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The difference between physical and chemical exfoliation

The difference between physical and chemical exfoliation

22 Aug 2023

The uppermost layer of skin naturally “turns over” approximately every 28 days by shedding dead cells as they are replaced with fresh, new ones. Although the skin’s rate of renewal can slow over time and impact the skin’s smoothness and radiance, anti-aging goals aren’t the only reason to incorporate exfoliating skincare products that help promote this process. By reducing the buildup of dead cells that can potentially clog pores and contribute to breakouts, exfoliation is beneficial for oily and acne-prone skin as well.

There are several ways to exfoliate the skin. Among the most simple is using a washcloth while cleansing, and specially-formulated skincare products are generally the next step when incorporating exfoliation into any skincare routine. An integrated skincare approach that includes an advanced at-home regimen and professional exfoliating treatments such as dermaplaning, chemical peels, or microdermabrasion can provide the ideal level of exfoliation necessary to enhance the skin’s appearance.

The benefits of exfoliation for the skin are far reaching. In addition to revealing radiant skin, improving the appearance of visible signs of aging (such as fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration) and sun damage, refining the appearance of pores, helping to prevent breakouts, and sweeping away makeup, pollution, and stubborn residue, regular exfoliation can also help the skincare products you’re using for other concerns work more efficiently. Even more, the skin-smoothing results that exfoliation provides can help enhance the appearance of makeup as well.

Exfoliating skincare products can work in different ways, and it’s important to understand how these modes of action can help reap the optimal results for your specific skin type and unique skin concerns. Skincare products can provide physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation, or a combination of both—and there are distinct benefits associated with physical vs. chemical exfoliation, as well as using both types in tandem.

Physical exfoliation
Also known as manual exfoliation, physical exfoliation includes skincare brushes and tools, as well as skincare products that are formulated with ultra-fine granules to sweep dead skin cells away, smooth the skin’s surface, and refine the appearance of pores. This mode of exfoliation is appropriate for most skin types including dull and dry skin, but is generally not recommended for those with sensitive skin and active blemishes.

When selecting skincare products that provide physical exfoliation, it’s important to consider the specific type of particle that is being used to slough away dead cells. The ideal ingredients for physical exfoliation are particles that have a smooth surface as opposed to jagged pieces of seeds or shells that can scratch or injure the skin. Naturally-derived or biodegradable physical exfoliation ingredients are an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic micro-plastic beads that can enter the water supply and cause a cascade effect that can harm wildlife and the environment as a whole.

SkinCeuticals product to try: Micro-Exfoliating Scrub
Formulated with hydrated silica particles in a moisturizing cream base, this daily-use skin-polishing scrub provides physical exfoliation that effectively refines skin texture and purifies pores. The addition of hydrating glycerin and soothing aloe helps promote a healthy skin barrier in normal, dry, oily, and combination skin—and this exfoliant can be added to a traditional cleanser to provide physical exfoliation benefits.

Chemical exfoliation
This mode of exfoliation uses alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or enzymes to reduce the buildup of skin cells, smooth surface texture (including fine lines and wrinkles), and improve the look of discoloration. These chemical exfoliation ingredients help dead cells detach from the skin and shed more easily, and alpha hydroxy exfoliating acids (including glycolic, lactic, malic, and citric acids) can help boost the skin’s natural turnover rate as well. Beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic and lipo-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble, which allows them to refine the skin’s surface and decongest the pores. Beta hydroxy chemical exfoliation ingredients are especially beneficial for oily and blemish-prone skin.

SkinCeuticals product to try: Blemish + Age Defense
With a blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids (including glycolic, citric, salicylic, and lipo-hydroxy acids) for comprehensive chemical exfoliation, this oil-free serum simultaneously resurfaces the skin to improve the appearance of visible signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone while keeping pores clear to minimize blemish formation.

SkinCeuticals product to try: LHA Cleanser
Formulated to effectively cleanse the skin and gently yet effectively sweep away dead skin cells, this daily exfoliating cleanser features a blend of AHA and BHA lipo-hydroxy, salicylic, and glycolic acids. It helps decongest pores, brighten the complexion, refine the skin’s surface and improve skin hydration.

The benefits of physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation
For optimal skin results, it’s worth looking beyond physical vs. chemical exfoliation and incorporating both into your skincare regimen due to their complementary effects. After you’ve removed lingering cells with a product that offers physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation ingredients can better penetrate the skin. Skincare professionals often recommend a combination of physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation to prep the skin for in-office treatments as well.

SkinCeuticals product to try: Clarifying Exfoliating Cleanser
This gentle dual-action cream-based cleanser provides physical exfoliation courtesy of naturally-derived pumice stone particles and chemical exfoliation with a 7% blend of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids. Designed to help decongest pores, smooth skin texture, brighten the skin, and clarify the complexion, it offers the benefits of an effective cleanser and exfoliant in one step.

The importance of sun protection when using exfoliating skincare
The goals of physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation are to minimize the buildup of dead cells on the skin’s surface to reveal radiant, healthy-looking skin—but removing this uppermost layer of skin can leave the skin more vulnerable to UV rays. Although sunscreen should be the final step in any skincare regimen every day, it’s especially important to use broad-spectrum sun protection daily when using physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation.

To discover the ideal physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation products for your unique skin, use our online Regimen Finder, visit one of our SkinCeuticals SkinLab locations, or schedule an appointment with a SkinCeuticals Skincare Professional for a one-on-one consultation.

Exfoliating skincare products can work in different ways, and it’s important to understand how these modes of action can help reap the optimal results for your specific skin type and unique skin concerns.


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