Clean Beauty Physical vs Safer Chemical Exfoliators

Exfoliating is one of the secrets to healthy-looking skin. But what is the difference between Physical vs Safer Chemical Exfoliators? Or, how about why is the best time to exfoliate for youthful, glowing looking skin? It may sound complicated, but there are SO many simple options! And I’ve got recommendations for you below.

Why We Exfoliate

Have itchy or flaky scalp? Dry skin? Bumpy skin or enlarged pores on the back of your arms or legs? Body acne? Body scars or sun damage? Then you will love the results of exfoliation + nourishing the fresh, new skin that is revealed!

If your skin is experiencing issues it is almost always because the layers of your skin are disrupted – so focus on:

  1. helping your epidermis shed with exfoliation, then
  2. rebalancing the pH of the acid mantle, and
  3. protecting with lipids.

This applies to dryness on the body too. For example, I have a 4 step routine for under my arms because my skin is sensitive to the pH disruption of natural deodorants. What products you use is dependent on your skin’s specific needs. I’m happy to help curate a routine that’s right for you or a loved one! [email me]

Why a full 4 step skincare routine really matters….

I have two favorite analogies for skin. First, it is like a sponge. Like a sponge though, if you put a lotion on a dry sponge, it will mostly sit on the surface and not be absorbed. However, if you prep the sponge by allowing it to be hydrated first, it will then absorb a thicker lotion you set on top.

If you are not adequately washing, then prepping the skin (to rebalance pH with a toner or essence), then treating it (often with a chemical exfoliator or serum), before locking in all you’ve done to then protect it, you will not be able to unlock your skin’s potential.

Dry skin, like the earth,  pulls and cracks. When in a drought, the earth cannot drink a flood of water. And when properly hydrated it is impenetrable. Properly hydrated skin will not only prevent them from being pulled on (enlarged-looking); but, it will protect dry flaking skin, sebum, dirt or grime from getting stuck in pores. This is what causes them to appear larger.

People often think large pores are an oily skin issue, but you are more likely to be able to see your pores when your skin is dry! We must play defense on years passed (exfoliate sun damage) but also protect against the future (SPF and environmental exposure protectors).

click to read the full article

Exfoliation: Who, Why, When

WHO: Exfoliation is really important no matter your skin type! If your makeup cakes, flakes, or doesn’t sit well, if you have dry, combo, or oily skin, if you have milia, or other dry skin conditions (such as dermatitis or rosacea), you need to exfoliate.

WHY: Exfoliation removes the dead skin cells that clog pores, improves circulation, encourages cell turnover & better absorption of skincare.

WHEN: Help those new cells forming when you sleep! Remove the dry, dead skin with either a physical and/or chemical to help gently slough. Both can be used together, depending on your skin – face and body.  The key to when to exfoliate is not at the end of your skincare routine. Exfoliation is a technique, not a step. It can be included in your Wash, Prep, or Treatment step but it will always require the Protect step after.

see the tutorial here

Comparing Physical vs Safer Chemical Exfoliators

I’ve curated all the mentioned items for you here.

Exfoliation by Physical Means

Physical exfoliation refers to abrasives that are designed to manually remove dead skin cells and exfoliate skin. This includes particles in products that create a ‘scrub’, washcloths, and specialized beauty tools such as exfoliating brushes.
Examples I love:

I used to double-cleanse, so adding the Bamboo Buff helps me skip a step! Not everyone needs to do this. But, if you have aging or dry and blemish-prone skin it could be a game changer for you!


Chemical exfoliation involves a topical acid (such as salicylic acid, AHA/BHA) which dissolves dead skin cells. Numerous acids can be used for this purpose, from botanicals to prescription-strength formulas and techniques (like chemical peels) only available at a dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon’s office. They typically work by weakening the bonds that hold skin cells together, allowing for dead skin to slough away easily.

Examples I love:

  • Overnight Resurfacing Peel has an incredible botanical blend that first exfoliates then soothes the skin. Simply apply after your prep step and allow to sit on skin for 5-10 min. Then follow with your favorite protect step. I like to use the Cleansing Balm as an overnight hydrating mask when I use the Peel. It’s HUGE for glowing, more evenly-toned, bright skin!
  • The new Overnight Resurfacing Body Peel works the same way, but is more intensely formulated specifically for body skin.
  • One of the most innovative products I use and love is the All Bright Triple Acid AHA Toner, which introduces exfoliation in the prep step. This is a great option on nights when you’re in a hurry. A quick swipe after you wash and before you use serums will allow your skin to wake up refreshed and renewed.
  • And my most beloved super easy one-step solution to BOTH physical and chemical exfoliation needs is the AHA Smoothing Mask

Both can be used together, depending on your skin.  It is important only one chemical exfoliator be used a day, or else you will over-exfoliate and potentially damage your skin.

see more on Bamboobuff Polish and the Overnight Resurfacing Body Peel 

Ways you can use Physical vs Safer Chemical Exfoliators

Some things you may not have thought of that can make a big difference:

  1. Add an exfoliant to your shampoo for a clarifying healthy scalp treatment. Just make sure to use a hydrating mask, leave-in conditioner, or hair oil (not on the scalp) after.
  2. Add an exfoliant to your body wash to remove dry, peeling, dead body skin. Your body skin needs a regimen, too!
  3. Add a smidge to your face wash and masks to create physical exfoliation.
  4. Apply to back of arms and legs to reduce bumpy skin.*
  5. Use chemical and physical exfoliation on areas where skin tags form for natural sloughing.**
  6. Use a chemical exfoliant (resurfacing body serum) all over the body to reduce signs of sun damage and scars.

*While I am NOT a doctor and cannot give medical advice, the Overnight Resurfacing Body Peel has helped reduce signs of Keratosis Pilaris in several clients of mine. KP is a harmless skin condition that causes dry, rough patches and tiny bumps, often on the upper arms, thighs, cheeks or buttocks, so exfoliation can work great!

**I personally used the combination of a microfiber cloth to remove Cleansing Balm + Bamboo Buff as well as applying the Overnight Resurfacing Body Peel followed by the Cleansing Balm as a hydrating overnight mask and it entirely removed rough skin on my neck, including several skin tags.

What is the difference between exfoliating and retinol?

You’ll notice Retinol is not included. Not only is Retinol a high risk ingredient identified by EWG, but it’s not an exfoliant. Retinol does not break the bonds that hold dead skin cells on the surface. Retinol works bottom-up, stimulating cell turnover via new cell proliferation which thickens the epidermis. If you’re using a Retinol, it will be more effective combined with an exfoliant, so those new cells shine through. Acids in exfoliation products work from the top-down, dissolving those binds that keep dead skin cells on the surface. This then allows them to be sloughed away, revealing the new, radiant skin underneath.

Want to switch to a safer retinol-alternative but still get effective results? I’ve written more about that here:

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