Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation Explained

Last week I talked about incorporating healthy skin care habits into your 2020 self-care routine and stressed the importance of cleansing. This week I’ll go a step further by introducing you to another crucial step in maintaining skin health: exfoliation. I grew up peeking into my older sister’s cosmetic cabinet and one item in particular always seemed to pique my curiosity: the classic St. Ives Apricot Scrub. The concept of putting something gritty on my face really puzzled me at the time. Luckily, my skincare knowledge has developed considerably and I’ve come to realize what an important role this step plays in my routine. In a perfect world, exfoliation should happen twice a week but if you’re anything like me, life gets crazy and I’m doing well to do it once.

Exfoliants are typically seen in two forms: physical or chemical. I try to incorporate both into my routine as they each have different benefits.

Physical Exfoliation

Physical Exfoliation aids in skin cell turnover through the use of facial scrubs, dry brushes, or a scalpel. Facial scrubs tend to be the most common and paying attention to the ingredients in these products is a must – you want to make sure the grains aren’t too large. Try to avoid large ingredients like fruit pits and nut shells since these can cause micro-tears in the skin. But don’t toss your St. Ives scrub in the trash just yet! Try using it on the rest of your body. Our arms and legs need some TLC as well and our skin in these areas can handle more grit than the skin on our face can.

A great alternative for a facial scrub is the Visual Changes Microdermabrasion Crème ($52). The name can seem intimidating but it’s a hero product for sure and is perfect for at-home exfoliation. The micro-fine crystals are tiny enough not to irritate or damage the skin, but powerful enough to get the job done. You also get a lot of bang for your buck with this one – a little goes a long way due to the crystals’ ability not to break down, so once you’re done scrubbing your face bring it down onto your neck and chest for additional exfoliation.

If you’re prone to clogged pores, monthly professional exfoliation treatments are also something to consider. Requesting Microdermabrasion or a Dermablade during a facial service can dramatically improve skin texture and give your face an overall glow. If you’re new to exfoliating, think of it like sanding a piece of wood before priming it. We need to get that top layer of dead skin off so that our skin is ready for the next step!

Chemical Exfoliation

Next, I’ll be introducing you to chemical exfoliation. As I mentioned previously, I try to incorporate both chemical and physical exfoliants into my regimen but two years ago I knew virtually nothing about the benefits of exfoliating with skin-safe chemicals. I feel like there’s a stigma surrounding the word “acid” and we tend to think any product containing it is going to cause burning. This is not always the case, though! Naturally derived acids found in the products I’ll talk about today provide gentle exfoliation and are really my secret weapon to a smooth and even complexion

Chemical exfoliants are most often seen in the form of a peel or an acid wash or a pre-soaked peel pad. When product hunting, you want to be on the lookout for products containing alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. AHAs are water-soluble, meaning they work best for dry skin types to smooth skin and prevent dehydration, improve sun damage, and reverse aging. I always encourage you to look at the ingredients listed on products before you buy so look for words like “glycolic, lactic, and citric acids”. BHAs are oil soluble and penetrate the skin on a deeper level, making them best for oily and acne-prone skin types. They fight acne, reduce hyperpigmentation, and promote anti-aging. Salicylic acid and willow bark extract are both great BHA ingredients to look for. AHA’s and BHA’s may be too harsh for those with super sensitive skin types so products containing fruit enzymes such as papaya and pineapple are a perfect option as they only target the outermost layer of the epidermis.

My personal favorite product for chemical exfoliation is the Visual Changes Skin Resurfacing Pads ($32). These are pre-moistened pads that treat acne, and hyperpigmentation, soften fine lines, and smooth skin texture. I’m a dry-skin type so the lactic and glycerin in these pads help to turn over any dead skin I may have while keeping moisture locked in. I only use these pads once or twice a week- any more than that is overkill and speaking from personal experience when it comes to exfoliation, more isn’t necessarily better. Do it too much and your skin is probably going to feel raw and tight. Twice a week is a magic number here! I also want to mention that if you’re feeling like you need to go even deeper than what some of these products can give you, requesting a chemical peel during a facial can work wonders! You just want to make sure to discuss how deep you want to go with a licensed medical aesthetician- more layers to a peel = more flaking and peeling = brand new baby skin!

I really can confirm that using chemical exfoliation has changed my skincare game. My makeup goes on smoother, I experience fewer breakouts, and it’s helping prevent premature aging- isn’t science great?!

See y’all next week 👋

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