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Exfoliants : Physical vs Chemical



When I discuss exfoliants I find it best to first to take a step back and understand what an exfoliant actually is to better understand the different types and the role they can play in your skin care routine. 


Our skin is dynamic- it is constantly renewing itself.  During this renewal process, ‘dead skin cells’, sebum or oil, and keratin, a protein from our skin, are accumulating at the surface.  These naturally will shed or exfoliate on their own.  However it has been shown that sometimes they will linger and sometimes accumulate in our pores or on the surface of our skin.  This can result in the potential for acne or just a ‘dull’ overall appearance of the skin.

Exfoliants are meant to help remove the accumulation of superficial skin cells, keratin and sebum from the skin to treat and prevent acne and give the skin a ‘glow’ by revealing the skin hiding behind this layer. 



There are two types of exfoliants : physical or chemical.


Physical exfoliants are products that work by manually removing the excess by the abrasive or gritty quality.  This can be through the addition of granules, sugar, seeds or nutshells to a cleanser or devices such as loofahs or brushes.


Chemical exfoliants are products that use ingredients such as alpha hydroxyl acids, beta hydroxyl acids, or enzymes to dissolve the fats or lipids in the superficial layers of skin to help shed these cells or by products of these cells such as keratin and sebum or oil.



Choosing an exfoliant that’s right for you really depends on your skin type and the outcome you are hoping to achieve.


If you have an underlying ‘issue’ with your skin you are actively trying to treat or address then chemical exfoliants will likely serve you best. 


Alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid, citric acid and lactic acid break apart superficial skin cells by breaking apart the adhesions that hold them together.  They are found in higher concentrations in chemical peels meant to treat acne, discoloration, and aging.  In lower concentrations they will often be seen in cleansers and topicals. These can be a bit aggressive depending on the concentration in a product. 


Beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid are milder than alpha hydroxy acids but work in similar way.  Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in acne washes and spot treatments.  It can also be found in moisturizers or cream for psoriasis to help shed or peel excess flaking or dryness of the skin.


Enzymes are even milder and are essentially fruit extracts such as papaya that are known to help exfoliate but not too aggressively.  I often apply these after microdermabrasion to further assist in exfoliation afterwards but are not too effective alone.  If you have very sensitive skin, however, this is a wonderful option to play with.


Read more about Liquid Exfoliants as Dr ILYAS discusses with OprahMagazine...



If you have oily or dull appearing skin then manual exfoliation may be a better way to go.  I realize there are a lot of devices and loofahs and skin brushes on the market I’m not a fan of tools.  The amount of bacteria that has been shown to build up in loofah sponges alone in studies is enough proof that these may not be a great idea- unless you are meticulous about constantly cleaning these in a bleach solution.  I have had cases where patients have been so aggressive with facial scrubbing brushes and mechanical devices where they actually developed impetigo (an infection with staph bacteria) as a result.  To get a simple wash, just use your hands.  After all, once you have soap and water on them- they are clean!  If you would like to use a gentle exfoliative then stick with ones that wash down the drain and are not reused.  Sugar scrubs, apricot scrubs, etc. all work well for this purpose.


[Loofahs have been shown to grow Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, Enterococcus, Staphylococcus, and more!! (I can send you the links to each of these articles below) If you couple the fact that the bacteria are trapped in the fibers of the loofah and that these sponges are used to exfoliate the skin, the risk of infection is much higher. 


Towels are considered to be a ‘fomite’ that can transmit disease as well. Not only can they hold bacteria, viruses are also known to be transmitted by contact as well. Molluscum is a type of virus that can cause small papules on the skin and last for over a year in some cases. It’s spread amongst families has been linked to shared towel use in some cases. 


Our hands can be easily cleaned! I recommend avoiding devices for our skin as the ability to effectively clean these after each use is limited. If you are seeking some exfoliation that these can provide, try using scrubs that rinse down the drain. Sugar scrubs, apricot scrubs, or any kind of gritty cleanser can achieve the same results. The benefit is that these are not reused as they rinse down the drain!

Montgomery  Dermatology, LLC

Phone (610) 265-1166

FAX (610) 265-1186

860 1st Ave #8b, King of Prussia, PA 19406
10000 Shannondell Drive, Audubon, PA 19403

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