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Astringents and exfoliants are two different types of skin care products that are often talked about by skin enthusiasts. However, these two products can be confusing, so it is important to learn the difference between them.
Astringents are liquid-based products that bind to skin proteins and reduce the oiliness on the skin surface. They work by tightening the skin. (1)
On the other hand, exfoliants can be physical and chemical products that are designed to remove dead skin cells and promote new cell growth. (2)
Thus, it is safe to say that both astringents and exfoliants serve different purposes. You may question if you need to buy both or just choose one, and the right answer to this dilemma depends on your skin concerns and needs.
Look a little deeper into these two products and see which one suits your needs better.
|Remove dead skin cells, promote cell turnover
|Control oil, tighten pores
|AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid), BHAs (salicylic acid)
|Alcohol, witch hazel, tea tree oil, aloe vera
|Skin issues targeted
|Dull skin, uneven texture, acne, hyperpigmentation
|Oily skin, large pores, acne
|Suitability for skin type
|Suitable for all skin types but may irritate sensitive skin if overused
|Suitable for all skin types but better for acne-prone or oily skin. Also, alcohol-containing products may irritate sensitive skin
|Mechanism of action
|Dissolve or loosen bonds between dead skin cells
|Contract skin tissues
|Frequency of use
|2-3 times/week depending on the product and skin tolerance
|Can be used daily or as needed
|Potential side effects
|Skin irritation, redness, dryness
|Skin dryness, stinging sensation, potential irritation
Consider these factors when deciding which product is made for you.
Witch hazel is a well-known astringent that is commonly used by people with oily skin. In fact, witch hazel ointments (also known as Hamamelis ointments) are often used for acne treatment. (3)
Exfoliants, on the other hand, are suitable for all skin types, but the type and intensity of exfoliation may vary based on individual needs and type of skin. (2)
For example, researchers recommend the use of mandelic acid for exfoliation in those with sensitive skin. They also advise the use of glycerin with chemical exfoliants to increase skin moisture levels, which may come in handy for those with dry skin. (4)
The American Academy of Dermatology (ADD) shares the following points for choosing the right exfoliant based on your skin type: (2)
- If you have oily or thick skin, go for strong chemical exfoliants or mechanical exfoliants.
- If you have dark skin or have experienced burns or bug bites, choose gentle exfoliants.
- If you have acne problems, avoid strong chemicals or mechanical exfoliants.
The AAD advises people to choose exfoliating products that suit their skin type. (2)
Experts from AAD recommend that people with sensitive skin use a simple washcloth for mechanical exfoliation or a mild chemical exfoliant. (2)
Moreover, according to research, mandelic acid is a good exfoliant for people with sensitive skin as it has a large molecular size and penetrates the skin very slowly, thereby not causing any irritation on sensitive skin. (5)
So, if you have sensitive or easily irritated skin, exfoliants with gentle formulas or lower concentrations may be more suitable.
Astringents, especially those containing alcohol, can potentially cause dryness or irritation in most people with sensitive skin. If you wish to use astringents on sensitive skin, you need gentle or nonalcohol options.
In a report, an astringent containing salicylic acid and aloe vera extract was deemed good for sensitive skin even though it had some amount of alcohol in it. So, the choice of astringent may vary from person to person. (6)
Exfoliants, such as α-hydroxy acids (AHAs), salicylic acid, and linoleic acid, have shown promise in treating hyperpigmentation, which refers to the darkening of certain areas of the skin. These compounds work by promoting the removal of the pigmented upper layer of the skin. (7)
Exfoliating with AHAs such as lactic acid and glycolic acids have been widely used to treat various skin conditions, including pigmentary lesions such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Chemical exfoliants with ingredients such as AHAs (for example, citric and glycolic acid) can assist in rejuvenating sun-damaged skin.
When citric acid was used at a concentration of 20%, it was found to increase the thickness of the outer layer of the skin and the presence of glycosaminoglycans, which are important for skin health.
Moreover, citric acid was observed to increase the rate at which the skin renews itself, aiding in the treatment of sun-damaged skin. (8)
Chemical peels are procedures that aim to rejuvenate the skin by using exfoliating agents. They have been used for the treatment of acne and other skin issues for a long time.
A study showed that salicylic acid acts as a gentle exfoliant that helps shed dead skin cells and is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. In concentrations ranging from 5% to 30%, it is commonly used for acne treatment and is considered safe. (9)
Also, glycolic acid, a well-known exfoliant, promotes collagen synthesis, disperses melanin, and has antibacterial effects on acne-causing bacteria.
Even a gentle exfoliant such as mandelic acid is widely used for mild to moderate acne. (9)
Also, astringents can help control oil production, thereby reducing acne breakouts.
Chemical exfoliants, such as AHAs and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), have been widely studied and proven effective in treating the signs of skin aging.
AHAs, such as glycolic acid, promote cellular renewal and stimulate the exfoliation of dull skin, resulting in smoother and softer skin with faded wrinkles, lightened age spots, and reduced blemishes. (10) They also improve barrier function, increase epidermal thickness, and restore hydration.
Glycolic acid is commonly used in concentrations of 10%-15% for skin aging.
BHAs, such as salicylic acid, have shown positive effects in reversing the signs of photoaging and improving wrinkles, skin elasticity, tone, and hydration. (10)
You may want to steer clear from using exfoliants if they are not compatible with your current skin care regimen.
According to the AAD, prescription retinoid products or formulations containing benzoyl peroxide can make skin more sensitive and more prone to peeling. So, if you exfoliate while using these products, you may face some adverse reactions. (2)
If your main concern is oily skin, blemishes, or enlarged pores, an astringent can be beneficial in controlling oil production and reducing pore size. (1) They can also be helpful for resolving acne problems. (3)
For concerns such as dullness, uneven texture, or hyperpigmentation, exfoliants can help by removing dead skin cells and promoting cell turnover. (2)
Astringents are typically used daily as part of a regular skin care routine, while exfoliants are often used 2-3 times a week to avoid overexfoliation and potential skin irritation.
Also, astringents can provide immediate benefits such as reduced oiliness and tightened pores, resulting in a temporary better appearance. Exfoliants may take some time to show visible results, but over time, they can improve skin texture and tone.
Some individuals may experience a burning sensation and irritation when using exfoliants, especially if using high concentrations or exfoliating too frequently.
This is why manufacturers have developed exfoliating products with a balanced combination of ingredients, usually in concentrations of 7%–10% and buffered to a pH above 3.5, to minimize the risk of burning and irritation. (4)
Also, excessive exfoliation, whether done mechanically or chemically, can lead to unwanted effects on the skin. These effects include thinning of the outermost layer of the skin called the stratum corneum, which can result in shininess, irritation, redness, and sensitivity.
Furthermore, overexfoliation can weaken the skin’s barrier function, leading to dehydration and even minor cuts on the skin. (11)
Astringents containing alcohol or strong astringent ingredients can potentially cause dryness, irritation, or a stinging sensation, especially in those with sensitive or dry skin.
Exfoliants are products that help remove dead skin cells from the skin surface, leaving the skin feeling soft, smooth, and supple. They improve the texture of the skin and allow moisturizers to be better absorbed and retained, restoring the skin’s natural moisture.
Mechanical exfoliation involves using scrubs with small grainy particles, such as walnut shells, apricot pits, or salt crystals, to physically scrub away dead skin cells.
On the other hand, chemical exfoliation is achieved using products containing AHAs and BHAs. These chemicals help to loosen the bonds between skin cells, allowing them to shed off more easily.
Chemical exfoliation has gained popularity in recent years due to its effectiveness. It includes the use of creams, lotions, serums, and gels containing ingredients such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes, citric acid, and malic acid. (11)
Astringents are products that are employed to tighten the skin to tone it. They mostly contain ingredients that have a constricting effect on the skin cells, which makes the tissues contract.
This tightening effect helps to reduce the appearance of pores and can give your skin a smooth and firm appearance.
Astringents are commonly used on the face, particularly in areas prone to oiliness or acne. They can come in various forms, such as toners, lotions, and wipes, and they are typically applied to the skin using a cotton pad or by gently patting them onto the face.
DIY Herbal Exfoliant Recipes
Here are some herbal exfoliants that you can make at home using natural ingredients: (11)
- Papaya Scrub: Mash a ripe papaya, apply it to your face, and gently massage. Rinse off to reveal a clear complexion.
- Pineapple Mask: Blend pineapple chunks, apply the paste to your face, and leave it on for 10-15 minutes. Rinse off for improved skin elasticity.
- Walnut Shell Scrub: Mix ground walnut shell powder with a carrier oil, massage the mixture onto your skin, and rinse off for restored texture.
- Grapefruit Seed Extract Toner: Mix grapefruit seed extract with water, soak a cotton pad with the mixture, and swipe it over your face to purify and normalize oily skin.
- Lemon Oil Tonic: Mix lemon oil with water, wet a cotton pad with this mixture, and pat it on your face to improve circulation and tone the skin.
- Apricot Scrub: Mix ground apricot seeds with apricot extract or oil, massage the mixture onto your skin, and rinse off for fresh, smooth skin.
- Mung Dal Scrub: Grind mung dal into a powder, mix it with water or aloe vera gel, massage the mixture onto your skin, and rinse off for a healthy glow.
- Cucumber Scrub: Grate a cucumber, mix it with an exfoliant such as oatmeal or sugar, gently scrub the mixture onto your skin, and rinse off for moisturized, clean skin.
Here are some herbal astringents that you can make at home using natural ingredients.
- Witch Hazel Toner: Mix equal parts of witch hazel and water. Using a cotton pad, apply the toner to your face and let it dry. Witch hazel tightens the skin and reduces inflammation. (3)
- Green Tea Toner: Steep a green tea bag in hot water, let it cool, and then apply the tea to your face with a cotton pad. Green tea tightens the skin with its natural tannins.
- Aloe Vera Astringent: Mix 1/4 cup of aloe vera gel and 1 tbsp rose water. Using a cotton pad, swipe the mixture over your face to tighten pores. Aloe vera has astringent properties. (12)
How to Exfoliate Safely at Home
Achieve safe and effective exfoliation at home by choosing either a scrub or chemical exfoliant. Apply the product in gentle circular motions for around 30 seconds, and then rinse it off with lukewarm water. When using a brush or sponge, use short, light strokes.
Avoid exfoliating if you have open cuts, wounds, or sunburned skin, as it may cause further irritation. (2)
Can Exfoliants and Astringents Be Used Together?
In some cases, using both an astringent and an exfoliant can be beneficial. For example, if you have oily skin with concerns of clogged pores and acne, using an astringent daily and incorporating exfoliants into your routine a few times a week may be an effective combination.
Is it safe to use an astringent or exfoliant on sensitive skin?
It’s important to choose gentle formulations specifically made for sensitive skin.
How often should I use an astringent?
The frequency of astringent use depends on your skin type. It’s generally recommended to use it once a day.
Which is better for oily skin, an astringent or an exfoliant?
Both can be beneficial for oily skin, but an astringent is specifically designed to control oiliness.
Astringents and exfoliants serve different purposes in skin care. Astringents focus on toning and tightening the skin, while exfoliants aid in the removal of dead skin cells.
While astringents can be beneficial for oily skin, exfoliants can benefit various skin types.