POSTED: 12 Apr 2018

The Insiders Guide to… Physical Vs Chemical Exfoliation at Home – How to Choose the Best Exfoliator for Your Skin Type

Exfoliation seems to cause no end of grief to most of our readers because of all the mixed advise out there. There is a lot of noise about how to exfoliate, the best products to choose when to exfoliate and how on earth do you know if you are over exfoliating?! Well, fear no more because we’ve decided to settle this for good with our definitive guide to exfoliating at home.  We’ve simplified the whole process so that you have the essential facts about the differences between physical, enzyme and acid (chemical) exfoliants as well as how to choose one based on your skin type. We hope that tunes out some of the noise around this subject. So, sit back and learn how to choose the best exfoliant for your skin type and how to exfoliate (just the right amount).

Physical Exfoliation

The most basic and most common method of exfoliating is by using a physical exfoliant. This involves using a product or tool which mechanically buffs away dead skin cells. Widely used physical exfoliants include face scrubs,  exfoliating mitts, sponges or brushes. Scrubs tend to contain microparticles like fruit stone fragments, small grains, coffee grounds, salt or sugar. Sponges and brushes also physically remove dead skin from the surface. Physical exfoliation is actually a little harsher than chemical or enzyme exfoliants but is very convenient and can work well for the right skin type. We prefer scrubs that contain coffee grounds, salt or sugar as these are effective but much gentler on the face. Products that contain fruit stone fragments can be a bit too harsh and even cause micro-tears in the skin which can lead to scarring. If you use sponges, brushes or exfoliating mitts, ensure that they have been designed specifically for use on the face and that you use them on wet skin (best with your cleanser for added clarity) to avoid injuring the skin (think friction burns).

Professional physical exfoliation may be performed using microdermabrasion or dermaplaning. Microdermabrasion utilizes fine crystals which are blasted using a special tool onto the skin in order to remove dead cells. Dermaplaning, on the other hand, uses a scalpel to shave off thin layers of dead skin in order to unveil new skin beneath. We’re not a massive fan of either procedure, to be honest. This is because there is a risk of creating injury to the skin which can result in infections or even scar. There are many better treatments for professionally resurfacing the skin including lasers and chemical peels.

Exfoliating with Enzymes

This is actually one of the most gentle and fun ways to exfoliate although it may suit people with very sensitive skin. Most enzyme exfoliants are derived from fruit; Pumpkin, Pineapple, and Papaya are the most commonly used. These fruits contain a specific enzyme which can break down dead cells and loosen their connection to the skin causing them to fall off. They also usually contain a number of Vitamins including B and C which further brighten the skin and give a radiant complexion. They’re usually sold as a mask which you can apply at home and wash off after a set period.

You can also get professional enzyme treatments which are generally available as superficial chemical peels. These are great if you simply want a pick me up for your skin or to prepare for an important event without any downtime.

Exfoliating with Acid

This both excites and instills dread into the hearts of many a beauty aficionado. The idea of applying acid to your face does seem pretty scary but it needn’t be provided you select the appropriate treatment. Firstly, most exfoliating acids can be broadly divided into alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Both resurface the skin by removing dead cells on the surface. The difference is that AHAs are water soluble and loosening the connections which keep dead cells attached to the skin. Thus causing the cells to fall off. On the other hand, BHAs are oil soluble and they break down the collections between the dead cells which then hastens their falling off. They also penetrate deep into the pores and possess anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory actions. In general, BHAs are ideal for oily or acne-prone skin whilst AHAs are best for ageing or dry skin. In reality, they can be safely used together to achieve many different effects.

Acid chemical peels are also available as professional treatments. These peels utilize acids at higher concentrations which allows deeper penetration and hence more dramatic as well as longer lasting effects. They do have to be administered by a professional for safety and optimal results.

How to Choose the right Exfoliant for Your Skin

This is actually much easier than you might think and boils down to understanding your skin type. In addition to figuring out whether you have dry, oily or combination skin. Its worth also figuring out your main concerns (e.g. ageing, acne-prone or uneven tone) as well your goals (e.g. younger looking, brighter or smoother skin). With that being said, it’s quite easy to choose the right exfoliant for your skin.

Exfoliants for Normal Skin

If you fit into this camp the world is your oyster. For maximal bang for your buck though, we would recommend passing over physical exfoliants in favor of enzyme or acid exfoliants for normal skin. That’s because the latter are far more effective and gentle. Fr normal skin, Papaya/Pineapple enzymes or AHAs (chiefly glycolic) will remove dead cells, improve skin texture and brighten the face.

Exfoliants for Dry Skin

Dry skin is actually very delicate and so physical exfoliants should be avoided as they can cause micro-tears in the skin. Opt for enzyme exfoliation or AHAs to smooth texture, remove flaking and tackle dullness. If your skin is quite sensitive, try a lactic acid-based exfoliant which is a very gentle way to chemically exfoliate even quite sensitive skin.

Exfoliants for Oily Skin

If you have oily skin, you have quite a fair bit of choice. Physical exfoliants can work well in particular to clear clogged pores. Opt for wither a sugar-based polish, coffee-based scrub or even a sponge or brush. It’s a good idea to combine physical exfoliation with a chemical exfoliant. If you have blocked pores and acne-prone skin then BHA exfoliants containing salicylic acid are your new best friend! If ageing skin is additionally an issue, then you can also use a glycolic or lactic acid exfoliant in addition to the salicylic acid.

Exfoliants for Combination Skin

Here’s where the fun starts! So combination skin usually involves a very oily T-zone area and normal or even dry skin on the rest of the face. In this case, use a physical exfoliant on the T-zone area then follow up with a salicylic exfoliant to the T-zone and a lactic, glycolic or even enzyme exfoliant to the whole face afterward. This will clarify your T-zone area and also provide smoother, brighter and younger-looking skin to the rest of the face.

How often should I exfoliate we hear you cry? Well, this depends on the product you use. Physical exfoliants, enzyme masks, and acid masks should be used 1-2 times a week maximum. Acid-based cleansers and toners can be used and built up on a daily basis if the product is designed for this since they will only contain a small concentration.  If your skin becomes sensitive or starts to feel tight or uncomfortable then reduce the frequency of your exfoliation. If you’re doing well on this routine but want to boost the results, consider getting a professional treatment like laser or chemical peels every 6-8 weeks till you’ve achieved your skin goals. Hope that was slightly helpful and please let us know in the comments below if you have any exfoliating tips you wish to share or if we’ve missed anything out or if there’s something you’d like us to cover.

What next?

Don’t forget to check out our skincare routine pages to learn more about how to put together a bespoke skincare routine for your skin type.

Over here for more on chemical peels, glycolic acid and giving your self an at-home facial.

If you want to reset your skin, check out our 7-day skincare detox guide!

Authored by:

Dr Amel Ibrahim
Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director
Founder City Skin Clinic
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
Associate Member of British Association of Body Sculpting GMC Registered - 7049611

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