Physical Vs. Chemical Exfoliation: The Difference Explained

Written by Ramona Sinha

Exfoliation is much more than just removing dead skin cells from our skin. It helps the skin absorb the skin care products and serums effectively. You can use either a physical exfoliator or a chemical one. However, it is essential to understand the difference and know which one is right for your skin before picking one. Keep reading to find out more.

What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation or manual exfoliation is when you have to buff away the dead skin cells manually. Physical exfoliators like scrubs contain grains and gritty materials (like grounded nuts) that gently scrape away the dead skin cells, dirt, and impurities from the skin. This smoothens the skin surface and improves radiance.

Other than scrubs, physical exfoliators are available in many different forms like tools (at-home dermaplaning tools) and products like facial sponges.

Physical exfoliators are suitable for all skin types. However, if you have acne-prone skin, avoid them. Let’s understand in detail.

What Type Of Skin Is Best Suited For Physical Exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation is best suited for body skin, especially the feet, knees, elbows, and fingers. The skin on the body is more resilient than the skin on your decolletage and face.

However, if you prefer scrubs for your face, you may use gentle ones. Avoid physical scrubs if you have acne-prone skin and active lesions, as scrubbing them can aggravate the inflammation. If you are buying commercial scrubs, here are a few ingredients to avoid.

Ingredients To Avoid In Physical Exfoliators

Avoid products that:

  •  Use large fruit pips and nuts as their large, rough, sharp edges can be harsh on the skin and cause irritation and micro-tears.
  •  Contain microbeads as they are non-biodegradable and may harm the environment.
  •  Contain chemicals like phthalates, parabens, SLS, synthetic colors and fragrances, and mineral oil.

Also, consider your skin type when buying physical exfoliators. If you have sensitive skin, use gentle exfoliators.

Chemical exfoliants do not contain abrasive ingredients like physical exfoliants. Let’s understand what they are.

What Is Chemical Exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliation dissolves the bonds between the dead skin cells with the help of chemicals like alpha and beta-hydroxy acids and fruit enzymes.

Chemical exfoliation can help brighten the skin, improve skin texture, and address pigmentation and fine lines.The most common chemical exfoliants are:

Doctors often use or prescribe retinoids and retinol-based products to improve skin texture.

Chemical exfoliants are available in different concentrations. Usually, the OTC exfoliants are milder than the professional medical-grade peels used by doctors. Let’s find out who can use them.

What Type Of Skin Is Best Suited For Chemical Exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliants suit all skin types, especially oily and acne-prone skin. You can use different types of facial acids for addressing different skin issues and types.

For instance, AHAs are especially beneficial for those who have acne, scarring, and pigmentation. BHA exfoliants are beneficial for acne-prone and oily skin. Enzyme-based exfoliants are much milder than AHA and BHA exfoliants and are suitable for sensitive skin.

These acids are added to different skin care products like face washes, body cleansers, creams, lotions, and serums. They are available in different concentrations. If you are new to chemical exfoliants or have sensitive skin, start with the lowest concentration and gradually increase the strength. You should use chemical exfoliants with caution.

Ingredients To Avoid In Chemical Exfoliators

Avoid the following things when using chemical exfoliators:

  •  Mixing different chemical exfoliators
  •  Using different types of exfoliators simultaneously
  •  Layering exfoliating products (like using a BHA serum after using a BHA or AHA cleanser)
  •  Using retinol with AHAs, BHAs, and plant enzymes

Whether using physical or chemical exfoliators, you have to be careful about the frequency to avoid irritating your skin.

How Often To Exfoliate

Exfoliate your skin once or twice a week. This is especially when you are using a separate physical scrub or an at-home chemical peel.

Nowadays, almost every other product – right from the cleanser and toner to the serum and moisturizer – contains some chemical exfoliator. Using them all at once can over-exfoliate your skin.

Check the ingredient list before using any product, and avoid using multiple exfoliating products at once.

When used in moderation, physical and chemical exfoliation can benefit your skin in multiple ways.

Benefits Of Exfoliation

Both physical and chemical exfoliation can:

  •  Unclog the skin pores, clear dirt and debris from the skin surface, and prevent breakouts.
  •  Improve the skin texture and make it smooth and soft.
  •  Help the skin absorb the skin care products better.
  •  Even out the skin tone by minimizing hyperpigmentation and dark patches and improving the texture.
  •  Improve skin radiance by boosting cell turnover rate.

On the flip side, there are several risk factors associated with physical and chemical exfoliators.

Physical Exfoliation Vs. Chemical Exfoliation: Side Effects

Physical Exfoliators 

Excessive use of physical exfoliators and scrubbing harshly on sensitive and acne-prone skin may cause:

  •  Micro-tears
  •  Redness
  •  Inflammation
  •  Dry and flaky skin

The gritty particles in physical scrubs may also damage the acne lesions and increase pain and discomfort.

Chemical Exfoliators 

Over-exfoliating and using high concentrations of at-home chemical peels without following the precautions may cause:

  •  Redness
  •  Dryness
  •  Stinging and burning sensations
  •  Hyperpigmentation
  •  Flaky skin

If you experience any symptoms, understand that either you are over-exfoliating or the exfoliant is too harsh for your skin. Stop using the products immediately, consult a dermatologist, and limit the frequency of exfoliation.

How To Exfoliate The Skin

If you are using a physical exfoliator or scrub:

  •  Wash your face or body with water.
  •  Massage the skin with the scrub gently in circular motions.
  •  Massage for a minute for the face and at least two minutes if exfoliating the body parts.
  •  Wash off with lukewarm water.
  •  Pat your skin dry and moisturize.

If you are using a chemical exfoliator:

  •  Cleanse your face and pat it dry.
  •  Apply the at-home chemical peel.
  •  Leave it on for not more than 10 minutes and wash off with regular water.
  •  Pat your skin dry and continue with the next skin care steps.

If you are using cleansers, toners, creams, and lotions that contain any of the AHAs, BHAs, and fruit enzymes, follow the instructions on the package.

Final Thoughts

Physical and chemical exfoliants are good for your skin, depending on your skin type, issues you want to address, and tolerance levels. As long as you are not over-exfoliating, you can pick whichever your skin feels comfortable with.

Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions

Can I use both physical and chemical exfoliants?

Yes, you can use them alternatively. However, ensure that you are not overusing them and limit the frequency to once or twice a week.


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Ramona is a journalist-turned-content writer. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature and has been writing for the digital world for over five years. She specializes in writing for Skin Care. She has done a certificate course titled ‘Dermatology: Trip To The Skin’, offered by Novosibirsk State University. She believes that beauty begins with a good skin care regimen and is on a mission to eliminate all toxins from her routine. She helps and guides readers in selecting products and ingredients specific to their skin type/issue. When Ramona is not working, her books and passion for music, good food, and traveling keep her busy.