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Chemical vs Physical Exfoliants


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Exfoliation offers multiple benefits. In addition to creating a more youthful appearance, exfoliating can be used to combat acne and can even help with some types of skin discoloration. Although there are multiple types of exfoliating products, they are usually broken down into those that are chemical and those that are physical. In some cases, chemical and physical types may be combined in one treatment or product. It is important to understand the differences in these types so that the most effective treatment is chosen.

Physical Exfoliant

Physical exfoliation is the act of removing dead skin, bacteria and other debris from the skin mechanically. Examples of this can include scrubs that contain gritty components or brushes designed to do so. It is important to note, many of the scrub washes can contain chemical ingredients that can help in exfoliation, treat acne and even moisturize.

Chemical Exfoliant

Chemical exfoliation can also consist of a wide array of products. These products typically contain beta-hydroxy-acid, (BTA) or alpha-hydroxy-acid, (AHA). There are several strengths which may be available, as well as different forms of these products. This can include but is not limited to serums, creams and washes. As with physical exfoliation products, they may also contain ingredients to correct other common skin concerns.

Prescription Versus Non-Prescription

Some chemical exfoliation products are available by prescription only, even if designed for at-home use. Others can be bought over the counter or online at various retailers. The strength, ingredients and several other factors will determine if a prescription is needed. There are also products that are designed specifically for professional use. These exfoliation treatments can only be provided by a professional who is licensed and trained.

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Do-It-Yourself Treatments

There are many exfoliation treatments that can be done in the comfort and privacy of the home. Some exfoliating products are even designed for use as part of the daily routine. Those who suffer from certain conditions, have open skin areas or who may be allergic to any of the ingredients should consult with a dermatologist or primary care physician prior to using a particular product or device.

Professional Treatments

Professional exfoliation treatments can also be chemical, physical or a combination. Examples can include procedures such as chemical peels and laser resurfacing. Professional treatment may be necessary depending on the level of exfoliation that individual is trying to achieve and the problems that are being corrected. They may be provided by a dermatologist, medical spa or by some cosmetic surgery clinics.

Chemical vs Physical Results

A desirable result can be achieved with either physical or chemical exfoliation. In most cases, physical exfoliation will provide results more quickly. However, some redness and irritation may be immediately present depending on exact method. Chemical exfoliation can take more time since it is less abrasive but can be used to reach deeper tissue levels. For example, a chemical peel may cause the skin to peel from a few days up to a month before the final result is visible.

Variation in Costs

Cost variation of exfoliation is related to the specific treatment, not whether it is chemical or physical. Prescription treatments or those provided by a professional will typically cost more than those that are available over the counter for home use. Health insurance does not cover most exfoliation treatments as they are considered cosmetic in nature. However, prescription creams and ointments prescribed by a dermatologist for certain skin conditions or acne may be paid for in some cases, even if they do have common ingredients used for exfoliation.

Other Important Information

Exfoliation can be used for acne, anti-aging, dryness and can aid in treating many other cosmetic concerns. The consumer will have many options whether they choose chemical, physical or combined exfoliation. Costs, treatment goals, duration of treatment and personal preference are just a few of the deciding factors. As with any other type of product or service, not every treatment will be right for every individual. Therefore, it is important to weight the risks and benefits of any specific method of exfoliation. Those who have sensitive skin, suffer from some health conditions or have skin problems should consult with a professional before starting a new treatment, even when a prescription is not necessary.


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