Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation: Which is best?

Friday, January 6, 2023

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells to help prevent breakouts, improve skin texture, tone and glow. Removing old skin cells at the skin’s surface reveals newer, more youthful skin and encourages further skin cell turnover. All forms of exfoliation can be categorized as two types: physical or chemical.

Benefits of Exfoliation

Exfoliation keeps the skin free of dirt, debris, excess oils, and old (dead) skin cells. Adding regular exfoliation to a skin care regimen provides many benefits including:
- Acne Prevention: Exfoliation prevents breakouts by keeping pores free of debris
- Skin Tone Improvements: Skin becomes smoother by creating an even texture
- Improves glow by removing skin’s oldest top layer
- Promotes skin cell turnover for a more youthful look

Exfoliation also makes the rest of your skin care routine more effective by allowing them to absorb deeper into the skin so they can have a bigger impact.

The Difference

Chemical exfoliation means the products do the exfoliating for you, versus a manual method. Chemical exfoliators break the bonds between skin cells so dead cells and other debris can be easily rinsed away. Typically, chemical exfoliates penetrate more deeply into the skin, and they are just as good for brightening as they are for skin smoothing.

Physical exfoliation is any method which manually removes skin cells and other debris from the surface of your skin. This includes simple tools such as washcloths, loofahs, sponges, and brushes, and also products such as scrubs which contain exfoliating particles.

Which Do I Prefer and Why

Physical exfoliation potentially damages the skin by causing small micro tears. This can happen if you rub too hard, or if the particles in your scrub are too large or too sharp. Exfoliating too often may increase oil production, which is counterproductive for those exfoliating to prevent acne.

When choosing a physical exfoliation method, I recommend jojoba beads. These are gentle tiny spheres made from hydrogenated jojoba oil. My favorite is Skin Polish*. Chemical exfoliation such as Lactic Acid is my preferred choice to exfoliate for all skin types. Let me explain what it is and why.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is an organic compound that is produced both naturally and synthetically. Lactic acid is classified as an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). AHAs are frequently used in skin care products because they have the ability to exfoliate the skin, stimulate the skin’s natural regeneration process, and help the skin to retain moisture. There are
many AHAs used in skin care, which begs the question, “What makes lactic acid unique?”

First is lactic acid’s molecular size. So why should you care about molecular size? Molecular size matters because the smaller a molecule, the more easily it gets into the skin. Lactic acid is best for those with sensitive skin and for those who have never exfoliated with an AHA before. Lactic acid also imparts unique benefits that most of the other AHAs cannot provide, such as boosting hydration, stimulating collagen synthesis, improving skin discoloration, and more.

Top 5 Lactic Acid Benefits

1. Exfoliates + brightens the skin

Not only does it exfoliate (remove dead skin), Lactic acid works by breaking down keratin, a protein that acts as a glue to hold together the dead skin cells that make up the stratum corneum. By dissolving keratin, lactic acid helps to slough off these dead skin cells, effectively exfoliating the skin. It also enhances cellular renewal by increasing cell turnover rates in the upper layers of your skin. Ultimately, lactic acid leaves the skin looking brighter with a more even tone.

2. Prevents acne

If you have acne-prone skin, you may want to give lactic acid a try. Blemishes form due to excess sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria clogging pores, followed by inflammation and swelling. Lactic acid sloughs away the dead skin cells that can clog pores and cause acne breakouts. In addition, its moisturizing effects (more on this below) keep the skin hydrated and soft, allowing blemishes to heal better.

3. Boosts skin hydration

Chemical exfoliants are typically associated with skin dryness and peeling due to their exfoliating effects. This is not the case with lactic acid. In fact, the opposite is true: lactic acid is a powerful moisturizer. It improves skin hydration by attracting and retaining the moisture in the air nearby via absorption, drawing the water vapor into or beneath the surface. Lactic acid is also a key element of the skin’s natural moisture which can become depleted with age and also from routine exposure to sensitizing ingredients like drying cleansing agents and skincare containing alcohol.

4. Corrects skin discoloration

When lactic acid is used in high concentrations, such as with a lactic acid peel, it has the ability to lighten the skin and correct skin discoloration (hyperpigmentation). Lactic acid may also be able to reduce abnormal pigmentation associated with aging and exposure to UV light.

5. Helps fight signs of aging

Lactic acid has the ability to reduce the appearance of lines, wrinkles, and other signs of aging by stimulating collagen synthesis. Collagen is a structural protein naturally produced by the body that is responsible for keeping skin strong and firm. Collagen production starts to decline around age 25 and continues to decrease with age.

The best way to use Lactic Acid is by a peel. I love the ease of LimeLife by Alcone’s Glowing Green*.  It is typically recommended to use a lactic acid peel one to two times per week. If you notice skin irritation, rash, or itchiness with a lactic acid peel, you may want to decrease the frequency.

* Products I personal use and recommend. Available on my website.

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