Let’s Get Physical… Or Chemical? The Exfoliation Debate

Exfoliating your skin might not be something you particularly look forward to, but like doing laundry and mowing the lawn, it really is one of life’s necessities.

Skin naturally renews itself by shedding millions of cells every day, but alas, like most good things in life, this natural exfoliation process slows down as skin ages. If cell turnover is not helped along with some gentle exfoliation to slough off dead skin cells and boost circulation, the result is exactly what you’d expect – a dull, lifeless complexion. And nobody wants that.

So, what’s the best way to maintain that healthy glow without damaging your skin or causing irritation along the way? Exfoliation, which basically falls into two different categories: physical and chemical. Technically, these both do the same thing, but they actually work in completely different ways. Here’s the lowdown…


What It Is: There are three typical types of physical exfoliants: skincare scrubs, microdermabrasion and dermaplaning. Many skincare scrubs can be found at the drugstore, but they often contain ingredients like ground fruit pits or nutshells. These may sound great to the untrained ear, (they’re natural, they have to be good, right?), but in actual fact they’re often extremely sharp and rough, so can cause micro-tears on the skin’s surface. Eeek.

It’s not all bad news for physical exfoliants, however. Medical-grade skincare scrubs still pack an exfoliating punch, but without causing surface damage, so ask your skincare expert about great options for your concerns.

You could also try microdermabrasion at the doctor’s office. Microdermabrasion works by combining microcrystals with a vacuum suction to exfoliate dead skin cells (the stratum corneum). This feels slightly warm and tingly, but isn’t painful –believe us, we’ve tried it a hundred times. It also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin below the surface to promote stronger, more youthful-looking skin over time.

Dermaplaning, on the other hand is gaining huge momentum right now and is fast becoming a big-hitter in many of our members’ treatment plans. Dermaplaning works by gently shaving the skin’s surface to remove small, downy hairs from the face (aka peach fuzz or vellus hair.) In doing so, it has the added advantage of removing the upper-most layer of dead skin cells, so acts like an awesome physical exfoliation tool. Multi-tasking at its best.

Try: Neova Serious Clarity Microderm Scrub, ZO Skin Health Exfoliating Polish, PCA Skin Gentle Exfoliant


What It Is: Instead of using a physical stimulus to exfoliate the skin, chemical exfoliants use, yes you guessed it, chemicals as a way to boost cell turnover. Chemical exfoliants can be used at home as part of your weekly skincare regime, but they’re also seen at the doctor’s office in the form of chemical peels.

Most chemical exfoliants fall into two camps: AHAs and BHAs. AHAs are naturally-occurring, water-soluble substances that have been extracted from fruit or milk sugars to help exfoliate the top layer of your skin. They encourage new skin to grow, while simultaneously stimulating elastin and collagen production. This means they’re particularly useful for treating surface sun-damage and age spots, as well as fine lines and wrinkles.

The most common AHAs found in skincare are lactic acid (extracted from milk) and glycolic acid (found in sugar cane). Most AHA creams – from the finest medical-grade formulations to over-the-counter drugstore brands – contain glycolic acid in some guise or another. It’s also found in a huge number of superficial chemical peels due to its unrivalled exfoliation skills.

Unlike their water-soluble AHA cousins, BHAs are oil-soluble substances, meaning they can penetrate into your pores to exfoliate your skin on a much deeper level. BHAs are used in skincare to cut through any excess oil that may be clogging your pores, as well as for getting rid of dead skin cells, correcting dark spots and improving the skin’s overall texture.

The biggest player in the BHA world is undoubtedly salicylic acid which occurs naturally in willow bark and sweet birch. Derived from aspirin, salicylic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, making it perfect for treating acne-prone skin.

Try: SkinCeuticals Retexturing Activator, SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, Jan Marini Bioclear Face Lotion