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Exfoliating 101: Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliators

When you think about using an exfoliating product, you probably imagine a face wash with little scrubbing beads. Possibly an apricot face scrub you’ve had in your shower for ages? While this type of ever-popular exfoliator is great, it isn’t the only way to effectively scrub your face. In fact, they could be inflicting more harm than good on your complexion.

Why would this happen? Want to know more about other types of facial scrubs? Confused (or even intimidated) by the idea of a chemical exfoliator? Don’t worry — we’re here to explain it all!

Physical Exfoliators

A physical exfoliator is exactly what it sounds like — a cleanser that includes tiny scrubbing particles that you can feel with your bare hands. Commonly labeled as face scrubs, these granule-filled formulas help to buff and slough all the dead skin cells off of the surface of your skin. Facial scrubs contain a range of physical exfoliators, from salt grains to walnut shell granules.

Here’s a list of some of the most common physical exfoliation ingredients:
Plastic microbeads (more on these later)
Jojoba beads
Bamboo beads
Nuts (mainly walnut and almond)
Baking soda
Rice powder

That trusty facial cleansing brush you use is also a physical exfoliator – it works at the surface of your skin to remove debris.

Physical exfoliants are a great way to make sure all the dead cells on the surface of your skin are scrubbed away. They’re ideal if you have dry, flaky skin that is consistently shedding — not just on your face, but on the rest of your body, too. Sugar and salt scrubs are typically created for your body, since these ingredients are bigger and a bit less refined, but there are some fabulous facial sugar scrubs, too. Whatever ingredient the cleanser contains, it can feel great to scrub at your face and really feel the granules as they go to work on your skin.

And while we’re totally on board with this feeling, we’re also here to heed a warning: facial scrubs with physical exfoliants are often too harsh if you have acne and/or sensitive skin. Have you been using a generic facial scrub and noticed your skin is red and sensitive afterwards? Or, worse, are you using a face scrub and feeling like your acne won’t go away? This may be because physical exfoliators inadvertently pick up bacteria that can then spread to other parts of your face — causing even more breakouts. It’s also important to know that a facial exfoliator (physical or chemical) should only be used twice a week.

It’s also good to know that, as of December 2015, plastic microbeads have officially been banned by the U.S. government. This is because a series of studies found these plastics weren’t breaking down, and were instead being ingested by fish and impacting the ocean food chains.

Chemical Exfoliators

Acid, or chemical exfoliators, have a name that sounds a bit intimidating. Realistically, these types of face scrubs are incredibly beneficial for your complexion.

Chemical exfoliants are included in skincare formulas to help penetrate the bonds that dead skin cells have on our healthy, living skin cells. We like to think about chemical exfoliants working just like little Pac-Man on our skin, eating up all of the gross dirt, debris, and dead skin cells that clog your pores and cause those pesky whiteheads, blackheads and other blemishes. This chemical process can’t be seen by the naked eye, but it can definitely be felt after you’ve washed your face — skin feels smooth, soft and refreshed.

Chemical exfoliants are divided into two subcategories: AHAs and BHAs.

AHAs, or Alpha Hydroxy Acids, are mostly derived from natural ingredients: glycolic acid from sugar cane, lactic acid from milk, malic acid from apples, citric acid from citrus, and tartaric acid from grapes. These powerful acids are all water soluble and capable of enhancing our skin’s natural moisture levels, diminishing the look of wrinkles and fine lines, smoothing rough skin texture, and improving dull, uneven skin tone. SLMD’s Body Smoothing System is great for exfoliating and includes a Glycolic Acid Body Scrub and Glycolic Acid Body Lotion.

Beta Hydroxy Acids, or BHAs, usually refers to salicylic acid (in SLMD’s Salicylic Acid Cleanser and Salicylic Acid Body Wash, but the category also includes beta hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid or trethocanic acid. These all-star exfoliators are similar to AHAs, but with three major differences. BHAs work more deeply within our skin, inside the lining of our pores. They are also oil soluble, meaning they are ideal for oily skin. Lastly, they are a great ingredient for calming red skin — even those who have more chronic conditions, like rosacea.

Whichever type of exfoliant is best for you — chemical or physical — be careful not to over-exfoliate. This can dry out the skin, lead to the overproduction of oil and, therefore, more acne. Or, you can scratch at your skin too abrasively, and begin to exfoliate healthy skin instead. Ideally, you should use a face scrub two or three times a week.

See, the difference isn’t so complicated — and chemicals aren’t so scary! Now, check out our story on everything you need to know about getting your first chemical peel!

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