Physical Exfoliation vs. Chemical Exfoliation: Which Is Better For Skin?

Kylie Jenner's walnut scrub set the internet on fire. Here's what you need to know.

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The Kardashian-Jenner squad has seen its share of scandals, but Kylie Jenner’s latest controversy isn’t something you’d expect to see on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” This time, a new line of skin care products has set Twitter ablaze.

When Jenner announced the spring launch of Kylie Skin by Kylie Jenner, a collection of affordable essentials in millennial pink packaging that could rival Glossier in terms of being instantly Instagrammable, one product in particular drew criticism from skin care professionals and enthusiasts.

The culprit? A $22 walnut scrub. It’s described as gentle, with an active ingredient of walnut shell powder.

So why is this such a big deal? Like the controversial St. Ives Apricot Scrub, Jenner’s physical exfoliant polishes skin with small granules. And, pointed out Dr. Kelly Park of Lakeside Dermatology in Illinois, “Physical exfoliants can be unnecessarily harsh and abrasive on the skin, leading to dryness and irritation.” Not only that, they can cause microtears and damage the skin over time, leaving it prone to irritability.

Should you opt to use a physical exfoliant, there are options, according to Dr. Marisa Garshick of MDCS: Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in New York. “A good alternative for those who are interested in a physical exfoliant is the Dove Exfoliating Body Polish, which gently exfoliates leaving the skin feeling smooth, but also contains moisturizing ingredients to leave the skin feeling soft,” Garshick said.

One example for the face is Good Science Beauty Skin Renewing Polishing Powder, a clay-based exfoliant with a fine powder, as opposed to granules, that gently polishes skin while moisturizing.

Don’t eliminate exfoliation entirely. Besides buffing away dead skin and buildup, which allows your skin care products to properly penetrate and do their job, exfolation stimulates skin renewal for smoother and brighter skin.

The best alternative to a physical exfoliant is a chemical exfoliant. If you’re looking for an effective yet gentle way to exfoliate, you should consider switching to a chemical exfoliant.

“Over-the-counter [chemical exfoliants] are often gentle enough so there are minimal side effects, such as irritation and dryness, while still getting the benefits, whether it be smoother and brighter skin, or reduction in acne and discoloration,” Park said.

Chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs (alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids) “dissolve and slough off the top layer of dead skin to reveal brighter and more rejuvenated skin,” explained New York- and Maryland-based esthetician Sean Lundy. “They can also treat issues like hyper-pigmentation, acne, uneven skin tone and diminish the appearance of pores, fine lines and wrinkles.” AHAs and BHAs can be found in several accessible and affordable products, including toners, serums and masks.

How to pick the right chemical exfoliant

First, consider the differences between AHAs and BHAs.

Lundy explained that alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic, lactic and malic acid “exfoliate the surface of the skin.” He noted that they are “water soluble, can be moisturizing (lactic), skin brightening, address texture and hyperpigmentation.”

If you’re introducing acids into your routine, Lundy recommends lactic and mandelic acids, two gentle AHAs perfect for beginners. “They both have some moisturizing properties and are less irritating as the molecule size of lactic and mandelic is larger than glycolic or salicylic acid,” he said, meaning they don’t penetrate your skin as deeply. His go-to AHA product is Youth To The People’s Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliating Power Toner, which contains glycolic and lactic acid.

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Beta-hydroxy acid “exfoliates the surface and inside the pore,” Lundy explained. BHAs are oil-soluble, unlike the water-soluble AHAs. Lunday said BHAs can “reduce inflammation, help heal acne, breakouts and congestion.” Because of this, BHAs like salicylic acid are perfect for those with acne.

Garshick said the oil-soluble properties of BHAs “reduce sebum and oil production, as well as eliminate dead skin cells and prevent the pores from getting clogged.” If you’re interested in working a BHA into your skin care routine, Lundy recommends cult fave Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting BHA 2% Liquid.

If you’re stuck on whether you should try an AHA or BHA, no need to worry. You can find plenty of products that contain both. “It’s best to combine AHAs and BHAs,” Lundy said. “This way, you’re treating acne and breakouts with the BHA, while also treating hyper-pigmentation and uneven tone with the AHA.”

He recommends the affordable multitasker The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2%, a 10-minute facial peel containing glycolic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid.

Chemical exfoliating should be done post-cleansing three times a week or less, depending upon the product instructions and the sensitivity of your skin. Exfoliation is essential, but over-exfoliating can have the opposite effect on skin, causing dryness, irritation and breakouts.

Follow up with a moisturizer or heavier creams and oils for nighttime use, and for daytime use follow up with a moisturizer and sunscreen. If they aren’t already a part of your regimen, acids can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

Before You Go

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