What's the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliators?

Exfoliators - Lead
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When you hear about exfoliation, you may instantly think of scrubs—but there are actually 2 different types of categories you can choose from: physical or chemical. Regardless of which type you choose, including an exfoliator into your skincare regimen, helps "remove dead cells on the surface, allowing light to better reflect off the skin,” says N.Y.C. dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. “ Exfoliating even helps other products you apply afterward penetrate better.”

Physical scrubs tend to include ingredients like grains or natural jojoba beads. They can have a bumpy or gritty texture that mechanically scrubs the surface. If you prefer this type, consider formulas that contain fine or smooth particles, says L.A. dermatologist Annie Chiu, M.D.; on sensitive skin, super-abrasive bits may be too harsh. We love Tatcha’s gentle rice enzyme powder; it turns into a paste once mixed with water (Classic Rice Enzyme Powder, $65; sephora.com).

Chemical exfoliators typically skip the grainy ingredients and pack exfoliating acids, like alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) and fruit acids. These versions are often smooth in texture, and "essentially break down the glue between dead cells, allowing for improved skin-cell-turnover,” says Dr. Chiu. “A chemical exfoliator doesn’t create a mechanical force on the skin, so it can be more gentle,” says Dr. Zeichner. Check out Mario Badescu’s foaming formula with glycolic acid ($16; mariobadescu.com).

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