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Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation - Which Is Better For Your Skin?

Updated: Apr 27, 2023


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If you're a skincare enthusiast like me, you know that exfoliation is a crucial step in any routine. It's like hitting the reset button on your skin, removing dead cells and impurities to reveal a brighter, smoother complexion.


But with so many exfoliation options out there, it can be tough to decide which one to choose.


Physical exfoliation involves using gritty scrubs, brushes, or sponges to scrub away dead skin cells. It's an immediate gratification method - you can feel the results right away. But is it the best method for your skin?


On the other hand, chemical exfoliation is the newer kid on the block, using acids and enzymes to gently dissolve dead skin cells. While it may sound intimidating, it can actually be a gentler and more effective option for some. But does that mean it's always the better choice?


 

In this article, we'll take a deep dive into physical and chemical exfoliation, weighing the pros and cons of each. By the end, you'll have a better understanding of which method is best for your unique skin type and concerns.


 

What is Exfoliation?



Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. It's an important step in any skincare routine, as it helps to unclog pores, brighten skin tone, and improve overall skin texture.


Regular exfoliation is important because this buildup can cause the skin to look dull and rough, and can also clog pores, leading to breakouts and blackheads. By removing dead skin cells through exfoliation, you are allowing new, healthy skin cells to come to the surface which can help to improve the overall appearance of your skin, making it look brighter, smoother, and more even-toned.


In addition, regular exfoliation can help to stimulate cell turnover, which can help to improve the overall health of your skin. When you exfoliate, you're encouraging your skin to produce new, healthy skin cells, which can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve skin elasticity, and promote a more youthful appearance.


It can also help to boost the effectiveness of your other skincare products by allowing better penetration and absorption.



 


What Is Physical Exfoliation?



As I mentioned earlier, this method involves using abrasive materials to physically remove dead skin cells. This can include anything from sugar scrubs to facial brushes to exfoliating mitts. The grittiness of the material helps to physically buff away the dead skin, leaving you with a smoother complexion.


One of the benefits of physical exfoliation is that you can feel the results immediately. There's something satisfying about the feeling of a gritty scrub smoothing away rough patches on your skin. But as satisfying as it may be to physically get rid of dead skin cells, there are some downsides to this method.


Physical scrubs are way too harsh for the thin and sensitive layer of skin on your face. Even if you're using a gentle physical exfoliant, the act of scrubbing can cause micro-abrasions on your skin's surface. These tiny tears can lead to increased sensitivity, redness, and even more damage to your skin's barrier.


Over-exfoliation is also a huge concern when it comes to using physical scrubs. This can damage your skin's protective barrier and lead to irritation, inflammation, and even breakouts.


So, is physical exfoliation always a bad idea? Not necessarily. If you have oily, thicker skin and are looking for a quick fix a physical exfoliant may be a good option for you but if you have sensitive skin, rosacea, or are prone to acne, it's probably best to avoid physical exfoliation altogether.


However, I still suggest using physical scrubs for your body as they had handled the harshness due to the thicker layers of skin. If you do decide to use a physical exfoliant, make sure to use it sparingly and in the right manner to avoid damaging your skin. It is also important to pick the right kind of product that does not have larger-sized particles (like the ones that have walnut and apricot peels) - these can cause more harm than good.



What Is Chemical Exfoliation?



The concept of putting acids on your face may sound intimidating at first but chemical exfoliation can actually be a gentler and more effective option for most people.


The basic premise of chemical exfoliation is that it uses acids or enzymes to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily removed without any physical scrubbing. This can include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic or lactic acid, or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid.


One of the biggest benefits of chemical exfoliation is that it's less likely to cause irritation or damage to your skin's barrier. As chemical exfoliants work at a deeper level, they can be more effective at unclogging pores and improving the overall texture of your skin.


That being said, chemical exfoliation isn't without its downsides. For one, it can take a bit longer to see results compared to physical exfoliation - but in my opinion, it is definitely worth it.


Note - If you're using a stronger acid or have sensitive skin, you may experience some redness or peeling. Make sure you do a patch test before using the product.


 

Best Chemical Exfoliants For Your Skin Type



Let's dive deeper into chemical exfoliants and discuss some of the best options for different skin types -



For Oily or Acne-Prone Skin


Salicylic acid is a great choice for those with oily skin as it is a beta-hydroxy acid - which means that it is oil-soluble and can penetrate deep into your pores to unclog them and reduce inflammation.


One of my favorite options for this skin type is Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. It's formulated with 2% salicylic acid to unclog pores and reduce inflammation.


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For Dry Skin


Lactic acid is the ideal pick if you are someone who has dry and dehydrated skin. It's an alpha-hydroxy acid that is gentle and hydrating. It helps to exfoliate and brighten without causing irritation or additional dryness.


The Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment is a great choice for those with this skin type. It's formulated with 5% lactic acid to gently exfoliate and hydrate your skin, leaving it brighter and smoother.


More affordable option - Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel: This lightweight gel contains 8% glycolic acid. The formula also includes soothing and hydrating ingredients like chamomile, green tea, and aloe vera.


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For Normal or Combination Skin


Glycolic acid is a great all-around choice as it is an alpha-hydroxy acid that is effective at both exfoliating and brightening your skin. It can help to improve overall texture and tone.


For combination skin, the Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum is a good pick as it is formulated with a blend of AHAs and BHAs.


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For Sensitive Skin


If you have sensitive skin, it's important to be extra cautious when selecting a chemical exfoliant. Some AHAs or BHAs may be too harsh and cause irritation or redness.


An effective yet gentle option for sensitive skin is the COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner. It's formulated with a blend of AHAs and BHAs to exfoliate and clarify your skin, but it also includes soothing ingredients like allantoin and panthenol to reduce redness and irritation.


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These are just a few options out of many great chemical exfoliants on the market. It's important to find the one that works best for your individual skin type and concerns.


 

Remember, it's important to start with a lower concentration of any chemical exfoliant and gradually work your way up to avoid irritation or adverse reactions. And as always, make sure to wear sunscreen during the day to protect your newly-exfoliated skin!


Love,

Rae



Image Credits - Lany Jade

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