Health Magazine

How to Choose the Best Exfoliant

Posted on the 31 October 2011 by Jackiebernardi @JackieBernardi


Exfoliants are an integral component of any healthy skin care routine because they make all other products work more efficiently, and effectively. So let’s take a closer look.

An exfoliant is a product type that is formulated with either a physical or chemical abrasive agent for the purpose of sloughing off of dead skin cells. In doing so, an exfoliant creates an environment for better product absorption, revitalizes the healthy cells, and creates a smoother skin surface.

There are two basic types of exfoliants to consider when choosing a method for your skin care routine: mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical Exfoliants:

A mechanical exfoliant generally utilizes a granular type abrasive agent, as it’s “active” ingredient. Frequently referred to as “scrubs,” mechanical exfoliants are moved around the surface of the skin using the power of friction and the abrasive to remove the dead skin cells that sit on top of the skin.

Although effective in removing the dead cells, one should be very careful when using a mechanical scrub. It is very easy to cause damage to the skin by over exfoliating, or even spreading harmful bacteria around the skin.  Please remember the following guideline when using a mechanical exfoliant:

Less friction, less time, less product.

Chemical Exfoliants:

Chemical exfoliants (also known as peels) work by dissolving the dead skin cells (instead of abrading them), as well as the protein matrix that holds the dead cells together. The chemical exfoliants, the product does the work.  Instead of applying pressure and friction like you would with a mechanical exfoliant, a chemical exfoliant is applied and left on for a period of time, then rinsed off. Some chemical exfoliants are self-neutralizing and may be left on for the day. Typically, this type of exfoliant is made with alpha, or beta hydroxy acids in varying strengths depending on purpose.

Extremely mild chemical peels can be purchase over the counter, while strong peels can only be performed by licensed Estheticians, or trained medical staff. Within the family of chemical exfoliants, there is a class of peel called an enzyme peel. Enzyme peels are commonly made of kerotolytic enzymes, or enzymes that breakdown the keratin (proteins) on the surface f the skin.  Most enzyme peels on the market today are made up of papaya, pumpkin, or pineapple fruits. They work as great as they smell.

How to choose which type of exfoliant is right for you?

Take a good, long look at your facial skin, and look for the following:

  • Is your skin more oily than not?
  • Is your skin thick?
  • Are you pimple-free?
  • Is your face healthy with no cuts, or open wounds?
  • Is your skin free of sunburn?

If you were able to say “yes” to all of the above, you could be a candidate for a mechanical exfoliant.  Just remember to use the “less is more” guideline.
If you said “No” to any of the above, then you might want to consider using a chemical exfoliant, or peel.  If you are new to exfoliating, you could start by using an enzyme peel, which is the mildest form of chemical exfoliation.

Caution: This is the “Never-Do” List for at-home Exfoliation

Do not exfoliate at home with any method if you are being medically treated with any of the following:

  • Tretinoin (retinoic acid, Retin-A)
  • Accutane
  • Azelic Acid
  • Adapalene (Differin)
  • Alpha hydroxy acid, or Salicylic acid

If you have any questions call your doctor.


  • Never use two methods of exfoliation at the same time.  Meaning, do not use a mechanical scrub, and then follow with a chemical peel.
  • Never exfoliate sunburned skin.

Now how about you?  Have you ever used an exfoliant as part of your skin care routine?  If so, which type have you used, and what was your experience with it?

Photo by Rebbekah Burder

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