What is chemical exfoliation and what are its pros and cons?
Everyone knows the benefits of exfoliating the skin. It removes the dead skin cells, it clears out the pores, and it makes your skin look much fresher and clearer. Many people exfoliate with scrubs that physically remove the dead skin cells, but what about chemical exfoliators? Do they work? Are there any downsides or side effects that you need to be aware of? Isn’t anything that is labelled as “chemical” something to avoid? If you are confused about just what chemical exfoliators are, here are some facts, as well as the pros and cons of chemical exfoliation.
1. It is not the same as a chemical peel
The first thing to get clear is that chemical peels and chemical exfoliations are not the same thing. A chemical peel is a far more drastic treatment that removes that top layer of skin entirely and leaves the newer skin exposed. The chemicals in a chemical peel make the skin blister and a fine layer of skin is then, literally, peeled away.
2. How do chemical exfoliators work?
Chemical exfoliators work by breaking down the bond, or the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together. It is more a case of dissolving the dead skin cells, rather than scrubbing them away, which is what you would do with a physical exfoliation.
3. “Chemical” is a bit misleading
The word “chemical” can seem a bit scary when it is used to describe a skin treatment, but, in this case, it doesn’t always refer to man-made chemicals. It is true that chemical exfoliators are acids, that’s how they break down the dead skin cells, but those acids include lactic acid, which is found in milk and dairy products, glycolic acid, which is extracted from sugar cane, and citric acid, which is found in fruit.
4. Scrubs are better for removing dirt
Both physical scrubs and chemical exfoliators will lift dead skin cells from your skin, but there are a few differences between the two to bear in mind. The first is that chemical exfoliators won’t clean your skin as well as a scrub would. Giving your face a good scrub will remove dead skin cells and it will leave your face feeling squeaky clean. A chemical exfoliator will break down the skin dead skin cells, but it won’t have much of an effect on dirt that may have accumulated on your skin.
5. Many scrubs are not environmentally friendly
One of the drawbacks with store-bought physical scrubs is that they are not good at all for the environment. Many exfoliators contain micro-beads, which are tiny beads of plastic that are very good for scrubbing your skin, but they take forever to bio-degrade. While the small amount of those plastic beads that you wash down the drain may not seem a lot, if everyone is doing it, it will add to a substantial amount of plastic being put into the natural environment.
6. Chemical Exfoliating cleansers are a waste of time
You can buy cleansers that say that they contain exfoliating chemicals, but they are unlikely to be of any use at all. For the acids in chemical exfoliators to work, they need to be in contact with your skin for some time. With a cleanser, you will have washed it off long before it has a chance to get to work on breaking down the dead skin cells.
7. Chemical exfoliators can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight
One thing to be careful about when you use chemical exfoliators is that they can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. AHA’s (alpha-hydroxy acids) are the worst for this, so you should always wear sunscreen after using exfoliators that contain AHA’s .
8. Chemical exfoliators are gentler on the skin
Chemical exfoliators are much gentler on the skin, simply because they don’t use abrasives. The particles in physical scrubs are sometimes quite sharp and that can lead to sore, irritated skin. It also takes more effort to make scrubs work and, if you don’t rub them on your skin for long enough; they may not work at all.
9. You need to be careful about what other products you use with chemical exfoliators
You do need to be careful about using too many products on your skin at the same time, because they can react with each other. It is not advisable, for example, to use a chemical exfoliator while you are using a retinol cream, because it could lead to irritation and skin flaking.
10. Chemical exfoliators are good for sensitive skin
If you have very sensitive skin, then you will find that chemical exfoliators don’t irritate your skin as much as scrubs do. So long as you follow the instruction on the product properly, you can’t over-scrub with a chemical exfoliator in the same way as you can with a physical scrub, so it will be much kinder to your skin.