Exfoliation Chemicals and Particles to Avoid
When it comes to skincare, exfoliation can be one of the trickiest things to get the hang of. You’re dealing with acids and abrasive chemicals that can burn or scratch your skin if you don’t know what you’re doing. This can be pretty intimidating, particularly if you don’t have all the basic information.
The good news? Exfoliation is a lot less tricky than it seems - and when you get it right, you’ll find that it can be one of the most rewarding, results-driven parts of your routine.
Here’s what you need to know.
The Basics of Physical and Chemical Exfoliation
There are two basic types of exfoliation: chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation.
Chemical exfoliation is when you use gentle acids - usually AHAs or BHAs - to essentially “unglue” the bonds that hold dead skin cells to your face. This both encourages cell turnover and helps reveal fresher, clearer skin over time.
There are lots of different types of acids that fall under the larger AHA and BHA umbrellas:
- Popular AHAs include glycolic acid (the smallest and often considered to be most effective AHA), lactic acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid. While these all essentially do the same thing, they’re usually derived from different plants. Glycolic acid, for example, is generally derived from sugar cane. Lactic acid comes from sour milk or bilberries.
- The most popular BHA for cosmetic purposes is salicylic acid. While AHAs are water-soluble, salicylic acid is oil-soluble, which means that it can get past your sebum and penetrate into the pores much more effectively than an AHA.
Physical exfoliation is the use of tiny textured particles to manually scrub off those bonds and dead cells. Pretty straightforward.
The Problem With Many Chemicals and Particles Out There
The problem? Many companies use harmful chemicals or particles in their products. Their biggest priority is their bottom line, and they don’t really care what their products do to your skin or to the environment.
This is why it’s important for you to be your own advocate and have all the important information.
Physical Exfoliants: Red Flags to Look Out For
When it comes to physical exfoliation, look out for the types of particles in the exfoliant. Many of them can cause micro-tears in your skin (think small scratches, like when you rub sandpaper on wood) that can introduce bacteria and ultimately cause redness and irritation - plus they can harm the environment.
Specifically, steer clear from:
- Nuts, particularly in face formulas
- Fruit pits like apricot pits
- Synthetic beads
Microbeads are the worst of the worst. Usually made from polyethylene, these miniature plastic beads are too small to be filtered out of wastewater. So they wind up in the oceans where they’re consumed by fish, other animals, and even people! That’s why President Barack Obama signed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act of 2015, which officially banned microbeads in the personal care industry starting in 2017.
But not everyone cleans out their medicine cabinets as often as they should - and you may still have a few products that contain microbeads if you first dabbled in exfoliation years ago. If so, it's best not to use them and make a change to a safer product.
Chemical Exfoliants: Red Flags to Look Out For
Chemical exfoliants come with very different concerns. The biggest thing to look out for here is concentration. Glycolic acid, for example, can be found at strengths up to 30% - and exfoliants you’d find at the dermatologist’s office might be even stronger.
Keep in mind, though, that such high concentrations are not generally suitable for regular use. Lower concentrations deliver the same results without the high risk of irritation or a reaction - so you’re best off avoiding products that seem extra intense.
Next, you’ll want to look at the source of your chemical exfoliant. As mentioned, AHAs and BHAs naturally come from various fruits and plants. These ingredients can also be created synthetically.
This is another red flag for a few reasons. For one, synthetic AHAs can be harsh on the skin, both because they’re often more concentrated and because they can contain extra unwanted ingredients.
Synthetic glycolic acid often contains a by-product called formic acid that can cause sensitivity and a stinging sensation. If you’ve experienced stinging when applying glycolic acid, this chemical is likely the culprit - and it’s something you want to avoid.
How to Get It Right: Good Ingredients to Look Out For
We’ve covered the don'ts - but what about the do’s?
When it comes to physical exfoliation, look for particles that are round, small, and not too rough. This includes:
- Jojoba beads: Jojoba beads - the main exfoliant in our Renewing Face Scrub - are essentially jojoba wax in its fully hydrogenated, or hardened, form. They’re odorless, colorless, all-natural, and they imitate the structure and consistency of sebum, the oil naturally produced by the skin - meaning they can help lower your natural oiliness and protect against breakouts.
- Bamboo fibers: Bamboo is made primarily of natural silicon - or silica - extracted from bamboo sap. This ingredient is known to help with collagen synthesis, improve skin elasticity, and provide other visible benefits.
- Rice bran: This is a great exfoliant for very sensitive skin. Made from the outer layer that surrounds each kernel of rice, rice bran is usually ground into fine powder that gently removes dirt while calming inflammation and balancing the skin’s moisture levels.
- Aloe vera: This may not seem like an exfoliant but - surprise! - it is. This cactus-like plant naturally contains vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and amino acids - along with salicylic acid, a natural BHA exfoliant. You can find it in a natural face scrub here and in a body scrub here.
As far as chemical exfoliation goes, steer clear of the no-go ingredients listed above, and remember to start slow and pay attention to your skin. Begin by exfoliating just once a week - and stop right away if you notice any redness, itchiness, or tingling.
If your skin responds well, you can apply your exfoliant more frequently. You can even apply gentle exfoliating serums every day!