Under the blanket of “Exfoliation” are two main types of exfoliation – chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation. They have the same basic goal of sloughing away the upper layers of dead skin cells and stimulating the growth of fresh, new skin cells. They both are available as at-home or in-office treatments. Despite their similarities, there are a few key differences in how they work and how they are used.
How They Work
Products or services using chemical exfoliation typically use either alpha hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid or lactic acid) or beta hydroxyl acids (such as salicylic acid) to chemically, gently “unglue” and break up the clumps of dead skin cells.
Physical exfoliation includes some kind of granule to physically break up the dead skin cell layers. Over-the-counter (OTC) products typically include an exfoliators such as sugar, ground shells of walnuts or other nuts, salt or pumice grains.
How to Use Them
Most people may use OTC chemical exfoliation products daily because they are relatively gentle on skin and work slowly. They are commonly available as face or body washes, although these exfoliants may also appear in moisturizers, creams and serums.
Physical exfoliant products typically should not be used every day; most product descriptions recommend no more than 3 uses per week, with the most common application recommendation being once per week. These products are usually facial or body scrubs. Microdermabrasion is a physical exfoliation in-office treatment.
How to Choose
Even people with sensitive skin can usually use some form of chemical exfoliant because these products come in different strengths- from a gentle OTC option to prescription strength. Chemical exfoliation products are good for regular, daily use and can be used with a variety of skin conditions. One thing to note, however, is that when combined with retinol, chemical exfoliants can increase the risk of irritation and may even render each other less effective.
Physical exfoliants are good for a weekly sloughing away of dead skin in many people, but those with certain skin types (such as sensitive skin) or skin conditions should take special care when using this type of product. Acne patients often like this type of product believing that it will be more effective than a chemical exfoliant, but this is a common myth. Physical exfoliants can create microscopic scratches in skin that may spread the acne bacteria and commonly increase irritation and inflammation in acneic skin.