When you buy through our links, we may earn money from our affiliate partners. Learn more.
Alyssa Powell/Business Insider
Exfoliation is an important skincare step, both for the face and body. However, there continues to be a debate over whether chemical or physical exfoliation is best.NYC dermatologist Dr. Hadley King provides insight into both types of exfoliation and how to exfoliate safely. She also shared her top product recommendations.See also: The best facial exfoliatorsIf you’re on a quest for smooth, glowing skin (and let’s be real, who isn’t?), the answer may just lie in exfoliation. But before you go hunting for some new skincare, it’s important to note that not all exfoliators are created equal. The right exfoliator depends heavily on your skin type, the ingredient list, and for physical exfoliants, the size of the exfoliating particles themselves. Proper technique is also important for avoiding irritation or even infection.I spoke with NYC dermatologist Dr. Hadley King to break down the process of exfoliation, explain what to look for in an exfoliator, and share her top product recommendations.What is exfoliation?Simply put, exfoliation is the process of removing the outermost layers of the skin, which mostly consist of dead skin cells. According to Dr. King, this unclogs pores, keeps skin clean, and helps reduce acne breakouts. It also helps to polish the skin and even out texture, decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.The idea of shedding layers of skin might set off alarm bells for those of us with dry or sensitive skin, but exfoliation actually aids in retaining moisture. “Exfoliation exposes a fresh layer of skin that is ready to retain hydration when moisturizer is applied afterward, helping to plump the skin with moisture, which makes it look younger, smoother and healthier,” Dr. King says. “And over time, regular exfoliation can increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production” for healthier, bouncier skin.Chemical vs. physical exfoliationIf you’re familiar with exfoliation, you’ve likely heard talk about chemical versus physical. Chemical exfoliation is the use of acids to break down the bonds holding together dead skin cells. Common acids used are salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes, citric acid, or malic acid. Water-soluble acids (like glycolic, malic, and citric acids) are classified as AHAs (or alpha hydroxy acids), while oil-soluble acids (like salicylic acid) are classified as BHAs (or beta hydroxy acids). Because of these properties, those with normal to dry skin or sun damage can benefit from AHAs, while those who are oily and acne-prone typically do better with BHAs. Physical exfoliation, on the other hand, involves physically scrubbing away dead skin cells. This can be done with abrasive materials like sponges and loofahs as well as microbead facial scrubs, salt or sugar crystals, or adhesive exfoliation sheets.There’s a lot of debate in the skincare community about which form of exfoliation is better, but Dr. King says that both have pros and cons. “The potential risk with physical exfoliation is that if you use a product that has particles that are large and rough with sharp edges, you can create micro-tears in the skin that can lead to irritation, inflammation, and possibly even infection,” she says. This is often the critique of products such as St. Ives Apricot Scrub, and was the center of the controversy around the Walnut Face Scrub that Kylie Jenner released as a part of her skincare line in 2019. But if the particles are fine enough and you apply them gently, Dr. King says that physical scrubs can be just fine. She also notes that those regularly using retinoids might benefit from gentle physical exfoliation, as chemical exfoliators often increase retinoids’ potential to cause irritation and dryness.Both chemical and physical exfoliation can be used on the face and the body — it just depends on the individual.
How to exfoliate your face properlyChemical exfoliation tends to be the safest way to exfoliate the face, especially if your skin is very sensitive. After cleansing, apply chemical exfoliant in small, circular motions, either on a cotton round or with your fingers. If the product is a face wash or peel, follow the application directions on the packaging and then gently rinse with lukewarm water.Following chemical exfoliation, it’s very important to apply moisturizer in order to replenish the skin. If you’re exfoliating during the day, you’ll also need an SPF, as harsh chemicals cause skin to become more susceptible to sun damage. For caution’s sake, it’s best to keep chemical exfoliants as part of your evening skincare routine. When using a physical exfoliant, apply the product in circular motions using very light pressure to avoid irritation or tearing. Rinse your face with lukewarm water and follow with moisturizer. How to exfoliate your body properlyPhysical exfoliators tend to work best on the rougher areas of the body, like heels, knees, and elbows. You can apply directly with your hands, but a sponge or natural bristle brush might be more effective for hard-to-reach areas. Use gente, circular motions and make sure to rinse well. You might not think to use chemical exfoliants on the body, but Dr. King says they can be very effective on acne-prone areas like the upper back and chest. For scrubs that contain chemical exfoliants, follow the same application technique as above. For body exfoliators in the form of a serum or cream, apply gently to clean skin until absorbed. Hadley King’s exfoliator recommendations: