Chemical vs Physical exfoliators

We all know we have to exfoliate.

It removes dead cells from the surface of the skin, allowing the beauty products we apply afterwards from toner to serums and moisturisers to penetrate deeper into the skin and work much more effectively.

Exfoliating also increases cell turnover that, as we get older, slows down. The more our cells turnover, the younger, smoother, brighter and healthier our skin looks.

We can totally call exfoliation a skincare no brainer.

But … your skin might respond better to either a chemical or physical exfoliator so here’s how to find out which one is best for you.

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Physical exfoliant

This is sometimes called a mechanical exfoliant. With this one, you use your fingers or a brush to rub the product around your face in circular motions to remove the dead cells. You physically do the work. Be gently though, it’s not meant to hurt or leave your face red.

Other examples of physical exfoliation are microdermabrasion, hydrodermabrasion and dermaplaning.

Microdermabrasion is like a mini vacuum for your skin. A special tool is used to remove the superficial layer of dead skin cells so the healthier stuff can come through. You can read more about it here.

Hydrodermabrasion is similar to microderm but uses a diamond crystal nozzle to exfoliate and while this is happening, purified water and oxygen is being put straight back into the skin, so it’s super moisturising and hydrating. Read about my hydroderm experience here.

Dermaplaning is when a specially designed blade is used to remove the top layer of the epidermis and the peach fuzz on the face is removed as well. Now before you ask, no the hair doesn’t grow back thicker or darker. I’ve had it done a few times and you can find out more about it here.

Chemical exfoliant

You might be surprised to hear this but a chemical exfoliant can be more gentle than a physical one. This is because there is no scrubbing involved as it’s all about letting the ingredients in the skincare product do the work.

There are two types of chemical exfoliants:

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) remove the ‘glue’ on the surface of the skin that basically holds the dead skin cells together. They’re water soluble so can’t penetrate deeply.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are oil soluble so can get deeper down into the layers of the skin and are ideal for acne sufferers.

The main chemical exfoliants are ones with glycolic acid (AHA), lactic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA).

I use a chemical exfoliant – a glycolic scrub twice a week, that contains super fine grains, followed by a face mask and every other day I use a lactic cleanser. They were recommended to me by a dermal clinician to tackle my pigmentation and they also help with anti-ageing. 

You need to be careful the grains in your scrub aren’t too harsh because, if so, can cause little tears in the skin. Basically those grains are too jagged or sharp. Think of a sugar scrub as a good option or something with a similar texture. If you use a cleansing brush, don’t use a scrub – it’s too much for the skin.