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What is chemical exfoliation, and how does it help your pores?

There are days where I sit in front of my mirror and wonder if someone transplanted the skin of a strawberry on my nose. A map of gunk-laden dots greet my frustrated eyes, and usually spurs one of two reactions: Bemoaning my excess of blackheads, or reaching for a pore strip. Both go hand-in-hand far too often.

chemical exfoliation
It’s like staring into the mirror. (Photo: NDTV Food)

Mention pore strips now and I cringe at my past devotion, which only grew because I was fed with so much misinformation. First off, the things that dot your nose, chin and cheeks aren’t blackheads (for the most part), but sebaceous filaments.

Sebaceous filaments are grey, yellowish or flesh-toned spots that release an off-white wormy thread of gunk when squeezed. They’re filled with sebum and dead skin cells, and usually are found around a small hair follicle. Blackheads, on the other hand, are comedones that are plug-shaped when extracted, featuring (literally) a black head.

physical exfoliation or chemical exfoliation
No, her face isn’t falling apart. That’s just a physical exfoliant.

Everyone has sebaceous filaments. People with oilier skin and enlarged pores just tend to notice them easier. Extracting them isn’t the best solution, as they just continue filling back up, and squeezing runs the risk of permanent scarring. The last thing you want is giving yourself more skin woes while trying to absolve yourself from one.

Physical exfoliation is an oft-recommended method to reduce the appearance of sebaceous filaments. Chemical exfoliation, however, is a step up the skincare ladder that can seriously make a difference, not just with reducing the visibility of these pesky spots, but with your complexion overall.

chemical exfoliation paula's choice
The popular 2% BHA liquid from Paula’s Choice. (Photo: Chiaki)

Popular products to chemically exfoliate with include the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA line, and other K-beauty favourites like the Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid. They don’t just help with clearing your pores, but also firm up your complexion, help with acne and scarring, or have anti-ageing properties.

We spoke to Raied Rahman from the development arm of Paula’s Choice to get a clearer idea of chemical exfoliation, and just how it helps. Here’s all you need to know.

Lifestyle Asia (LSA): How is chemical exfoliation different from physical exfoliation?

Raied Rahman (RR): Physical exfoliation typically involves cleansers or masks with small grains that are usually derived from fruit and nuts, or with plastic microbeads.  The problem with physical exfoliation is that it can create micro-tears on the surface of the skin. These micro-tears can actually cause inflammation or irritation. Using cleansing brushes is considered physical exfoliation as well. Even if you use a gentle scrub or a soft cleansing brush, the limitations of physical exfoliation still persist as it results in a relatively uneven, surface-level exfoliation. 

Chemical exfoliants, however, use chemicals to remove dead skin cells and aid the renewal of skin cells. There are two main types of chemical exfoliants — Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA). There are many types of AHAs and BHAs, but the most common are glycolic acid, which is an AHA, and salicylic Acid, a BHA.

LSA: What do AHAs and BHAs do?

RR: AHAs typically provide top-layer exfoliation of the skin. This helps with sun damage, loss of firmness, as well as rough and flaky skin. BHAs, on the other hand, work by penetrating beyond the surface of the skin to exfoliate. Because of BHA’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, it is recommended for those with acne, blackheads, or clogged pores.

LSA: What are the benefits of chemical exfoliation?

RR: Because chemical exfoliants are liquids, they can be applied evenly to produce consistent results. Physical exfoliation is only superficial, while chemical exfoliants can go much deeper into the dermis. They are also a leave-on product, which lets ingredients to work effectively, unlike physical exfoliants that you wash off after a short period of time. 

LSA: Chemical exfoliation tends to carry a negative connotation, with the oft-repeated question of whether it’s safe for the skin. Why do you think people feel this way? Is it 100% safe?

RR: I guess the apprehension comes from the term “chemical”. To many, the word has a negative connotation, just like how the word “natural” has a positive one, which isn’t necessarily true. The kicker is that many of these acids are derived from in the things we consume every day. AHAs such as glycolic acid are found in sugarcane, while lactic acid is found in milk, and citric acid in citruses.  

Cosmetic products also go through very stringent testing and regulatory oversight as consumer safety is of the utmost importance. There is a good deal of scientific research that documents the safety and efficacy of chemical exfoliants. 

chemical exfoliation
More popular chemical exfoliants. (Photo: Lab Muffin)

LSA: What can we expect to see when trying chemical exfoliation?

RR: Using AHAs and BHAs for the first time may trigger a stinging or tingling sensation. This usually subsides as the skin gets used to these direct acids. If it doesn’t, we usually recommend our customers to try a lower strength exfoliant, or an alternative product formulated differently. A safe bet would be to try a formula with lower concentration before moving to one with a higher concentration. 

Another common occurrence for first-time users is purging. This is a phenomenon commonly confused with a breakout since the symptoms are very similar. Purging is characterised by the emergence of small whiteheads, and will typically clear within two to four weeks. We recommend customers to stick it out for that period. If it doesn’t clear up, then stop and try another product. Everyone has unique skin and will react differently to chemical exfoliants.

LSA: What’s the right way to do chemical exfoliation?

RR: It should be the third step in your skincare routine, after cleansing and toning. You can use it around the eye area, but avoid the eyelid, and directly under the eye along the lower lash line. How often to use these exfoliants really depends on your skin. Some, like myself, are able to use it twice a day, but others may only be able to handle once every other day, or a few times a week. Take your time to find that perfect balance for your skin.

You can also mix AHAs and BHAs. Again, experiment with how often you should do it. We recommend using one in the day and one at night. AHA does increase your skin’s photosensitivity, so do follow up with a sunblock. Because of this, AHAs are best used at night.

What is chemical exfoliation, and how does it help your pores?

Beatrice Bowers

Features Editor

Beatrice Bowers writes about beauty, drinks, and other nice things. When not bound to her keyboard, she moonlights as a Niffler for novels and can be found en route to bankruptcy at your nearest bookstore. Don't tell her boss.

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