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Should You Use a Chemical or Physical Exfoliator?

It’s time to go over the difference between chemical and physical exfoliators, and discover which one is better for your skin!

It’s the age old skin care question: What kind of exfoliator should I use? Is there one that’s better than the other? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer that can work for everyone’s skin types and skin concerns, so we’re laying down some questions you should be asking yourself the next time you’re buying your next exfoliator.

But first… what is physical exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation is probably what you think of when you think of exfoliating. You make use of small grains or a brush, or some other type of non-smooth surface to brush away dead skin cells that may be clogging pores.

If you’re deep into the skin care world, you probably already know that a lot of your run-of-the-mill drugstore exfoliators are likely too harsh on the skin, and probably aren’t great for the planet either. Exfoliators (and other household products like toothpaste) that have little plastic microbeads cause huge amounts of garbage for the environment, not to mention that plastic soaks up toxins and can harm the animals in areas where we dump garbage, because these tiny beads are a little too small to be filtered out at sewage plants.

You’re also not in the clear by avoiding these plastic beads. Large exfoliants like fruit pits and nut shells are often found in drugstore exfoliators. These exfoliants are just a little too big and harsh and can have a tendency to cause micro-tears in the skin.

Don’t get me wrong, physical exfoliation isn’t bad. Gently exfoliating once to a few times a week can be just the thing to give you clear radiant skin, but you need to make sure that your exfoliating granules are effective and still gentle enough that they won’t harm your skin.

OK, so then, what is chemical exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliation is, essentially what it says: exfoliating by use of chemicals, specifically chemicals that speed up cell turnover. Plus, they’re great if you’re looking for that trademark healthy skin glow.

Not all chemicals are created equally (obviously). And there are definitely some that shouldn’t be anywhere near your skin. Look for AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids). AHAs are water soluble, so they don’t really get into your pores to clean them out, but what they are able to do is break down big chunks of dead skin cells to give you smoother skin. BHAs are oil-soluble, meaning they get down into those pores and clean them out. They’re also anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial and especially great if you have blackheads.

You can also use other chemicals like fruit enzymes, which tend to be more gentle on the skin, or PHAs (polyhydroxy acids), a super popular ingredient in Korea, that’s meant to be as effective as AHAs and BHAs, but less irritating.

But I still don’t know what I should be using…

No skin care is perfect for literally everyone, so here are some questions you should be asking yourself when choosing your exfoliators:

Question 1: Is my skin sensitive?

Sensitive skin is by far one of the trickiest to work with, to the point where if you do have sensitive skin, it’s not uncommon to just want to skip exfoliation all together. The trick here is getting an exfoliator that doesn’t make you feel like you’re exfoliating at all. And finding ones that also have nourishing and healing ingredients to do double duty, healing your sensitive skin and brushing away any impurities.

The Neogen Dermalogy Real Cica Pad is a godsend for sensitive skin exfoliation. Each pad is lightly threaded so that it provides super gentle exfoliation, but it’s so gentle that you won’t even feel anything. They’re soaked in cica or centella asiatica, an ingredient famed for healing inflamed skin and reducing redness to soothe and smooth your irritated skin. This essence can also help promote collagen production, and hyaluronic acid works to help build up your skin’s barrier and make it stronger, as well as hydrate. Plus, it’s free of common irritants like parabens, artificial fragrance and mineral oil. It also has a low pH to keep your skin balanced.

Question 2: Do I have active acne?

You might think having acne shouldn’t affect your exfoliating at all, but that’s not quite true. Remember, acne is an infection. It’s an open wound. Using a harsh physical exfoliator on the skin when you have active acne can spread the infection around causing more acne, and doing exactly the opposite of what your exfoliator actually should be doing.

Instead try a chemical exfoliant like the Dr. Oracle A-Thera Tea Tree Peeling Sticks. These are essentially giant cotton swabs soaked in chemical formula that you can use as spot treatment to help heal your acne. The formula has AHAs and BHAs to help clear your pores, as well as lactic acid and glycolic acid to further exfoliate and smooth out the skin. And since this is a spot treatment built for acne, it also comes with tea tree, lemon, and bamboo extracts which will continue to exfoliate without any irritation.

If you are super keen on using a physical exfoliator, try something like the Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Green Tea. These single use pads are my personal favorite exfoliator because they’re super gentle on the skin, but still make you feel like you’re getting the job done, sweeping away dead skin cells and impurities. Plus, they have green tea, which is a powerful antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory that will help soothe your skin after exfoliation, and help calm those pesky zits.

What if I don’t have either of those issues?

Then you’re probably in the clear to use most exfoliators on the market. But still you should keep in mind a few things.

As with any skin care product, you should patch test prior to applying everywhere and potentially causing a massive reaction on your skin, especially when it comes to incorporating acids into your routine. Acids are active ingredients, meaning they can cause your skin to purge. Be on the lookout for signs of purging when you’re incorporating chemical exfoliants into your skin care routine.

Make sure that your exfoliator feels gentle on your skin. I know the temptation that comes with exfoliating. You don’t feel like you’re doing anything unless you can hear the granules crunching against one another scratching at your skin. But this isn’t what you want. Exfoliation doesn’t need to be and likely shouldn’t be a painful experience. Just because you can’t feel your exfoliator working doesn’t mean it isn’t doing its job. Plus, using a gentle exfoliant can get the job without giving you microtears and making your skin feel itchy and irritated all the time.

Find exfoliators that have ingredients that target your specific skin issues. For example, if you have problems with hyperpigmentation, maybe pick up the Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Lemon which is formulated with vitamin C. Or if you want to stop the signs of premature aging, use the Neogen Bio-Peel in Wine, which has resveratrol, an antioxidant that can help prevent wrinkles from forming.

The Bottom Line

There’s no easy answer when it comes to which exfoliator you should use. Just remember that your skin should be treated with TLC, always. Just because you’re exfoliating once or twice per week doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be gentle. And certainly you shouldn’t skip exfoliating altogether. Following these guidelines and looking at your ingredients lists can be the last hurdle to getting you the clear, radiant skin you deserve.

+ What do you think is the big difference between chemical and physical exfoliators? Let us know in the comments!

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