To Scrub Or Not To Scrub? Physical Vs. Chemical Exfoliation

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Few topics in skincare are as widely known yet raise so many questions and contradictions like exfoliation. The internet is full of DIY scrubs, magazines are featuring exfoliators of any kind and there is an overall consensus that exfoliation is good. But what kind of exfoliation is good for me? In order to answer that, let’s have a look on what exfoliation is and how it works.

Exfoliation in cosmetic terms refers to the removal of the oldest dead skin cells on the skin’s outermost surface.1 Our skin cells are constantly shed and reproduced and in a cycle of 30-days, go through a process known as desquamation. Simply put, desquamation is when new skin cells are created in the lower skin surface (the dermis) and travel to the outermost surface (the epidermis), where they shield the skin from outside elements and influences. As we age, the process of cell-renewing slows down and dead skin cells pile up on the skin, which leads to a dull and uneven appearance.

With exfoliation, pores become unclogged and it helps the skin to stimulate the production of young epidermal cells.2 The overall benefit of the right execution of exfoliation is cleaner skin that is even and brighter. Sounds good so far, right? The tricky thing about exfoliation is that no one ever teaches you how to do it right. There’s conflicting advice about how often to exfoliate or which tools to use – and improper exfoliation can lead to worsening the issue you were trying to address as well as suddenly creating new ones.   But here’s the good news: it is our mission to get you as educated as possible about how to wield the wand of skincare to your advantage!

Physical Exfoliation

There are two means of skin exfoliation — physical and chemical. Physical exfoliation is more widely known and advertised as the use of scrubs or cleansing tools such as the Clarisonic, microfiber cloths, or konjac sponges. Dead skin cells are physically rubbed off with some form of an abrasive. Physical exfoliation is easy to overdo – make sure to use only the gentlest products (the ever-popular apricot scrub does not qualify as gentle – it’s really harsh!) and limit physical exfoliation to once or twice a week maximum. While your skin may appear super soft right after, it is very possible to harm your skin and worsen its condition in the long run by overdoing it.

Also, on a personal note, please be aware when using products that contain plastic microbeads – new studies from 2013 found that these are very harmful for the environment leading to the pollution of rivers and great lakes3 (see the study of Eriksen in source section for reference or sit back and wait for an upcoming post from one of our amazing content contributors, Sherri, for further information on this topic!).

Chemical Exfoliation

The less widely known sister of physical exfoliation is chemical exfoliation. The first time I read the words chemical exfoliation I thought it sounded very harsh and unappealing – but once I remembered that everything in nature is a chemical, including the water I use to wash my face, I gave it a second look.

As the name implies, an active chemical is used to exfoliate the skin such as enzymesalpha and beta hydroxy acids(AHAs & BHAs) and vitamin A (also known as retinol or retinoids). These ingredients are typically used in low doses in order to gently exfoliate and minimize the risk of irritation.4 People with sensitive skin may want to wait 15-30 minutes until their face is totally dry. Waiting can cut down on any possible irritation and the acids can start to work their magic on your skin.

If your skin is not used to chemical exfoliation, start with a product that has a small amount of active ingredients and introduce it slowly into your routine – once or twice a week for starters will help you look for signs of irritation without doing serious harm. The best thing about chemical exfoliation – once your skin is used to it, you can use it daily! Despite the scary name, chemical exfoliators are actually the gentler method of exfoliation.

Signs of Over-Exfoliation

Signs that you are over-exfoliating include irritation, tightness, itching, redness, dryness/flaking skin and an overall uncomfortable feeling that you usually don’t experience. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, these signs can show up soon after exfoliation. Typically, however, damage from over-exfoliation builds up slowly over time. Examine your skin’s reaction on a regular basis and reduce the usage if you experience any of these symptoms – our skin is a sensitive organ!

But which one is the right one now?

The Addicts typically prefer chemical exfoliation for its gentle characteristics and possibility of daily usage. There is nothing wrong with physical exfoliation though, as long as you stay away from harsh scrubs and remember to use them cautiously – once or twice a week max. You can even use both if you like! (Not together of course, that would be overkill.) That being said, remember to introduce one product at a time – you don’t want to add too many new products and should always patch test. No matter what kind of exfoliation you chose, make sure to always moisturize and use sunscreen afterward! Any kind of exfoliation thins the skin barrier and makes it more susceptible to sun damage. Making an informed choice about exfoliation however, is a tool that gives you the power of clear and bright skin.


Cited Materials

1. Turkington, Carol & Dover, Jeffrey S. (2006): The Encyclopedia of Skin and Skin Disorders. Third Edition, Sonlight Christian, 137-138.

2. Turkington, Carol & Dover, Jeffrey S. (2006), 137.

3. Marcus Eriksen, Sherri Mason, Stiv Wilson, Carolyn Box, Ann Zellers, William Edwards, Hannah Farley, Stephen Amato. Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 77, Issues 1–2, 15 December 2013, 177-182.

4. Rendon MI, Berson DS, Cohen JL, Roberts WE, Starker I, Wang B. Evidence and considerations in the application of chemical peels in skin disorders and aesthetic resurfacing. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Jul 2010;3(7), 32-43.

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