Exfoliation 101: Let's get physical and chemical

Exfoliating refers to the process of removing dead skin cells from the outermost layers of our skin. Our skin exfoliates naturally (a process called desquamation), but like with so many things, this process slows down with age, so we help it along with exfoliating products. 

Exfoliation can help to smooth, soften and brighten skin, even skin tone, clear congestion and even increase product penetration by removing dead skin cells on the surface. Body exfoliators can also help with conditions such as keratosis pilaris, ingrown hairs and of course, body acne. While all skin needs to be exfoliated, the type and frequency varies by person and overtime.

There are two main methods of exfoliation: physical and chemical. 

Physical, or mechanical exfoliation, involves the manual removal of dead skin cells with a scrub or cleansing device. Even washcloths provide some physical exfoliation! The most common types of physical exfoliators are scrubs, made with things like sugar, rice or nut shells. This type of exfoliation provides more “instant” results, by smoothing and softening the surface of your skin, but runs the risk of being abrasive. Never use a physical exfoliant on inflamed or irritated skin, or over active breakouts. While some people can handle regular physical exfoliation, many prefer to use it for an occasional boost or before special events, as the polishing effect can create a smooth canvas for makeup. 

As the skin on your body is thicker than the skin on your face, you commonly see body products containing physical exfoliants and they can be used more often. Physical exfoliation can be particularly effective for the rough, hard, bumps associated with keratosis pilaris, often found on the backs of arms. These days, many physical exfoliators are also formulated with chemical exfoliants to provide more long-term benefits. 

Chemical exfoliation involves using ingredients to dissolve the bonds between skin cells in order to slough them off and to stimulate your existing cells to turnover more quickly. Different types of chemical exfoliants can offer a variety of other benefits as well, such as stimulating the production of collagen, providing antibacterial and antioxidant protection, decreasing inflammation and supporting the skin barrier. Many products offer some immediate results, like smoothing, but can take weeks to months of consistent use to see the full benefits.

Chemical exfoliants can be divided into 4 categories: Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs), Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) and enzymes. While most commonly used in products like toners, serums and masks, you can find these ingredients in pretty much any type of skincare product. The strength and benefits of the product depend on its formulation, namely the type and percentage of acid, the pH of the product and the other ingredients in the formula. Chemical exfoliants generally come from plants, fruit and nuts, but can also be created in a lab. 

To find out more about the differences between different types of chemical exfoliants and how to choose the best one for you, check out this guide!