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Fact: exfoliation is a vital skincare step. From smoothing and evening tone to stimulating cell turnover, it's essential for the overall look and feel of your skin. You probably recall the physical scrubs that rubbed your skin raw. Thankfully, those days are long gone. Today, chemical options like acids and enzymes offer a gentler approach and even greater results. 

If you're confused by these two terms, you're not alone. Despite their growing popularity, acid and enzyme exfoliators remain a mystery even to some skincare enthusiasts. Below, we look at the basics of each to help you determine the right one for your skin's needs.

What is chemical exfoliation?

Exfoliation is a process that removes dead skin cells from the surface layer of the skin. Like all the cells in your body, skin cells are constantly turning over to reveal a fresh layer. This process is known as the cell turnover cycle and occurs every 40 to 56 days. During cellular turnover, the older cells need to be removed to avoid buildup. 

Chemical exfoliation gently sloughs off the old layer by breaking the bonds holding the cells together. As the bonds break, the surface layer of the skin sheds to reveal a new layer of healthy skin cells.

Acids vs. Enzymes

The category of chemical exfoliants includes various methods using either an acid or enzyme. Both are effective for ridding the skin of dead cells and debris but work in different capacities. 

Enzymes are naturally occurring substances produced by acidic fruits -- think pineapples, papayas, and pomegranates. By nature, they break down proteins such as the keratin in skin cells. They're ideal for removing the surface layer of skin but don't generally penetrate below the surface to aid in the cell turnover cycle.

Acids, on the other hand, can go deeper to help promote the regenerating process. Many types of acids can be used for exfoliation, but the most popular kinds fall into two categories: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Both acids can be found in several products, including toners, masks, toning pads, and even cleansers. 

AHAs are a complex mix of natural and fruit acids. When applied to the skin, they slough off dull and rough skin by interfering with the ionic bonds of the skin cells. They're incredibly effective for brightening and evening your complexion but can be a bit harsh for sensitive skin types. 

BHAs work similarly, ridding the skin of dead cells and revealing a more radiant tone. However, they differ in solubility from AHAs. Instead of being water soluble, BHAs are lipid soluble, which allows them to aid in oil control.

Choosing the right type of exfoliant will be determined by your skin type and specific needs. Knowing the basics is helpful, but it's best to consult with your dermatologist to find the right acid or enzyme.