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Chemical Exfoliation Is Totally Not Scary and Will Completely Change Your Skin

There's no need to fear chemical exfoliation. Here are all the reasons why chemical exfoliation is a game changer for all skin types, according to dermatologists.
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If you use rough face scrubs to slough off dead skin cells, you may want to stop. Not only is your cleanser possibly harming marine life, but it could be seriously damaging your skin. But that's not to say that you should skip exfoliation — it's a critical part of your skin care routine.

"Exfoliation is the best therapeutic skin care treatment that you can do at home to get healthier, more radiant and younger-looking skin (along with SPF)," says Dr. Neal Schultz, New York City dermatologist, host of DermTV and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz. "It makes other skin care products apply and penetrate better into skin. It helps remove unwanted brown discolorations and evens skin tone. It helps treat and prevent ingrown hairs. It helps self-tanner apply smoother. It helps lessen the need for makeup (when your skin is glowing, you don't need to mask it with foundation) and causes makeup to go on with an airbrush finish. It reduces the oil content (the root cause of acne) in your skin and helps prevent breakouts (even hormonal/menstrual) and makes existing breakouts heal faster. It also reduces the appearance of enlarged pores." Convinced yet?

One note of caution: it's key to correctly exfoliate or else you risk your skin becoming irritated and/or inflamed. Every dermatologist we've spoken to agreed that chemical exfoliation with acids like glycolic, lactic or salicylic, is the way to go. You'll see results immediately and these acids come in the form of cleansers, masks, moisturizers, serums or pads.

Image via Imaxtree

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How Chemical Exfoliants Work
"Chemical exfoliants essentially dissolve the glue holding the unwanted dead skin cells on and are suitable for all skin types, even for sensitive skin, while physical exfoliants (which mechanically remove dead skin cells by abrading them off) should never be used on sensitive skin," says Schultz, who goes on to explain that chemical exfoliation gives better, consistent and predictable results. Why? "The outcome of physical exfoliation depends on three variables, which are never the same: how much pressure or how hard you rub; how long you treat any given area; the lack of constancy of the physical exfoliating medium (e.g., granules or loofah)."

It's also worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, you make the same number of new dead cells every season, so exfoliating is something that should be done year round. If you're looking to exfoliate every day, go for a low concentration of acids or products that specifically state they are meant for everyday use.

Remember, not all acids have the same strength. There are two categories: AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic and lactic acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid). Glycolic acid is the gold standard in chemical exfoliants with the others being weaker. With that in mind, BHAs are usually preferred for those with acne-prone and very sensitive skin or rosacea. They're also a good place to start if you have no experience using chemical exfoliators. For the experienced user, however, AHAs are the way to go.

Click through for the best chemical exfoliants to try now.

Image via @drdennisgross

Celebrity dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross (Olivia Palermo, Selena Gomez, Zoë Kravitz...) is a huge proponent of chemical exfoliation and acids feature prominently across his product line. His two-step peel gets most of the glory, but this moisturizer shouldn't be overlooked since it's loaded with seven Alpha Beta acids: glycolic, lactic, malic, citric, mandelic, tartaric and salicylic. It's also oil-free, so it's totally safe for acne-prone skin.

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Using a toner will not only enhance the results of your skin care regimen (products absorb better applied over a toner than dry skin), but it will also support your skin's natural protective barrier (since toners supply hydration and nutrients). This pick from Peter Thomas Roth takes it one step further with the addition of exfoliating glycolic acid.

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Bliss That's Incredipeel, $22
These single-step, no-rinse peel pads work wonders post-workout (and post-cleanse). You need to get rid of all the sweat and grime, especially if you wore makeup, and this makes it easy. No moisturizer required.

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