- Exfoliation is an essential part of a good skin care routine because it effectively sloughs off dead skin cells, debris and bacteria from the skin’s surface.
- A buildup of debris on the skin can clog pores and lead to a dull complexion.
- Exfoliation can be performed physically, with devices and scrubs, or chemically, with formulas containing acids that remove buildup.
While physical and chemical exfoliation can both clear and brighten skin, they do so in different ways. Physical exfoliants are abrasive, and therefore more likely than chemical ones to irritate, dry out or tear the skin. However, chemical exfoliants are not without risk; when used improperly, they can damage the skin in the form of hyperpigmentation or chemical burns.
Among the most common chemical exfoliants in use are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Hydroxy acids work to loosen the bonds between skin cells, which promotes the shedding of dead skin cells and encourages new, fresh cells to form.
What Is Chemical Exfoliation?
Chemical exfoliants use exfoliating acids to trigger a chemical reaction. This reaction breaks apart and sheds off the densely packed outer layer of dead skin cells without the need to physically scrub them away.
Chemical exfoliants are available in many forms, including leave-on products, cleansers, toners, and peels. Depending on your skin type, you can choose a chemical exfoliant containing AHAs, BHAs, or both. Those with sensitive skin should consider BHAs for their soothing properties as they are less likely to irritate the skin than AHAs.
Chemical Exfoliation vs. Physical Exfoliation
The two main types of exfoliation are mechanical (also known as manual or physical) and chemical. The exfoliation process that best suits you will depend upon your skin type.
In order to avoid stinging, flaking or itching after exfoliating it’s important to consider any skin sensitivities or conditions you might have when choosing a method.
Mechanical exfoliation involves the buffing away of dead cells using products such as scrubs containing grainy substances, or using devices with abrasive surfaces such as brushes or textured gloves.
Treatments including microdermabrasion or dermaplaning also qualify as manual exfoliation because they work by physically scraping off very thin layers of skin.
If you have normal or oily skin you can safely use a physical exfoliant, however, they may be too harsh for those with dry or sensitive skin.
Chemical exfoliants are typically much gentler than physical ones and are becoming more popular for at-home use.
While it is generally recommended that you do more involved chemical peels under the supervision of a dermatologist, over the counter (OTC) leave-on chemical exfoliants are available in lower concentrations for at-home use. These products include creams, serums and toners.
Chemical exfoliants containing AHAs are suitable for skin that is dry, sensitive or sun damaged. These are water-soluble and therefore do not wash away the skin’s natural oils, allowing the skin to retain some natural hydration.
These exfoliants do not penetrate as deeply within pores, which is optimal for those with sensitive skin. Lastly, most dark spots caused by sun damage affect only the very top layer of skin cells, which AHAs can effectively help shed off.
Common AHAs include gentle lactic and glycolic acids, which work to speed cell turnover, allowing skin to shed and reveal new skin more quickly, while also acting as a moisturizer for drier skin types due to their water-binding properties.
Oil-soluble BHAs penetrate deeper into pores making them a good choice for acne-prone or oily skin. Because BHAs effectively address oiliness, this can also have a drying effect for some people; ensure you follow with a moisturizer.
BHA salicylic acid is particularly effective for those susceptible to breakouts. It reduces inflammation, and kills bacteria, acting as a preventative for future acne eruptions.
Although physical exfoliants are often used without causing any side effects, they can cause microtearing if used too forcefully. Additionally, if your skin is dry or sensitive, it is best to avoid mechanical exfoliation as the process is drying and can lead to redness and further irritation.
If you do choose manual exfoliation, opt for products that contain gentle exfoliants (such as sugar) and moisturizing ingredients that include natural butters rather than ground up ingredients such as shells that tend to have sharper edges.
Leave-on chemical exfoliant are typically considered safer than manual exfoliants as no abrasion is required, which greatly decreases the risk of damaging skin. Stronger chemical exfoliants, such as one-time peels that have concentrations up to 30% often have a much higher risk of side effects. To avoid chemical burns, book these deep exfoliative procedures with a dermatologist.
Using chemical exfoliants with lower concentrations of acid, are typically very safe for at-home use, when used as directed.
Can you use both at the same time?
It’s possible that some combination skin may require both mechanical and chemical exfoliation methods. However, in order to avoid irritation, it is best not to use both methods on the same day.
Pros and cons
Both manual and chemical exfoliation offer a number of benefits when integrated properly into your skin care regimen. Each method, however, can also have its downsides, particularly if you are not using a method well suited to your skin.
When selecting an exfoliant to include in your skin care routine, consider the pros and cons of both.
|Physical Exfoliation||Leaves skin feeling matte and oil-free |
Mechanical motion stimulates circulation
Addresses flakey skin to quickly improve texture
Can be used to remove dry skin on the lips
|Scrubbing too hard can irritate skin and cause microtears|
Granules that are too large or rough may cause irritation
|Better suited to sensitive skin |
No risk of overscrubbing
Penetrates skin’s layers more deeply than physical exfoliants
Helps other skin care products absorb better
Creates firmer skin by boosting collagen production
Reduces hyperpigmentation (including scars)
Unblocks pores to help prevent acne
|Necessary to research before using a new product to avoid potential adverse reactions|
If performed incorrectly, can lead to side effects such as dark spots, rashes and irritation
How to Pick a Chemical Exfoliant
Chemical exfoliants are available in a wide range of concentrations. Always start with lower acid concentrations in order to determine how your skin will react with the active ingredient. For salicylic acid products, look for 1–2% concentrations; glycolic, lactic and mandelic acid are gentler, so you may opt for a 10% concentration or lower.
It is also important to take your skin type into account when selecting a product.
If you have normal skin without any concerns, any type of chemical exfoliant would be appropriate for you. One of the best all-around exfoliants to consider is glycolic acid. This AHA has a very small molecular structure, allowing it to penetrate deeper into the skin than many other hydroxy acids, which makes it one of the most effective options.
If you have dry skin, it’s best to avoid any ingredients that may cause further dryness, such as certain retinoids or benzoyl peroxide. Instead, opt for a more gentle approach, such as a brown sugar paste or an AHA combination of lactic and glycolic acid, which also works to moisturize the skin.
Oily and acne prone skin
For oily and acne-prone skin, you may be able to tolerate stronger products—but always exercise caution—and avoid using any exfoliants if you have open or raw acne lesions.
A combination of both glycolic and salicylic acid is recommended, particularly for those with pimples, as they exfoliate and treat blemishes simultaneously. Using salicylic as an exfoliant can also reduce the number and severity of acne breakouts.
Sensitive and Aged skin
Aging and sensitive skin share many of the same symptoms that make them easily damaged by harsh exfoliants. They are often dry and react easily to outside irritants resulting in redness, rashes, peeling and even cracking of the skin.
Lactic acid is very gentle due to its larger molecular size, which doesn’t allow it to penetrate skin quite as deeply as other acids – making products containing lactic acids an ideal choice for those with sensitive or aging skin.
Your body can benefit from exfoliation just as much as your face can. If you have dry, crepey or sun-damaged skin, use a daily leave-on AHA body exfoliant containing glycolic or lactic acid to keep your skin hydrated and firm. If prone to blemishes, clogged pores or roughness, apply a daily BHA body exfoliant containing 2% salicylic acid for best results.
How to Use Chemical Exfoliants Safely
Chemical exfoliants are typically very safe. Nevertheless, it’s important to follow several safety guidelines to avoid damaging or irritating your skin.
Before starting any chemical exfoliant regimen, be sure to add sun protection to your routine, as freshly exfoliated skin is more sensitive to sun exposure. Never exfoliate with sunburned skin or other skin injuries.
Always be sure to do a patch test first. Use the product as directed on a small area of skin and wait 12–24 hours to determine if you have a reaction. It’s best to start at a low percentage: 1–2% for salicylic acid and 8–10% for glycolic or lactic acid. If you find that you are not seeing results of clear, fresh skin, you can increase the concentration gradually.
Apply your chemical exfoliant after cleansing. Be gentle, using small, circular motions for approximately 30 seconds, and then rinse off with lukewarm water. Allow skin to dry for a few minutes before applying any other products.
Apply moisturizer after exfoliating to keep your skin healthy and hydrated. It is recommended to exfoliate at nighttime so you can follow with a hydrating night cream and allow your skin to replenish while you rest.
When you first start using chemical exfoliants you should use them sparingly; it’s recommended to begin with once every two weeks in order to become accustomed to the effects, and then gradually increase to once per week. If you experience any irritation, stop immediately and discontinue use until your skin returns to normal. Once it does, wait several more days before trying to exfoliate again.
DIY Chemical Exfoliation
Making a DIY exfoliant at home is a relatively easy and affordable way to customize your product to suit your particular skin concerns. However, for safety, always be sure to find a recipe with trusted ingredients.
Some of the most commonly used and trusted ingredients in homemade chemical exfoliants include:
- Avocado, honey or egg whites are all natural moisturizers to add hydration to your homemade exfoliants
- Baking soda’s alkaline nature can act as a neutralizer in your product, ensuring that the acids in your other ingredients don’t dry out or damage your skin
- Citrus juice can exfoliate and provide an antioxidant boost; lemon additionally has lightening properties, which makes it effective at fading age spots
- Glycolic acid gently sloughs away dead skin, leaving it refreshed and rejuvenated; glycolic acid is found in yogurt, vinegar, apples and a variety of citrus fruits
Including regular exfoliation in your skin care regime offers many benefits. Exfoliation can give your skin a more even complexion by reducing hyperpigmentation. It will also help prevent acne and other blemishes, as well as encourage a more radiant complexion and smoother texture.
While manual exfoliants can be used by those with normal or oily skin, chemical exfoliants are the safer option, when used correctly. The main risk of mechanical exfoliants is the likelihood that microtears occur due to the product physically scraping off a layer of skin.
Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, works with the skin’s natural shedding process to help it clear skin of debris and dead cells. They are found most often in the form of peels (but can also be formulated as creams, toners and other topicals) that contain leave-on hydroxy acids – either AHAs or BHAs depending on skin type.
Those with dry, sensitive or aging skin should opt for acids that are gentle and do not penetrate too deeply into the skin, such as lactic and glycolic acid. These are also suitable options for those with oily or acne-prone skin, but these skin types can also safely opt for more deeply penetrating options such as salicylic acid.
That said, chemical exfoliants with high concentrations of acids can cause unwanted side effects, such as excessive drying, rashes or even chemical burns. To avoid damaging your skin, see a dermatologist should you opt for chemicals of 20% or higher.
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