Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation: What's the Difference?
For full-on skin maintenance, you have to exfoliate regularly. Adding an exfoliating step into your skin routine is the best way to slough away dirt, debris, and dead skin cells that are sitting on top of your skin and able to clog your pores.
But, while we typically associate exfoliators as grainy face or body scrubs (physical exfoliators), there’s actually a whole other category of exfoliating products that are formulated with acids (chemical exfoliators). Aside from textural differences, what sets a physical vs. chemical exfoliator apart from one another and which one should you use? For the answers, we reached out to three of our consulting experts: dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth B. Houshmand (@houshmandmd), ethnic skin expert Dr. William Kwan, and Maffi Clinics' licensed medical aesthetician Bre Knouse.
WHAT IS EXFOLIATION?
You know you have to do it regularly, but what exactly is exfoliation and why is it important? Turns out exfoliating is much more than just scrubbing your skin. “The life cycle of a cell is about 3 months in children and only about 30-50 days in adults, which means our cells are dying a lot faster as we age,” explains Bre Knouse. “This leads to dead skin cell build up, clogged pores, dryness, dull complexion and rough texture.”
This is why exfoliation is an extremely important part of skin health. “New skin cells are fresh, and leave your skin feeling smoother and softer,” says Dr. Houshmand. Dr. Houshmand noted that while the shedding of dead surface skin cells does happen naturally, exfoliating speeds the process up. She said that this is particularly beneficial for aging skin since the natural removal of dead skin cells slows as you age.
WHAT IS PHYSICAL EXFOLIATION?
Basically, physical exfoliation is the type of exfoliation that you may be most accustomed to seeing—body scrubs and products formulated with grainy particles that provide the actual “scrubbing” sensation. “Physical exfoliation is using something abrasive on the skin like a sugar or salt scrub,” says Dr. Kwan. While sugar and salt are common granules used for exfoliation, Dr. Houshmand noted that some physical exfoliators can also incorporate beads and grains, and the action of rubbing of them against the skin assists in dislodging old, dead cells and brushes them away. “The circulation can also give cheeks a youthful rosy-looking glow, and the skin feels softer with an improvement in skin texture and feel,” Dr. Houshmand says.
The benefits of physical exfoliation are plenty. Among them? Skin that’s soft and smooth. What’s more, physical exfoliators often show immediate results and won't interact with the ingredients in most of your skin care routine “Some patients take [physical exfoliation] too far and do it daily,” says Dr. Houshmand. “This can actually inflame the skin. Physical exfoliation can be too harsh for some skin types.” If you want to use physical exfoliators, it’s best to use them only twice a week and reach for a formula that’s gentle and not too abrasive.
WHAT ARE CHEMICAL EXFOLIATORS?
Although it sounds scary at first to put “chemicals” or “acids” on your face, most chemical exfoliators are actually composed of weak acids, like salicylic acid and glycolic acid, to give your skin a mild exfoliation. “Chemical exfoliators are often more gentle for sensitive skin,” says Dr. Houshmand. “There are two main types of chemical exfoliators, Alpha Hydroxy Acids [AHAs] and Beta Hydroxy Acids [BHAs]. AHAs work by melting the glue which attaches the dead skin cells to the outer layer of the skin while BHAs are oil-soluble ingredients which go deeper into the skin and pores for a thorough cleanse.” But there are more exfoliating ingredients other than just AHAs and BHAs, says Knouse. “Along with AHA and BHA acids, fruit enzymes, citric acid and malic acid, are common ingredients in skin care products,” she says. “They also help reduce inflammation, control oil, brighten the skin and improve texture.”
Dr. Houshmand said that AHAs are a great pick for sensitive skin since they don’t cause irritation like a physical scrub, and BHAs are particularly good for those with acne-prone and oily complexions as they can detox pores and remove bacteria. Some examples of chemical exfoliants are glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid. You can find them in many over-the-counter exfoliating products. If you’re looking to get an in-office chemical peel, Dr. Kwan notes that many of them use these same ingredients, just in a higher concentration.
One benefit of chemical exfoliation is that it does not require scrubbing, so it’s less likely to cause major irritation to the skin. However, if you’re looking for quick results, you might have to be a little patient. Dr. Houhsmand said that most results aren’t seen until 4-8 weeks into using a chemical exfoliator. “They are great for patients with problem skin types since they require no scrubbing,” she says. “They continue to work after application, work more deeply than a physical exfoliant, and offer long-lasting results.”
WHICH ONE SHOULD I USE?
According to Dr. Houshmand, you can use both a chemical and physical exfoliator if you’d like to. However, she notes that the type of exfoliator you use also depends on your skin type. “Which type of exfoliator you use really depends on your goal and your skin type,” Dr. Houshmand says. “Whether you choose a physical or chemical exfoliant, both will help your skin slough more quickly on its own.”
Dr. Houshmand recommends using at least one type of exfoliator in your skincare routine to keep your skin bright and healthy-looking. “Incorporating at least one of them into your skin care routine will leave you with a clearer, smoother, and brighter-looking complexion,” she said. So, get to scrubbin’ with your exfoliator of choice!