Two Months Ago, I Switched One Thing In My Skincare Routine — And My Skin Has Never Looked Glowier

·7 min read

Hi! I'm Fabiana, a 27-year-old woman who would rather spend all of my money on makeup and skincare than really anything else. Give me a free afternoon, and I'm bound to do some damage in a Sephora (despite my wallet crying whenever I walk up to the register).

Author sitting on steps outside
Fabiana Buontempo / Via Instagram

Being beauty obsessed, I'm always researching new products to add into my skincare regimen. I personally classify my skin as being combination and a bit sensitive.

After a bit of my own research, I decided to reach out to several professionals to make sure I was making the most informed decision. I wanted to learn more about exfoliation in general — as well as any pros and cons of switching things up on my combo skin.

The experts I spoke to were:

Dr. Michele Green, MD, cosmetic dermatologist

Ildi Pekar, celebrity facialist

Dr. Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper and founder of SLMD Skincare

Maegan Griffin, MSN, NP-C, founder of Skin Pharm, Nurse Practitioner

Dr. Michele Green started out with the basics: defining what exfoliation actually is — and does.

"The purpose of exfoliating is to get rid of dead skin cells on the surface of the skin and clear out congested pores to reveal a brighter, smoother complexion," explained Dr. Green. "Exfoliation plays into the life cycle of skin cells, which is about 3 months in children and about 28 days in adults."

According to Green, all skin types can benefit from an exfoliation for bright, healthy skin. "Exfoliation also allows serums, treatments, and moisturizers applied afterward to penetrate deeper into the skin and deliver best benefits," she said.

She explained that there are two different types of exfoliants: physical and chemical.

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"A physical exfoliant is the process of manually dislodging dirt in the pores and stripping away surface cells with grainy particles such as sugar or bristles of a brush," said Green.

On the other hand, "Chemical exfoliants come in liquid form and gently break down bonds between skin cells and congested pores, and they work on a more cellular level," she explained.

Up until now, I have always used physical exfoliants in my skincare routine. Once a week, I would massage the exfoliator in my T-zone area, where more oil typically builds up, and then massage it very gently on my cheek area, where I am more sensitive.

My physical exfoliator, Olehenriksen Lemonade Smoothing Scrub, has gotten the job done of getting rid of dead skin and making my face feel smoother — but to be honest, that was about all it did. I still had a very oily T-zone, pesky bumps on my chin, and some uneven texture.

So once I finished my current exfoliator bottle, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to try its chemical alternative.

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I learned from celebrity facialist Ildi Pekar that chemical exfoliants not only penetrate in the skin to combat clogged pores, but they also can help with dryness and other skin concerns. With the winter months and dry skin around the corner, I figured this was exactly what my skin needed.

Honestly, the amount of chemical exfoliants that are on the market right now is overwhelming. There are AHA serums, toners, BHA and AHA combination products, and more. So I asked Dr. Sandra Lee to break down the different types of chemical exfoliants, and key components behind each.

"Two of the most effective chemical exfoliants include salicylic acid (a BHA), and glycolic acid (an AHA). Lactic, citric, and malic acids are other very commonly used alpha hydroxy acids," she said.

"If you’ve got acne-prone or oily skin, salicylic acid is a great choice, because it’s oil-soluble — meaning it’s able to penetrate into sebum-filled pores. So it not only sloughs off some of those dead cells (which helps eliminate dullness), it dives down into the pores to release any cells that are trapped, which helps prevent acne," Lee explained.

"Glycolic acid stimulates the cells in your dermis to make hydrating substances like hyaluronic acid. This is why it’s great for treating dry, rough skin — including keratosis pilaris, that bumpy condition we sometimes call 'chicken skin.'"

After learning this, I decided on the Farmacy Deep Sweep pore cleaning 2% BHA toner for $28, which contains salicylic acid to help combat my oily T-zone, something I wanted to get under control.

A product picture of the Farmacy DEEP SWEEP pore cleaning 2% BHA toner

I was hesitant to use a product that had both BHA and AHA because I wasn't sure how my skin would react to it, so I figured this Farmacy product (which only had BHA) would be my best bet.

Its product description says it "exfoliates, deep cleans pores, minimizes shine, purifies, and refreshes." The helpful associate at the store suggested I start using this toner every other day and then gradually build up to every day to see how my skin reacts to it. This instruction was a bit shocking to me considering physical exfoliants are only used once or twice a week. But upon researching more, chemical exfoliants are less intense than their physical counterparts so they can be used every day, as long as one's skin can handle it.

Fabiana Buontempo

Eager to clean my pores and achieve baby-smooth skin, I ran home that night to try out my new exfoliator. Here was my skin at the time, pre-exfoliation.

A close-up of the author's skin

After washing my face, I put some of the product on a round cotton pad and applied it all over my skin. I expected my skin to tingle and burn, but to my surprise, it didn't. My skin felt tight after using the exfoliator — but not in a bad way. More in a my-skin-feels-squeaky-clean way.

Fabiana Buontempo

I continued using the chemical exfoliator every other night for the next two months, and I have to admit, I loved the way my skin looked and felt.

Author showing her skin after using a chemical exfoliant for two months

It does take time to see results with skincare products, so I started to notice a difference after about a month of using it. Any little annoying bumps I had on my forehead and chin were completely gone. I even noticed that my cheeks were more hydrated and less red.

Fabiana Buontempo

Going forward, I plan to occasionally use my physical exfoliant on days where my skin needs a little extra TLC.

A hand with a dollop of physical exfoliator and its bottle in the background

There are benefits to using both physical and chemical exfoliants in conjunction with one another — and Pekar informed me that you can use both at different times in your routine. "I always suggest to alternate between the two, because they work different ways and have different benefits," she said. "Both solutions can give you a beautiful glow since they both working on removing dead skin cells."

Fabiana Buontempo

However, since I plan to use both types of exfoliants, I have to be careful not to overdo it — as over-exfoliating is a real thing.

"It’s important to not over-exfoliate and strip the skin’s protective barrier, which can lead to redness, inflammation, hyperpigmentation, dryness, or infection," said Green. "It’s best to start slow and gradually increase frequency of exfoliant use, decreasing the frequency if your skin shows any signs of irritation."

If you're like me and you want to add a chemical exfoliant into your routine but are unsure of where to begin, think about what your skincare goals are and what your skin type is.

No matter which exfoliant you end up using, be sure to follow it up with hydrating skincare products and SPF.

Peloton / Via

After ridding your face of its dead skin, Pekar said it's important to follow it up with a hydrating serum and moisturizer to heal your skin and lock in moisture. In addition to that, SPF is also a key product to use after exfoliating if it's part of a morning routine vs. a nighttime one.

"It is important to note that chemical exfoliants increase photosensitivity, so nighttime usage of chemical exfoliants and daily usage of SPF 50 is highly recommended," Green said.

What are your thoughts on exfoliants? Do you prefer physical, chemical, or both? Any favorite brands? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!