Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliants

Regular exfoliation is a must in any skincare routine, especially if you have acne-prone skin. Exfoliation sloughs off dead skin cells, evens out skin tone, and prevents a dull appearance. Proper exfoliation will also prime your skin to absorb your serums, treatments, and moisturizer properly.

In the world of exfoliants, there are two main types: physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants. They both serve the same function of removing dead skin cells, but they work in different ways. Read on to learn about these different types of exfoliants to see what is right for you!

Physical Exfoliant

As the name sounds, physical exfoliants use a physical mechanism to buff away the top layers of dead skin cells, similar to how sandpaper smooths wood. Physical exfoliants are commonly tiny beads or grains formulated into topical products or skincare tools. Rotating or vibrating face brushes mechanically break apart dead skin cells and lift dirt to wash them away. Other methods like Dermaplaning, using a sharp blade to shave off the top layer of skin, and microdermabrasion, a spa technique that shoots alumina grains into the skin, are performed for a deeper exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliant

The alternative type of exfoliant is a chemical exfoliant. Chemical exfoliants are acids, like alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). These acids work by breaking apart and dissolving dead skin cells to expose the younger skin underneath.

Exfoliants formulated with AHAs can be used daily at lower concentrations or twice a week at higher levels. Common AHAs, like lactic acid and glycolic acid, remove the topmost layer of skin and are great for addressing skin discoloration, uneven texture, and acne scarring.

The most common BHA used is salicylic acid, which differs from AHAs in its ability to exfoliate deeper into the skin. Salicylic acid penetrates sebum and enters your pores to dissolve dead skin cells that cause blackheads and whiteheads.

How to choose the right exfoliant?

Choosing between a physical or chemical exfoliant is mostly about trial and error and personal choice! A chemical exfoliant might be more tolerable with sensitive skin since you can ease into using a chemical exfoliant and allow your skin to adapt to the treatment. Also, if you have breakouts, then a chemical exfoliant is ideal. A physical exfoliant has a higher chance of popping pimples, increasing the odds of infection, spreading, and scarring. For acne and acne-prone skin, using a salicylic acid exfoliant is ideal for unclogging pores gently.


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