Exfoliation: Chemical vs Physical

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So here’s a fairly quick post to quickly breakdown why we need to exfoliate and the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation, plus a few product suggestions for both categories. Let’s go!

Our skin goes through a process where it repairs itself—out with old, in with the new—it’s a cycle that differs from person to person and slows down as we age, but the average is every 5-6 weeks. Within that process, we lose (on average) almost a million dead skin cells each day (and if you want to be grossed out and yet intrigued, google to see where some of those dead skin cells wind up :x). Sometimes some of those dead skin cells don’t shed and stay on top of the skin’s surface making you look dull and less radiant. Not only does this accumulation of dead skin cells dull your shine, it also makes it harder for your skincare products to work because they have to fight through all that gunk. Blah.

But this is where exfoliation comes into play. It helps rid the skin of that layer of dead skin cells that is blocking your shine. And while it doesn’t directly treat things like dark spots and acne, it DOES help your treatment products better penetrate the skin.

There are two different types of exfoliators: physical and chemical.

Physical exfoliants sound just like their name denotes: they physically exfoliate the skin. Think of scrubs and devices that do the physical handiwork of exfoliating the skin. It’s VERY important to make sure the physical exfoliant you use is made of fine granules—anything too big or too rough can damage the skin (um, talk about tears and scratches—then you have to do the most to heal that and then still take care of your skin after). A physical exfoliant product that I’m loving at the moment is Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser, but there are TOOOONS of physical exfoliants out there on the market at various price points.

Chemical exfoliants sound harsher than they are. A chemical exfoliant helps to exfoliate the skin and can sometimes go deeper than a physical exfoliant, without physically scrubbing the skin. Chemical exfoliants can include salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, etc. Some chemical exfoliants I’ve used in the past and love include Perricone Blue Plasma and Dr. Dennis Gross Universal Daily Peel among others.

Which one you use really depends on your own preferences. Some people are more sensitive to scrubs (not to mention there’s the chance of you going HAM and cutting your skin) while some people are sensitive to certain acids (if you’re new to acids—and no, it’s not like the acid you’re thinking of—it’s best to start out with a lower concentration and then work your way up).

One way to help you narrow things down is to make a list of your skin type and current skin concerns—then go on Sephora.com and filter through the exfoliants that speak to your skin type and current skin concerns and get samples in-store of the ones that seem to be the best match. Do a patch test to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions and see which formulas you tend to gravitate towards the most before settling on a full size product. Now if you find one you like but it’s not in your budget, make note of the ingredients and shop similar ones at the drugstore and also health stores as they tend to carry brands like Reviva Labs, Derma e, Jason, etc. that have exfoliating products that are more pocket-friendly.

There’s also a quiz on the Sephora site that can help you find the right exfoliator for you.

How often you exfoliate will depend on your skin type, current skincare needs, your age (the regenerating process slows as we age), and sometimes even what the weather is like where you live. Our skin regenerating process also slows in the colder months. But on average, you should not be exfoliating more than 2-3 times per week. Over exfoliate your skin and you could cause tears in the skin that can cause WAY more issues than you started out with. You definitely DON’T want that.

So that’s exfoliation in a nutshell. There are more advanced types of exfoliation that you can have done at the care of a licensed skin professional (esthetician or dermatologist) which includes, if the person deems it fit for your skin, higher percentages of acids or more aggressive treatments. The conversation about what’s right for you when it comes to that is one to have with your esthetician or derm.

Shop some physical and chemical exfoliators in the widget below:

(be sure to use the arrow to scroll through the entire widget as there is more product to browse than the first page)

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About Danielle

A former finance girl, Danielle is a New York City based freelance writer and fashion and beauty expert. She's a Hofstra University and Fashion Institute of Technology grad with an obsession with fashion and beauty which she loves to tell you all about every weekday on her award-winning blog. Think of her as your style and beauty entourage all wrapped up into one bubbly brown package. Danielle's work and expertise can be found in print and across the web in Cosmopolitan for Latinas, Allure.com, and more! She's also appeared as an on-air style and beauty expert on The Real, CBS New York's "The Couch" and WPIX11's Savvy Shopper segment.
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