12 Best Korean Exfoliators To Try (For All Skin Types)

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Softer smoother skin? Check. Affordable price point? Check. Gentle on the skin? Check. A delight to use? Check (but I might be biased here).

Keep reading to see my tried and true K-beauty exfoliator top picks, which skin types they’re best suited for, and what ingredients to look for when comparing different products!

Popular Exfoliating Ingredients To Look For

AHA? BHA? PHA? You might be seeing these letters on the products and wondering what the heck they stand for and how they solve your skin issues.

Well when it comes to exfoliating there are only so many ingredients that get the job done, and each work in slightly different ways:

AHA – Alpha Hydroxy Acids

If you’re looking to improve skin tone and skin texture, these are the ingredients you want to see in your exfoliator! While they all work by removing the top layer of dead cells off your skin, there are still differences between each one:

Glycolic Acid is the most common AHA for a good reason: it’s the most well researched, effective, and strongest exfoliating acid! Thanks to its small size, it can go deeper into the skin and help increase collagen production.1 It can also help fade dark spots,2 and increase skin thickness in the long run!3

Lactic Acid is the second most proven AHA, and a little gentler on the skin due to its bigger size! It actually helps moisturize the skin,4 and at 12%, also increase skin thickness and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.5

Mandelic Acid is another gentler AHA, unique in that it’s oil soluble, allowing it to penetrate deeper into pores,6 plus its antibacterial properties that makes it great for treating acne prone skin. It’s also great for brightening the skin!

Citric Acid is one of the gentlest AHA, and while it can still increase skin thickness and hydrating glycosaminoglycan levels on the skin, it takes much longer to see results.7

BHA – Beta Hydroxy Acids

If you struggle with pore sizes, blackheads, acne, and other common issues associated with combination or oily skin, the oil soluble BHA is what you want. 

Salicylic Acid is the most common BHA, and it’s fantastic at helping remove the dead skin cells stuck in our pores, which helps prevent blackheads and decrease the appearance of pore sizes. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that will be helpful for acne-prone skin.8

Betaine Salicylate is twice as gentle as salicylic acid, since it combines the former with the moisturizing betaine. This is a common BHA in Korean skincare products due to their stricter regulations with Salicylic Acid.

Willow Bark Extract isn’t technically a BHA, but it does contain salicylates, which is closely related to salicylic acid. It’s not as effective, but it also contains some astringent and antiseptic flavonoids.

PHA – Polyhydroxy Acids

Think of them as the gentler cousins of AHA – similar properties, but with larger molecules which means they don’t penetrate (irritate) the skin as deeply. They frequently double as an antioxidant and can also help improve skin barrier function and hydration.9

Gluconolactone is the most commonly used PHA, and is so gentle on the skin that you can use it on rosacea skin or post cosmetic procedure treatment!9

Lactobionic Acid is another PHA that’s very similar in function to gluconolactone: gently smooths while moisturizing and improving the skin barrier. One study even found its results comparable to glycolic acid!10

Korean Chemical Exfoliators To TryKorean Chemical Exfoliators To Try

Physical exfoliants

Sugar, seed powders, tea leaf powders, and rice powders are the most frequently used in K-beauty facial scrubs. Compared to the rougher shell powders *cough* St. Ive’s *cough*, these are gentler on the skin and assuming you’re not scrubbing too enthusiastically, won’t cause micro tears in your skin.

Enzymes are another group of exfoliants to look for that can also help break down and loosen the dead skin cells. Though technically a physical exfoliant, there’s minimal feelings of grittiness. Common ones include pineapple extracts, pumpkin extracts, and papain.

Korean Physical Exfoliators To TryKorean Physical Exfoliators To Try

Best Exfoliator By Skin Type

Breaking down each of the 12 K-beauty skincare products above so you can easily find what works best for your skin type!

Best Korean Exfoliator By Skin TypeBest Korean Exfoliator By Skin Type

Things to keep in mind when exfoliating

  1. Always, ALWAYS, wear sunscreen, as acids can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays.

  2. Don’t mix chemical exfoliation with other actives like retinol or vitamin c (ascorbic acid) in the same routine.

  3. Start slow. If you have sensitive or dry skin, start with once a week or a super gentle exfoliant. Slowly increase your frequency and stop if your skin starts feeling uncomfortable.

  4. Try to do it on healthy skin. Some acids like PHA can be ok on compromised skin, but definitely don’t do any physical exfoliation when your skin is already red, inflamed, and/or peeling.

Whew I know that was a lot of info but I hope now you’ll be able to make an informed decision on the perfect Korean exfoliator that fits your needs!

Article Sources

To keep my content accurate and trustworthy, I rely on peer-reviewed studies, articles from reputable academic institutions, and quotes from certified healthcare professionals to back my claims.

  1. Kim SJ;Won YH. “The Effect of Glycolic Acid on Cultured Human Skin Fibroblasts: Cell Proliferative Effect and Increased Collagen Synthesis.” The Journal of Dermatology, vol. 25, no. 2, J Dermatol, 2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9563274/.

  2. Avni Nautiyal, and Sarika Wairkar. “Management of Hyperpigmentation: Current Treatments and Emerging Therapies.” Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research, vol. 34, no. 6, Wiley-Blackwell, June 2021, pp. 1000–14, https://doi.org/10.1111/pcmr.12986.

  3. Fuchs. “The Effects of an Estrogen and Glycolic Acid Cream on the Facial Skin of Postmenopausal Women: A Randomized Histologic Study.” Cutis, vol. 71, no. 6, Cutis, 2015, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12839261/.

  4. R. A. A. Alsaheb, et al. “Lactic Acid Applications in Pharmaceutical and Cosmeceutical Industries.” Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research, 2015, www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Lactic-acid-applications-in-pharmaceutical-and-Alsaheb-Aladdin/3546162eb236e3fb8267b4e765fc5a52fdb54753.

  5. Smith, Wally. “Epidermal and Dermal Effects of Topical Lactic Acid.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 35, no. 3, Elsevier BV, Sept. 1996, pp. 388–91, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0190-9622(96)90602-7.

  6. Abelman, Devon. “What Is Mandelic Acid and How Does It Benefit Skin? — Expert Insight.” Allure, Allure, 30 Mar. 2022, www.allure.com/story/what-is-mandelic-acid#what-is-mandelic-acid.

  7. Bernstein, Eric F., et al. “Citric Acid Increases Viable Epidermal Thickness and Glycosaminoglycan Content of Sundamaged Skin.” Dermatologic Surgery, vol. 23, no. 8, Wolters Kluwer Health, Aug. 1997, pp. 689–94, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1524-4725.1997.tb00391.x.

  8. Arif, Tasleem. “Salicylic Acid as a Peeling Agent: A Comprehensive Review.” Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, Dove Medical Press, Aug. 2015, pp. 455–55, https://doi.org/10.2147/ccid.s84765.

  9. Grimes. “The Use of Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) in Photoaged Skin.” Cutis, vol. 73, no. 2 Suppl, Cutis, 2023, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15002656/.

  10. Tasic-Kostov, Marija et al. “Lactobionic acid in a natural alkylpolyglucoside-based vehicle: assessing safety and efficacy aspects in comparison to glycolic acid.” Journal of cosmetic dermatology vol. 9,1 (2010): 3-10. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2010.00474.x

  11. “Sucrose (Soothing): Cosmetic Ingredient INCI.” Specialchem.com, 2023, cosmetics.specialchem.com/inci-ingredients/sucrose.



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