Over the past few months, my skin has been seriously out of whack. And even though I knew better, I was so afraid of aggravating it further I began skipping one of the most important steps of all: exfoliating. A cardinal skincare sin, I know, but all that microbead business had me paranoid about physical exfoliants (AKA scrubs) and the alternative—acid-based chemical exfoliators—just sounded scary. I was afraid the latter would be too abrasive for my flare-ups.
But finally, after having enough experts tell me I was out of my damn mind for going on a exfoliating hiatus (in retrospect, I totally was), I finally had a go at the chemical stuff. And let me tell you—What. A. Difference.
I haven't been doing it for that long, but my skin is already clearer, brighter, smoother, and healthier-looking. In other words, this is the kind of treatment you want to give yourself when you need to look ***Flawless for an occasion.
"Physical exfoliators can be a bit scratchy for people to use," explains Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Salon and Skincare Collection. "Chemical ones are more controllable in terms of depth of the peel—and they technically are more uniform."
One of the key ingredients in these skin-renewing products is glycolic acid, which improves the appearance and texture. "It dissolves dead skin cells and debris from the skin's surface," explains Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care and assistant clinical professor at the department of dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center.
As for as how often you should use a chemical exfoliant, it depends on your skin type, but Dr. Tanzi advises that it should be no more than once or twice a week, and that those that have rosacea or are redness-prone should be using a gentle formula (I'm loving Bioelement's Quick Refiner leave-on gel). It's also important to note that SPF daily is non-negotiable. "Removing part of the dead skin layer will slightly increase sun sensitivity," she adds. So you have to be especially wary of this as spring and summer months approach.
In addition to wrapping your head around all the intimidating "chemical" nature of these exfoliants, the other things you have to recognize is that it can be a costly investment. While there are drugstore buys for nearly every kind of beauty offering, this is not the kind of product where you want to cut corners.
Do your research (sensitive-skin prone formulas are always a safe bet), consult your dermatologist, and try samples to see if a chemical exfoliant you're considering is agreeable with your skin type. The gold standard? Vargas (and every beauty editor ever) is obsessed with all of Dr. Dennis Gross' peels, which slough away dead skin cells with kid-glove-tenderness for a natural-looking glow.
1. Bioelements Quick Refiner, $46; amazon.com.
2. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin, $88; sephora.com.
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