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You know exfoliation is key for maintaining healthy, glowing skin. Helping your body remove dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin is one of the secrets to a brighter, fresher, and younger complexion.
But there are many different products on the market and navigating the world of physical and chemical exfoliation may make your head spin. Put your best face forward by reading up on the science behind exfoliation types below.
What are Physical Exfoliates?
You may know these as scrubs. These are a great way to buff off dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. They use “scrubby” pieces like grains, sugar, or other textured bits suspended in a liquid or cream to physically scrub away debris and dead skin cells.
The advantage of using physical exfoliates is that you can really feel them working and you will instantly see smooth, glowing skin after use. Beware if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, however: these can often be too harsh and leave your skin red, tender, and even more prone to break out.
Recommended Types of Physical Exfoliates:
Don't Damage Your Skin
Be careful with using extra-large exfoliates like fruit pits or nut shells as these can be harsh on any part of your skin. Sharp, jagged exfoliates can cause micro-tears in your skin. You can’t see these tears with the naked eye, but they make you more vulnerable to damage by weakening the skin’s surface.
Avoid at All Costs:
The EWG warns about the pollution caused by microbeads in beauty products. The small plastic beads don’t break down after they are washed off your skin and end up in surrounding lakes, rivers, and oceans.
Besides polluting the environment, microbeads, which are like sponges for environmental toxins, are eaten by fish and other animals, poisoning them. If we end up eating any of the animals that ingested microbeads, they also end up poisoning us.
Microbeads are already banned in many areas of the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union.
Choose a physical exfoliant if you want something that:
- Shows immediate results
- Won't interact with the ingredients in the rest of your skincare routine., i.e. is easily integrated
- Stimulates circulation (which may help drain lymph and reduce facial puffiness)
Did you Know?
Physical exfoliation goes beyond just creams and cleansers.
Using a body or face brush is another way to physically exfoliate by sloughing off dead skin cells manually (it also has a host of other great benefits: find everything you need to know about body brushing here).
You can see all of our favorite scrubs and acids here.
What are Chemical Exfoliates?
Chemical exfoliates, also called peels, often have a smooth texture, so you may not think they pack a punch in the exfoliation department.
Despite their gentle appearance, they can penetrate even deeper into the skin than physical exfoliates. They contain acids that help to remove dead skin cells by breaking the bonds between the cells, making them easy to whisk away, leaving behind a smooth complexion.
The word “chemical” may have you feeling apprehensive, but many chemical exfoliates are even more gentle on your skin than their physical cousins.
In fact, acids exfoliate more evenly than physical exfoliates and have many fewer side effects, as long as you choose the right chemical exfoliant for your skin.
Chemical exfoliates also have the added benefits of stimulating collagen production, reducing wrinkles, and firming and brightening the skin!
AHA’s and BHA’s
There’s a chemical exfoliant for everyone, and they fall into two main types:
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s) attack the material that holds dead skin cells together. They are water-soluble, which means they do not interact with oil and would be a great choice for dry skin.
The two most common AHAs are lactic acid and glycolic acid. Other AHAs include mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid.
Beta Hydroxy Acids are more penetrating and helpful for unclogging pores. They are oil-soluble and best for oily, acne-prone skin. They are also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.
The most common BHA is salicylic acid. Other salicylic acids include beta-hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid, and trethocanic acid.
Facial cleansers sometimes contain gentle chemical exfoliant acids in low concentrations. If you spot one on your favorite cleanser’s ingredient list, leave it on for 30 seconds to a minute before washing off to let the exfoliates do their work.
Fruit enzymes like papain from papaya and bromelain from pineapple are perfect exfoliants for those with sensitive skin because they are more gentle than BHAs or AHAs.
Fruit enzymes work by breaking down the keratin in skin and targeting only the outermost layer of the epidermis.
Choose a chemical exfoliant if you want something that:
- Is quick and easy to use
- Requires no scrubbing (great for problem skin types)
- Continues to work after application
- Works more deeply than a physical exfoliant, i.e. offers longer-lasting results
- Helps reduce signs of aging
Don’t Overdo It
Although you may find yourself addicted to the afterglow of a good exfoliation treatment, remember that you can have too much of a good thing.
Don’t make the mistake of over-exfoliating, which can dry out your skin and leave it susceptible to sun damage.
Keep your skin happy and healthy by enjoying responsible exfoliation once or twice a week.
You can see a list of our favorite scrubs and acids here.
Choosing between a chemical and physical exfoliate is really a matter of preference, you must consider what you want to achieve as well as your personal skin type.
Both work wonders for the skin, but they also each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
I hope you enjoyed this article! If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below so we can help you out.