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Celebrating The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Which Exfoliants Are Best for Your Skin: Chemical or Physical?

African American woman with facial sponge

If you’re the type who wants to wash your face the moment you see anything about perfecting your skincare routine, get ready to pull out all your favorite products. Today, we’re talking about exfoliating!

Exfoliation is achieved in two ways: by physically scrubbing the surface of your skin or by using a chemical (acid) exfoliant. In this article, we’re addressing your burning questions: What is exfoliation? How do physical and chemical exfoliants differ? Which is better? Do you need both? Spoiler alert on the last question: You can use both!

What is exfoliation?

Exfoliation involves the removal of dead skin cells on the skin's outermost surface. It’s one of the most critical steps in any skincare routine to keep your skin looking bright and healthy. When incorporated into your routine properly, exfoliation can help:

  • Free pores of dirt and oil
  • Improve the effectiveness of other products by clearing away dead skin cells on the surface of the skin
  • Improve the look of uneven skin tone, post-acne marks and hyperpigmentation
  • Reveal healthier, younger-looking skin
  • Enhance texture and firmness

Now let’s dive deeper, which is better? Physical or chemical? Or do you need both?

What is a physical exfoliant?

A physical exfoliant is a product or tool that requires you to rub or scrub your skin. These include skincare products such as scrubs, brushes, sponges, loofahs and certain washcloths. This type of exfoliation works to loosen dead skin cells from the skin’s topmost layer using physical friction.

For those of us who are obsessed with doing the work ourselves, physical exfoliation may feel the most satisfying because we can often see and feel the immediate results of the effort we’ve put in. But keep in mind that physical exfoliation can cause more harm than good if you have an overzealous hand.

What is a chemical exfoliant?

Chemical exfoliants are comprised of acids that react with the skin to help remove built-up layers of dead skin cells and reduce excess oil that may cause dull skin and buildup. You’re probably thinking, “Well, physical exfoliants do the same thing without chemicals.” While some of us may not need the extra help, chemical exfoliants are necessary for some.

Depending on the type of chemical exfoliant you choose, its composition may have the ability not only to dissolve the bonds that hold stubborn skin cells together but also to help increase the effectiveness of active ingredients, providing a more thorough exfoliation. As a result, if you struggle with oily, blemish-prone and sun-damaged skin, chemical exfoliants may be the answer you’ve been searching for.

But the final question remains: Do you need both a physical and chemical exfoliant?

Do you need them both?

Yes! When used correctly, both physical and chemical exfoliation approaches can complement each other to produce that visibly smooth and brighter looking complexion we all want!

While chemical exfoliants remove dead skin by dissolving the bonds that hold your skin cells together, physical exfoliants help to actually nudge those loosened dead skin cells from the top layer of our skin. Combining both may give you the best results, and quickly!

Don’t overdo it. Over-exfoliation is real! The last thing you want to do is further complicate skin challenges or expose deeper skin layers to harsh chemicals (from other products in your skincare routine) or environmental stressors.

For other information, education, and resources to maintain your glow, check back on The Glow-Up Guide often!


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