A chemical exfoliant is an acid that interacts with the dead cells to get rid of them, while a mechanical exfoliant scrubs them off physically. Most of us can use either one of these methods, and often a product will employ both (a sugar and fruit enzyme scrub, for example). There are also at-home versions of more powerful, doctor's office procedures, such as chemical peels and microdermabrasion. The FDA prohibits a consumer product from having more than 10% AHA concentration, while doctors can use much higher concentrations, such as 50%.
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