Beauty, Skincare

Types of Exfoliants


Exfoliating is the process of removing dead skin cells off of the epidermis to reveal newer, fresher skin underneath. But did you know there are several ways to exfoliate?  Exfoliation can help with a wide range of skin concerns, such as acne, keratosis pilaris, seborrheic dermatitis(fungal infection), psoriasis, oily skin, dull skin, post inflammatory hyper pigmentation and acne scars.  Exfoliation is key to getting glowing and healthy skin, but which type of exfoliant is best? How many types are there?

Exfoliation should be something in everyone’s routine, whether you are trying to fight acne or wanting to reveal more youthful skin. A good exfoliation can quickly remove dead skin cells, dirt and makeup to leave you with clean skin but there are a few things to consider when choosing the right exfoliation method for you. There are several types of exfoliation methods and they fall under three different categories; chemical, physical and manual. Chemical exfoliants are gentle enough to use everyday, whereas physical exfoliants are best left for once or twice a week. Depending on your skin type, lifestyle and routine limitations this run down can help you decide which is the best for you.

Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants are a liquid you apply to the skin without having to scrub or wash off. They are gentle acids that work to break down the glue that holds dead skin cells together so that they can come off quicker than they would on their own. This is the gentlest way to exfoliate your skin when used as directed, as there’s no risk of scratching or tearing the skin with sharp additives or a hard hand. They can be used as often as needed, up to twice a day. If you have sensitive skin or have never used an active before, it is best to slowly build up usage before jumping into twice a day usage. Chemical exfoliants are very pH dependent – which means they need to be at a certain pH to be effective. Once you apply an AHA or BHA to your skin you do need to wait for it to work at its effective pH level before neutralizing it with water, moisturizer or other products. You can either wait until it is dry or wait 20 to 30 minutes before applying your next product. You do not need to rinse chemical exfoliants off, but you can if you want. Most chemical exfoliants are broken down into two different groups; AHAs and BHAs. Chances are you already know the name of one chemical exfoliant – salicylic acid, which is a very common over-the-counter acne fighting ingredient.

  • Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA)

There’s only one Beta Hydroxy Acid in terms of skincare, and that is Salicylic Acid.  It’s a very common ingredient that you can find in a chemical exfoliant form or in cleansers and scrubs targeted for acne.  Salicylic acid is best for people with oily skin types, those who suffer from acne or other bacteria caused skin problems, and people who spend a lot of time in the sun, since it does not increase the skins photosensitivity. (There is evidence that it can cause discoloration on darker skin tones when used improperly and without sun protection. So if you have dark skin, just make sure to build up usage and to wear sunscreen.) Most over-the-counter BHA products will only have a concentration of 2%, keeping the potency without risking over exfoliation or chemical burns.

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA)

There are many types of Alpha Hydroxy Acids, the most common being Gycolic Acid. AHAs are a good choice for people who have dry skin as they are slightly hydrating and less likely to dry out your skin like BHA can. AHAs do increase your skins photosensitivity though, raising your chances of getting a sun burn or other photo damage, so always wear sunscreen when using an AHA and they are best used at night. Just to note, even applying an AHA at night does not remove your risk of sun sensitivty, as it makes your skin vulnerable for up to a week after use – it is not the product itself that is sensitive to sun. AHAs are a great choice for preventing wrinkles, fading blemishes like PIE/PIH, sun spots and acne scars. If you are not concerned about acne or bacterial infections, an AHA is a great choice. Since AHA’s are usually more potent than BHA, always build up usage by first applying an AHA every other night and then progress to every night once you’re skin has grown used to it.


Physical Exfoliants


A physical exfoliant is an additive suspended in a gel or similar delivery system that physically removes dead skin cells with abrasion. Common additives to scrubs are; sugar, salt, ground nuts or beans, ground pumice stones, plastic microbeads or jojoba wax beads. This type is exfoliation is the toughest on the skin out of all exfoliation options, especially depending on which type of additive you use. If you choose to use a physical exfoliant in your routine, only use it once or twice a week, and try to avoid harsher scrubs that leave your skin red and irritated. Some additives are better choices than others.

coffee grouds electron microscope
coffee grounds under an electron microscope

Bad Physical Exfoliants: Additives with sharp microscopic edges, such as ground nuts or beans, can tear and cut the skin at a microscopic level which leaves your skin open to infection, causing irritation and redness. They are too harsh for facial skin, but thicker skin such as on the feet or legs can handle this tougher abrasion. Some of the worst physical exfoliants for your skin are; ground coffee beans, ground walnuts, ground apricot seeds, ground peach kernals, ground pumice stone, and ground charcoal. (Coffee grounds are also terrible for your plumbing.)

boraz sugar and salt

Better Physical Exfoliants: Not all organic additives are created equal. Sugar and salt are a bit better for facial and body scrubs. While they do have sharp edges under a microscope(not nearly as knife-like as ground walnuts), they tend to be more uniform and square in shape, rather than jagged. They are also water-soluble and will start to dissolve and become more round as you scrub under water. The scrub gets softer and more gentle while you’re scrubbing, unlike coffee or nut grounds that will stay sharp until you wash off.


Best Physical Exfoliants: The best choice for physical exfoliants for facial skin has to be something that has no jagged edges and is completely round. There are two options here. Man-made plastic microbeads or jojoba wax beads. Both are small, gentle spheres that will not cause microtears and are great for exfoliation. Recently, plastic microbeads have been banned by the FDA and will no longer be available after July 2016. This is because they are a horrible environmental pollutant for our water systems and oceans. Plastic microbeads are so small they cannot be caught by filters and they end up getting eaten by fish and other wildlife. While they are the perfect shape for physical exfoliation, they are a horrible addition to our environment.

The other option is jojoba wax beads. They are also small and round in shape and perfect for facial scrubs. They also will melt in water and do not pollute the oceans and water systems, as they are an organic wax product. Jojoba beads are such a winner in this process of elimination, I can only hope more companies start offering scrubs and products that utilize their benefits.

When it comes to physical scrubs, don’t fall into the trap of “tougher is better”. If your skin turns red after a scrub or if your acne gets worse you need to be more gentle. With physical exfoliants you run the risk of over-exfoliation, damaging your acid mantle and barrier, and tearing the skin which leaves your skin open for infections.


Manual Exfoliants

A manual exfoliant is a tool or object you use to exfoliate in conjunction with a soap or gel cleanser. It can be as gentle as a washcloth when cleansing your face or a bath pouf in the shower, or a harsher tool like a pumice stone or a loofa pad. A neat thing with manual exfoliants is that it can be as gentle or as harsh as you want by your own pressure. Thicker skin areas like the feet and legs can really benefit from harsher tools – I hope you know not to use a pumice stone on your face but a pumice stone on your feet can be a great way to remove thickened skin and callouses. There are several gentle tools made for facial cleansing that are great for helping to remove makeup and dead skin while also being gentle enough for daily use.

Tools for Facial Cleansing

The best time to use a manual tool to exfoliate your face is while cleansing. You can apply your favorite facial cleanser to the tool and exfoliate and cleanse in just one step. Some of the best ones for facial cleansing are Konjac Sponges, silicone pore scrubbers and washcloths. They are all very soft on the skin but effective at removing make-up, dirt and debris and they are gentle enough for daily use. Harsher tools that should be avoided, or at least limited to once a week use, are products like the Clarisonic SpinBrush, Buf-Puf facial sponges that resemble a Brillo pad more than a sponge, and bamboo or loofa pads.

Tools for Full Body Exfoliation

Full body exfoliation is key to achieving soft, vibrant skin (and getting a closer shave). The skin on your body is more resilient and thicker than the skin on your face and so it can tolerant harsher exfoliation methods. But if you need or like to exfoliate daily in the shower the key is to not scrub your skin raw. My favorite tools to keep in the shower are knitted/woven bath gloves, boars hair body brushes and a soft bath pouf. Bath gloves are great for preventing and getting rid of bumps caused by acne or keratosis pilaris, as you can reach and exfoliate areas better with the full dexterity gloves give you than just using poufs alone. Body brushes are great at prepping your skin for a smoother shave as they can gently pull hairs up and away from skin. And a bath pouf is great for all over lather and exfoliation to remove bacteria and dead skin cells and amp up your cleanse than just using water alone.

Certain products are not universal, though. You wouldn’t use a pumice stone on your face, so don’t use it on other gentle areas either. Leave the pumice stone for the feet. Woven exfoliation towels made popular by Korean spas are too harsh for every day use and are meant to literally scrub your skin raw. Loofas are not my favorite tool because I feel like they are not worth the effort.

Another important note about manual exfoliation tools: always replace them after 3 months of use. Not only do they dull and wear down each time your use them, but they also can get clogged by dead skin cells. (This means you’ll go through 4 a year.) If your tools do not get sanitized or are left to sit wet in the shower without drying, they can grow bacteria and mold. To prevent bacteria and mold growth, always rinse them clean with a squeeze of soap after use and let them hang to dry.

Konjac sponges are not very sanitary, unless they are the kind that come with a rope to hang them up with. Some off-brand konjac sponges do not have a hanging tool so they have to sit on their side and do not fully dry. Konjac sponges can also collect dead skin cells and should be replaced often. Silicone pore scrubbers are very easy to clean with a dab of soap after each use. Microfiber towels or washcloths can be “one time use” and then machine washed to sanitize. Facial spin brushes can be cleaned with soap and water, but will collect dead skin cells over time.  So consider cleansing your tools and how sanitary you can get them, as bacteria is a main cause for several skin concerns.


Shaving is another form of manual exfoliation, so take that into consideration when exfoliating daily. If you are a man that shaves your face, you might not need a harsh exfoliant as well. If you’re a woman who likes to Dermaplane, you’re getting an exfoliation too. When you shave or remove hair you’re also removing dead skin, which is why skin always feel so baby-butt soft after shaving.


So which exfoliation method is best for you? Which is your favorite? Did I leave any out? Let me know!


xoxo Miss C


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