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Physical VS Chemical Exfoliators | Skincare Tuesdays | Philly MUA | Natty Contrera Artistry


You are in Sephora or maybe even Ulta, shopping around knowing that you are finally getting into a place where you probably should have taken care of that skin. Your best friend, mom, sister, brother, neighbor, uncle’s new girlfriend, all giving you advice from every angle. We all hear that exfoliating is good for our skin. We all hear about how often and when. We hear about the chemical exfoliators and the physical type scrubs for our skin. BUT – which is the best one for you?

I will break down the difference between physical and chemical exfoliators below.

Physical Exfoliators:

Well, this is pretty straight forward. You physically scrub dead skin, duh. It is usually a small grain, brush, or scalpel. Remind yourself that not all exfoliators (physical or chemical) are created equally. *This is an important reminder to keep in the back of your mind about all skin care and makeup. *

Most fruit pits and nutshells, for example, St. Ives Apricot Scrub, should be avoided. Fruit pits, especially designed by drug store brands, can have ingredients with too large or uneven agents that can cause microtears in the skin. Please, be gentle to your face when using physical exfoliators. Treat your skin as if it is made of tissue paper and not of leather.

What are microtears, you ask? They’re abrasive tears by products that drag the skin. This type of tear can cause enlarged pores, inflammation, irritation, increased sensitivity and/or the increased development of wrinkles. Continuous use of scrubs that cause abrasions can lead to permanent skin damage.

Sounds really intense right? Not really. Physical scrubs and exfoliators are a commonly used skincare product. Always be gentle, use the scrub 2-4 times a week depending on your skin type and never use the scrub in the shower. When we take showers, we usually have the water on hotter than normal, which could dry out skin easier than washing at the sink. Physical exfoliators are great for instant brightness and removal of dead skin. This allows all your products to penetrate deeper for better results!

Now, that we discussed the good, bad and ugly about physical exfoliators, let’s talk about Chemical exfoliators.

A chemical exfoliator removes dead skin cells with chemical aid by increasing cell turnover. This often can be found in the form of daily treatments, serums, peels, acids, or masks. The word “chemical” does not have to mean “harmful” or “unnatural”.  Everything, even fruit and veggies, are made of chemical compounds. Everything in our lives is made of chemicals and energy! Fruit enzymes driven from things like papaya or pineapple can also be used as chemical exfoliation.

With chemical exfoliation, we often hear the words like, AHA or BHA. These are known as alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxide acids. I’ve broken down below the difference between both types when considering ingredients for a chemical exfoliator.

AHA’s, formally known as Alpha hydroxy acids, purpose is to deal with surface texture, wrinkles and aging skin. AHAs can be naturally driven or created synthetically. Acids that are considered AHAs are things like lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid and so forth.

So, if we’ve just learned that, AHAs deal with surface texture, then easily we can figure out that BHAs take care of deep inside the pores. Although Beta Hydroxy Acids can be found in anti-aging creams and treatments, these ingredients are often used in Acne products too. Salicylic Acid is, by far, one of the most commonly used BHAs in the cosmetic industry. Beta Hydroxy Acids are organic compounds, but can be created naturally or synthetically. Since they are found naturally, we often see them in forms of Willow Bark and Tea Tree. We tend to see BHAs used in skincare items like cleansers, toners, or masks.  

I hope that breaking down to types of chemical exfoliating ingredients makes choosing the correct products for you a tad bit easier. Before leaving with you a suggestion of some of my favorites, I will explain one last chemical exfoliator: Good ol’ Retinol.

Retinol is vitamin A. For quick reference, always think of A for Aging. Retinol’s (over the counter version of Retin-A) job is to diminish fine lines, wrinkles, and help fight off acne. Since retinol increases cell turnover, it will also help to improve and promote collagen into the skin. Retinol tends to be sensitive to sunlight, so bottles are usually opaque and almost always require you to use during nighttime only. (Side note, when using retinol, always, always, use SPF in the morning. Second Side note, use SPF anyways.)

I plan to go into much more detail on all of these amazing ingredients in bigger blogs. For now, please just enjoy a list of my top five physical and chemical exfoliators that I have tried and loved.

1. Sunday Riley – Good Genes (Chemical Exfoliator, Lactic Acid Treatment)

2. Sunday Riley – Luna Night Sleeping Oil (Retinol treatment)

3. Modere – Exfoliating Cleanser (Physical Exfoliator  *10 dollar code available = www.modere.com/116311)

4. Dr. Brandt – Microdermabrasion Anti Aging Skin (Physical)

5. Sunday Riley – UFO oil (BHA treatment)

And more!


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