily skin savior

In basic terms, BHAs work by “degunking” your pores. They penetrate through the oil that’s clogging your pores and exfoliate all of the dead skin cells that have built up inside. BHAs are best suited for those with oily and combination skin. In addition to cleaning out those pores, BHAs also have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, allow your skincare to better penetrate your skin, and can even help “reshape” your pores. Salicylic acid is the most common type of BHA, however, most Korean products use betaine salicylate, as salicylic acid is only available via prescription in Korea.

Blithe Splash Mask
One of the most creative K-Beauty products on the market, the Blithe Splash Mask contains a concentrated blend of BHAs and lactic acid and botanical extracts. For a quick 15-second mask experience, pour a capful into your hands in the shower and splash/pat onto your skin. Use the water from your shower to rinse, and then continue with the rest of your skincare routine!

All about AHAs – dry, sensitive skin

While BHAs work by getting deep into your pores to “unglue” dead skin, AHAs work by loosening the bonds of the top layer of dead skin cells, revealing new, bright skin. AHAs are ideal for those with sensitive, dry, sun damaged skin, but I have oily skin and swear by them. AHAs will cause sun sensitivity, so you MUST, I repeat, MUST wear sun protection any time you use them. But you’re already wearing sunscreen every day right? Right!

The most common types of AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. Glycolic acid is the most common type of AHA, but can tend to be harsh for some people and can lighten skin. Lactic acid is derived from milk acids and is best for sensitive skin, as it is the gentlest of the three main acids. Mandelic acid, which is derived from bitter almonds, is my personal favorite – it’s a great balance of gentle and effective and is great for those with darker skin tones, as it won’t cause any unnecessary skin discoloration. When using an AHA for the first time, start by using the lowest percentage possible and working your way up. Chemical burns CAN happen, so please do a patch test before using any new AHA product.

Just a year or two ago, chemical exfoliation wasn’t that big of a thing in the K-Beauty world, but now, there are endless options!

REME + G 3-in-1 Aqua Peeler Kit
REME + G’s 3-in 1 Aqua Peeler kit features another giant cotton swab soaked in AHA goodness, a brightening serum, and a soothing sheet mask with hyaluronic acid and aloe vera.

Primary Raw DoYou 2-Step Milk Peeling Kit
Primary Raw Do You 2-Step Milk Peeling Kit is a 2-step kit containing a large cotton swab soaked in a blend of lactic acid and skin nourishing extracts. One you’re all nice and exfoliated, finish off by relaxing in a calming sheet mask containing green tea, chamomile, and rosemary extracts.

And girl, what are PHAs?

PHAs, or polyhydroxy acids are the latest ingredients to hit the K-beauty peeling scene. The common PHA in Korean skincare is lactobionic acid. Like an AHA product, the lactobionic acid works to “unglue” dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, but with far less stinging, burning and irritation that is common with typical AHAs. This makes it the perfect ingredient for those with dry, sensitive skin. PHAs tend to be more hydrating than AHAs, as they also work to retain water in the skin. If you’re looking for a gentle, everyday exfoliation product, PHAs might be for you.

Make P:rem is my newest K-beauty skincare obsession, and their new Peel Me. Radiance Peeling line of products is the perfect addition to your skincare routine.


The Radiance Peeling Booster is formulated with its unique blend of PHA and works to keep your skin texture smooth and clear. It smells like heaven and glides onto the skin, leaving it fresh and hydrated. The Radiance Peeling Serum is a silky soft essence that boasts gentle PHA and its patented Aqua Ceramide to form a layer of moisture over the skin. Its non-greasy texture is perfect for all skin types, and it absorbs quickly for use day or night.The Radiance Sleeping Pack is a lightweight gel-cream that gently resurfaces the skin overnight to reveal a soft, glowing complexion. PHA, hyaluronic acid and ceramides work together to hydrate the skin and leave it silky smooth.

What is your favorite way to exfoliate? Let us know in the comments!

Get your glow on,

Sheryll Donerson is a Southern California native who currently lives in Phuket, Thailand. She fell in love with Korean cosmetics while teaching ESL in Korea 3 years ago and hasn’t looked back. She writes Korean beauty reviews on her blog, The Wanderlust Project, and is a devoted lover of champagne, Nutella, chemical exfoliation and Crossfit.

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  • Debbie May 1, 2017 4:21 am

    Hi, I am 60 and have very sensitive skin. Sometimes my skin become red after I use a product for 4-5 days. Is any of these exfoliation product safe to use on sensitive skin?

  • outofmythoughts Jan 28, 2017 6:54 pm

    This is so useful! I had a bad experience with physical exfioliation, causing my skin to break out in all these bumps. I think the PHA sounds like something I would love to try.

  • Denisse Jan 27, 2017 6:01 pm

    Hi I have combination skin and rosacea, I'm new in the korean skincare, 'm 24 years old..... What kind of products do you recomend..... I want a healthy skin....

  • Denisse Jan 27, 2017 6:00 pm

    Hi I have combination skin and rosacea, I'm new in the korean skincare, 'm 24 years old..... What kind of products do you recomend..... Please help me :)

  • Martha Johnston Jan 26, 2017 3:09 pm

    My favorite way to exfoliate is a gommage peel. I have sensitive/reactive/rosacea skin and I have found that this is the only peel I can do that does not eat my face off. Everything else I have tried to use has ended up making me red, burning and in pain and it will last for days.

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