Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation: What’s the Difference?February 14, 2023
Exfoliating is a necessary (but often overlooked!) step in your skincare routine because it sloughs away dead surface skin cells, gets rid of pore-clogging debris and helps reveal a brighter, smoother complexion. But with both physical or mechanical exfoliators (like scrubs) and chemical exfoliators (like acids) on the market, it can be tricky to figure out which type of product (or combination of products) is best for your skin. To help break down the differences between chemical and physical exfoliants, we turned to board-certified dermatologists Dr. Elizabeth Houshmand, Dr. William Kwan and Dr. Melanie Palm, as well as licensed medical aesthetician Bre Knouse.
What Is Exfoliation?
“The life cycle of a cell is about three months in children and only about 30-50 days in adults, which means our cells are dying a lot faster as we age,” says Knouse. “This leads to dead skin cell build-up, clogged pores, dryness, dull complexion and rough texture.” That’s where exfoliation comes into play.
Dr. Houshmand explains that exfoliation, both physical and chemical, can speed up the cell renewal process and help get rid of rough or uneven skin texture that is more prevalent with age. “New skin cells are fresh and leave your skin feeling smoother and softer,” she says.
In other words, “exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells,” explains Dr. Palm. “When done correctly, exfoliation can produce a number of benefits, including fading acne scars, brightening your complexion, preparing your skin to better absorb skincare products, unclogging pores and more.”
What Is Physical Exfoliation?
“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, some physical exfoliators can also incorporate beads or grains. You can also use a dry brush to mechanically exfoliate, or get professional, in-office procedures done such as microdermabrasion and dermaplaning, adds Dr. Palm.
How Does Physical Exfoliation Work?
Basically, physical exfoliation works by physically sloughing built-up dead skin cells, dirt, oil and other impurities from your skin. “Physical exfoliation can be achieved by a number of methods, like using a scrub, brush or washcloth, to manually dislodge dirt and dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin,” says Dr. Palm.
Benefits of Physical Exfoliation
“Similar to the benefits of chemical exfoliation, physical exfoliation removes dead skin cells to reveal newer skin underneath,” says Dr. Palm. Physical exfoliators often show immediate results and won't interfere with ingredients in most of your skincare routine.
That said, they can be harsh and cause micro-tears in the skin, so you need to make sure your skin can tolerate both the product and frequency. “Some patients take physical exfoliation too far and do it daily,” says Dr. Houshmand. “This can actually inflame the skin because 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. We like the Lancôme Rose Sugar Exfoliating Scrub. You should also always consult a board-certified dermatologist if you have any questions or concerns about whether a certain method is right for your individualized skincare needs.
The Best Physical Exfoliants
The Kiehl’s Facial Fuel Scrub is an exfoliant specifically formulated for men’s skin that sloughs away dead skin, dirt and oil to reveal smooth skin. Infused with caffeine, menthol, vitamin E and citrus extracts, it minimizes roughness and softens tough facial hair to help prep your skin for a close, effortless shave.
Reach for the Lancôme Rose Sugar Exfoliating Scrub if you want smoother, plumper skin. Made with real sugar grains, rose water and honey, this gentle, luxe scrub gives you a glowing, smooth complexion. For the best results, apply it to wet skin and massage it in a circular motion. You’ll feel the sugar grains dissolve as you rub the formula into your skin.
The La Roche-Posay Ultra Fine Facial Scrub is a physical exfoliant that is suitable for sensitive skin, thanks to the ultra-fine pumice particles. The water gel-like texture feels refreshing on your skin as you exfoliate dead skin cells away.
By eliminating the build-up of dry and flakey skin, the Dr. Barbara Sturm Facial Scrub helps address a number of skincare concerns. It claims to boost the smoothness and hydration of your complexion, as well as minimize the appearance of fine lines by stimulating skin renewal.
Want brighter, fresher skin? Try the Beauty Pie WonderScrub Bio-Dermabrasion Face Polish, a facial scrub formulated with volcanic scrub spheres, liquid shea butter and pineapple enzymes. This scrub can also double as a mask. For a deeper exfoliation, leave it on your skin for three to five minutes before rinsing it off.
What Is Chemical Exfoliation?
“Chemical exfoliation is a method of removing dead skin with chemical exfoliants, which work to break the bonds that hold the skin cells together,” explains Dr. Palm. “Breaking these bonds helps to shed the top layers of the skin cells, which results in a smoother, brighter and more even-toned complexion.”
The chemical exfoliant category refers to beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid, and alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs), such as lactic and glycolic acids, which give your skin a mild exfoliation. Azelaic acid, carbolic acid and galactose are other, lesser-known chemical exfoliants.
How Does Chemical Exfoliation Work?
As explained above, chemical exfoliants work by breaking down the bonds holding skin cells together. “Chemical exfoliators are often more gentle for sensitive skin,” says Dr. Houshmand. “AHAs work by melting the glue that attaches the dead skin cells to the outer layer of the skin, while BHAs are oil-soluble ingredients that go deeper into the skin and pores for a thorough cleanse.”
Benefits of Chemical Exfoliation
Dr. Houshmand explains that AHAs are a great pick for sensitive skin because they don’t cause irritation like a physical scrub, whereas BHAs are particularly good for those with acne-prone and oily complexions because they can detox pores and remove bacteria. For an AHA, we recommend the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid. Looking for a BHA? Try the Vichy Normaderm Phytoaction Daily Deep Cleansing Gel, which is formulated with salicylic acid.
While chemical exfoliation is more gentle, the results may not be as noticeable as quickly as those of physical exfoliation. Dr. Houhsmand says that you likely won’t see results for one to two months. It’s also important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning, especially when using a chemical exfoliant. One we love is the SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50.
The Best Chemical Exfoliants
For smooth, glowing skin, use the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensifies 5% Glycolic Acid Toner at night after cleansing but before applying any serums or moisturizers in your skincare routine. The 5% concentration of glycolic acid encourages cell turnover while the presence of aloe vera in the formula has a soothing effect.
This super lightweight liquid exfoliant combines exfoliating AHAs and BHAs with nourishing antioxidants, including kale and spinach (that’s where the “superfood” comes in). It seeks to clear your pores, even out your skin texture, and support your skin’s barrier, effectively exfoliating without irritating your skin.
The Vichy Normaderm Phytoaction Daily Deep Cleansing Gel is a cleanser with exfoliating properties due to the salicylic acid-infused formula. This is an ideal cleanser for those with acne-prone skin, since it works to clear breakouts and prevent new ones from forming. It reduces blemishes, clogged pores and blackheads to leave your skin looking visibly purified.
An AHA serum formulated with glycolic acid, the CeraVe Skin Renewing Nightly Exfoliating Treatment helps accelerate the process of surface cell turnover overnight. With continued use, it works to address signs of aging such as wrinkles, fine lines, dark spots and enlarged pores.
The SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight is a night cream that delivers a 10% glycolic acid value to promote cell turnover and leave you with a healthy, glowing complexion. It improves your skin’s tone and texture for a bright, radiant effect. Don’t forget to pair it with a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day.
Which Exfoliant Is Right for Me?
While you can use both a chemical and physical exfoliant in your skincare routine, be careful not to over-exfoliate and dry out your skin. “Incorporating at least one exfoliator into your skincare routine will leave you with a clearer, smoother and brighter-looking complexion,” says Dr. Houshmand. “Which type of exfoliator you use really depends on your goal and your skin type.”
For example, someone with sensitive skin likely won’t be able to tolerate a physical scrub, but may be able to use glycolic acid in moderation. Just make sure to pick products specific for your skin type and consult with a board-certified dermatologist before trying anything new.
Additional Reporting: Jordan Julian, Photo: Drew Richards