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skin face exfoliator
Credit: Erica Genece

More than being asked about eye creams, shampoo, and mascara, the most common questions we get as a beauty editors is how to exfoliate.

While exfoliating is considered an essential skincare step, as it's crucial for preventing breakouts, brightening, softening, and boosting your skin’s glow, it’s also shockingly difficult to figure out how to do it properly.

That's most likely because there's more than one way to do it.

The exfoliation category is actually broken down into two different methods: chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation. And in order to buy the best exfoliator for your skin type (and your lifestyle), you need to know how each works.

That's why we reached out to a few top dermatologists to answer all of your questions.

What is Chemical Exfoliation?

"Chemical exfoliation means using chemicals to dissolve the dead skin surface cells," New York City dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur explains.

The most common chemical exfoliators include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), like glycolic acid and lactic acid, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), like salicylic acid. Other enzymes, especially those found in fruit, are also often used in chemical exfoliating products.

How Does Chemical Exfoliation Work?

These chemicals dissolve the intercellular bonds that are holding all the dead skin cells together. Essentially, this then enables you to sweep them off of your face.

"The strength of chemical exfoliants can range from mild to aggressive based on the concentration level of the ingredients in the product and this will also correlate with the depth of skin removed," says Houston-based dermatologist Dr. DiAnne Davis.

Is Chemical Exfoliation Right for Me?

The answer is probably yes.

"More often than not I will usually recommend chemical exfoliants for all of my patients, because either I will be applying it in a controlled manner in my office or it is a cream that is safe enough for them to use at home," Dr. Davis says. "However if a patient has an extreme case of oily or dry skin then I may consider a physical exfoliant."

What Are Some Products I Should Try?

There's a variety of different chemical exfoliation product formulations, but some of the most popular are at-home peel pads, like Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peels, as well as masks, like the Goop Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator 

Dr dennis gross pads

To shop: $88;


To shop: $125;

Most over-the-counter products are generally safe to use, but if you're a little hesitant, Dr. Marmur says to patch test the product. In other words, apply it to a small area of skin and monitor for any irritation before coating your entire face.

What Are Some Pros and Cons of Chemical Exfoliation?

In terms of pros, there are plenty. "[Chemical exfoliation] maintains healthy-looking and smooth skin, unclogs pores, helps to even out one’s skin tone, and helps for other topical skin care products to penetrate the skin better and be more effective," Dr. Davis shares.

Now, there's no doubt about it: The phrase "chemical exfoliation" sounds intimidating (and like the recipe for an ultra-irritated, red face), especially if you have dry or sensitive skin. However, chemical exfoliation can be used on all skin types — you just have to be mindful of what acid you're applying on your skin. "For dry skin, you’ll want to steer more towards lactic acid, as it is gentler on the skin as opposed to glycolic acid," Dr. Marmur suggests.

VIDEO: Beauty School: How to Properly Cover A Pimple

What is Physical Exfoliation?

The physical exfoliation process is mostly done with cream or gel-based facial scrubs that are made with tiny physical particles, like ground-up seeds, to peel and sweep away dead skin cells. Microbeads, or little plastic spheres, used to be the most popular particle used in physical scrubs, but due to their dangerous environmental impact, they have since been banned.

If you grew up using St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub, or if you use a loofah with your body wash, then you're already hip to the game.

How Does Physical Exfoliation Work?

"Physical, or sometimes referred to as 'mechanical exfoliation,' removes the outer skin layers through abrasive friction to the skin," says Dr. Davis.

But physical exfoliation isn't just limited to scrubs. Dr. Marmur says brushes and lasers also fit under this category.

Is Physical Exfoliation Right for Me?

Using a physical exfoliant is most ideal for those who have very oily or dry, flaky skin, according to Dr. Davis. But it should still be used in moderation in order to avoid irritation.

What Are Some Products I Should Try?

When you're looking for physical exfoliants, sticking with the most gentle formulas is always your best bet. SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub works great across a variety of skin types, while Olehenriksen Pore-Balance Facial Sauna Scrub is best suited for oily and combination skin.

Skinceuticals scrub

To shop: $31;

Olehenrikson scrub

To shop: $28;

What Are Some Pros and Cons of Physical Exfoliation?

The main pro of physical exfoliation is that it's accessible, affordable, and can be done at home, Dr. Davis shares. However, like its chemical counterpart, there are some downsides to physical exfoliation, especially for the skin found on the face.

"The particles [in a scrub] can be jagged and can lead to micro-injuries of the skin, which can cause pigmentation and irritation," board-certified dermatologist and celebrity beauty expert, Dr. Anna Guanche, says.

If you're still unsure about whether to go with chemical or physical exfolitor, make sure to check in with your dermatologist before diving in.