Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation

Dull, dry, normal, oily – we all can use exfoliation to normalize our complexion, stimulate skin turnover and new collagen production, and give us a healthy glow. But what kind is best, and how often? Do you have to worry about over-exfoliation? Read on to find out the best way to incorporate exfoliation into your skincare routine.

Physical vs. Chemical – what’s the difference?

Physical exfoliation, also referred to as manual exfoliation, refers to removing dead skin cells physically, like with tiny particles in a “scrub”, or with a brush or mitt. Physical exfoliation must be done with great care, as many have the tendency to go overboard or get too vigorous with scrubbing the skin. This can result in small tears in the skin and can even increase the small broken capillaries seen on some faces. Those with delicate skin, small capillaries and “thin skin” should generally avoid scrubs. Otherwise, you can use a scrub 2-3 times a week, especially when you feel “texture” on the skin. Choose scrubs with perfectly round particles like jojoba beads which will not scratch the skin (P.S. apricot scrub does not have round particles, does scratch the skin and should be completely avoided!).  In general, we do not recommend mitts or scrub cloths as they may also scratch or otherwise damage the skin. Our favorite physical exfoliants are IsisMD Satin Smooth and Nia24 Physical Cleansing Scrub.

Chemical Exfoliation

Don’t let the name scare you! Chemical exfoliation simply refers to the fact that you are using enzymes or other agents to dissolve dead skin cells and “unglue” them from your healthy skin to reveal a brighter complexion. The most common are Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Malic and Tartaric Acid, and Salicylic Acid. In general, lactic acid is your best bet for effective exfoliation without overdrying or irritation (sometimes seen with glycolic). Salicylic is great for breakout prone skin, but in that case, it needs to be used in a leave-on product (like Clear Balance Blemish Control Serum), and is not so effective in a cleanser. Tartaric and Malic are very gentle, so alone they may not do the trick. However, combined with Lactic, they can provide extra hydration and leave the skin more supple. Our favorites are IsisMD Crystal Clean (combines lactic, malic and tartaric), which can be used daily by most, and Results Rx’s Rx Clean, which is a strong Lactic Acid that needs to be worked up to, and may not be suitable on a daily basis, but is great for those who need extra exfoliation.

Both of these products, as with many chemical exfoliants, may need to be worked up to, especially for more sensitive skin types. Start every other day and then increase as tolerated. Once you can use it regularly, you may also want to try it as a masque. Apply to dry skin, leave on for several minutes and rinse off to reveal a brighter, smoother healthy complexion. Follow with moisturizer and sunblock as needed.

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