What’s the Difference Between Chemical and Physical Exfoliants?

Applying tiny coffee scrub particles to skin
What’s the Difference Between Chemical and Physical Exfoliants?
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When it comes to a healthy and happy complexion, exfoliation is so important.

Why?

Because each and every second, skin cells on the surface of your skin die off, while new skin cells are produced in the deepest layers of your skin. In order to make way for these fresh new skin cells, your body naturally sheds the dead skin cells, and this process is known as cell turnover.

However, as you age, cell turnover declines, with this beginning as early as your 20s.

This means that dead skin cells end up building up on the surface of your skin, resulting in everything from clogged pores to a rough and dull complexion.

How do you prevent this from happening?

By exfoliating!

There are many different methods of exfoliation out there, but these can usually be split into two categories; physical and chemical.

Wondering what the differences between the two are?

Read on to find out…

What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation is often referred to as manual exfoliation, because it involves manually slouching off the dead skin cells on the surface of your skin.

This is the type of exfoliation that most people are familiar with, as it is so simple and easy to do. Plus, physical exfoliants, such as scrubs, also tend to be much more widely available than chemical exfoliants.

Different Types of Physical Exfoliation

There are quite a few choices when it comes to physical exfoliation, and each one will have its own pros and cons.

Here are some of the most common methods of physical exfoliation:

  • Scrubs – these are very easy to use, and will feature tiny abrasive particles that help to dislodge and remove dead skin cells, as well as dirt, sebum and other unwanted substances. However, they are not all created equally, and some can be too harsh at the skin, tearing it rather than gently scrubbing it. Make sure to opt for a scrub that contains abrasives such as sugar, salt or oats, staying away from those formulated with nut shells or fruit kernels 
  • Face and body brushes – this is a technique known as dry brushing, and can be extremely effective. Just make sure to only use brushes designed for the face on your face, as brushes designed for the body will contain much rougher bristles
  • Loofahs and exfoliating cloths – while these are easily available, they can often be far too harsh on the skin and are best avoided, especially when there are so many better alternatives out there

There is another extremely effective physical exfoliant that is often overlooked, but this is one definitely worth considering…

Konjac sponges are made from the root of the konjac plant, also known as the elephant yam. This is an ingredient that has been used throughout Asia for centuries, and can be so beneficial for the skin.

How?

Because not only do they cleanse and exfoliate the skin in such a gentle way, but they are also packed with a variety of different vitamins and antioxidants, all of which help to nourish the skin.

Never used one before?

They are easy to use. All you need to do is soften the sponge when you first get it, by soaking it in warm water for about 15 minutes.

Then, gently rub it on your face in circular motions. It is completely up to you whether or not you use a cleanser at the same time, as the sponge will work both with or without one. 

What Is Chemical Exfoliation?

As you have probably already guessed from its name, chemical exfoliation involves applying certain chemicals, such as mild acids or enzymes, to the skin. These then dissolve away the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells to the skin’s surface, allowing you to then just easily rinse them off.

Different Types of Chemical Exfoliation 

There are two main types of chemical exfoliation out there.

These are:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) – thanks to the way in which AHAs work, they are extremely effective at rejuvenating the surface of the skin and evening out skin tone. There are a few different types of AHAs out there, with one of the most common being glycolic acid, which originally comes from sugar cane but is also produced synthetically. Lactic acid is another popular option, and this one is more gentle on the skin, making it suitable for those with sensitivities or dry skin
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)the most common BHA is salicylic acid, which is fantastic for exfoliating skin that is oily and prone to acne 

While those are the main ingredients when it comes to chemical exfoliants, they can be found in many different types of products, from cleansers and peels to moisturizers.

Wondering which is most effective?

Products that are designed to remain on the skin for a longer period of time, such as with a leave-on treatment, as these allow the acids to really penetrate the skin and work their magic.

Can’t decide whether to use an AHA or a BHA?

You do not actually need to make this decision, as it is possible to use both, since each of them work in different ways. While BHAs break down the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells to the surface of the skin, AHAs encourage the cells themselves to detach from the skin, meaning that they both complement each other.

Need even better results than what at-home chemical exfoliants can provide?

Well, you also have the option of visiting a dermatologist, as they will be able to perform a professional peel on your skin.

What’s the difference?

At-home peels have an acid level of no more than ten percent, with a pH no lower than 3.5. On the other hand, professional peels can have a pH of lower than 3, with acid levels of up to 70%. This means that they are able to penetrate much deeper into the skin, giving you even greater results. 

One more thing to keep in mind when it comes to chemical exfoliation…

If you use retinol products on your skin, make sure that you apply this at a different time of day to when you exfoliate.

Why?

Because not only will using the two together increase your chances of skin irritations, but retinol does not work well on acidic skin, meaning that it will not be able to function to its full potential. 

Enzymatic Exfoliation

Enzymatic exfoliation is a type of chemical exfoliation, but is so much gentler and milder than both AHAs and BHAs.

What is enzymatic exfoliation?

It makes use of enzymes derived from fruit, such as papain, which comes from papayas, and bromelain, which comes from pineapples.

These enzymes target the keratin in the outermost layer of your skin, and break this down, allowing dead skin cells to then be rinsed away.

Of course, there is always a downside…

With enzymatic exfoliation, the downside is the stability of the products available. Since fruit enzymes are such delicate ingredients, it does take quite a bit to ensure that they remain stable when formulated into a product. Even if you purchase a quality enzymatic exfoliant, you still need to be extremely careful about how you store the product, as the wrong environment could render the enzymes useless.

Since enzymatic exfoliants are also so gentle, this does mean that they are not quite as effective as other types of chemical exfoliation. If you have oily or combination skin, you may find that enzymatic exfoliation just does not cut it for you.

How to Decide Between a Physical and Chemical Exfoliant

Now that you know the main differences between physical and chemical exfoliants, how do you decide which one to use?

There are a number of different factors that you should take into consideration here…

With physical exfoliants, you will be able to enjoy immediate results, and the majority of physical exfoliants out there will not react with any of the other skin care products you are using, making it easy to incorporate them into your skin care routine.

The manual act of physically exfoliating your face also brings with it other benefits, such as an increase in circulation. This will also help to give your complexion a boost, and thanks to all of the extra blood flow reaching your skin cells, your skin will look much healthier and vibrant.

When it comes to chemical exfoliation…

These do not require scrubbing of any sort, making them great for those who have problematic skin types, such as acne or sensitive skin. They also penetrate the skin quite deeply, more than a physical exfoliant would, meaning that the results that they bring tend to last for longer. Not only that, but chemical exfoliants will continue to have an effect even after you have applied them, so you may not need to exfoliate quite as much as you would with a physical exfoliant.

How Often Do You Need to Exfoliate?

After exfoliating, your skin is likely to feel so much softer and smoother. While this is great, its effects often encourage people to exfoliate more frequently, with some even exfoliating every day.

However, this will only lead to trouble in the long run…

How?

Because while exfoliating is essential, doing this too much will end up stripping your skin of all of its natural oils, which can lead to everything from dryness to breakouts.

Since exfoliation removes the top layer of your skin, you need to give your skin the chance to heal before exfoliating again, otherwise you will only end up with inflamed, red skin.

Not only that, but exfoliating too often can actually slow down your cell turnover rate, whereas exfoliating just the right amount can speed this natural rate up.

So, what exactly is the right amount to exfoliate?

This all depends on your skin type…

Here are a couple of guidelines to follow:

  • Normal skin types – two to three times a week
  • Combination skin typestwo to three times a week
  • Oily skin typesthree times a week
  • Sensitive skin typesonce a week 

Of course, this also depends on the exfoliant that you use. If you decide to go for a professional chemical peel, then you will only need to do this every six weeks or so. However, if you are using a dry face brush, then this is mild enough to be used every other day. 

Do you think you might be over-exfoliating?

If so, you need to stop exfoliating immediately, and give your skin some time to heal. Stick to a gentle facial cleanser for now, and once your skin has returned to normal, you can then start exfoliating again, so long as you do not overdo it. 

Caring for Your Skin After Exfoliation

As mentioned above, the process of exfoliating removes the top layer of your skin, as well as your skin’s natural oils.

As you can imagine, this leaves your skin quite vulnerable, meaning that you need to ensure that you carry out the correct aftercare.

What does this aftercare entail?

Well, after exfoliating, your pores will be clear and there will be no dead skin cells blocking up the surface of your skin. This means that your skin will be extremely receptive to subsequent products that you apply, making this the perfect time to use a serum and a moisturizer.

While the serum’s ingredients will be quickly absorbed into your skin, the moisturizer will form a protective layer over the surface of your skin. This will not only prevent your skin from drying out, but will also stop dirt, bacteria and other unwanted substances from entering your skin while it is in a vulnerable state.

Even if you do not usually use serums, a moisturizer is still essential, as you should never ever leave your skin bare after exfoliating.

When it comes to caring for your skin, exfoliation is so important, and this part of your skin care routine should definitely not be overlooked. With there being so many different ways in which you can exfoliate your skin, it should not be too difficult for you to find a method that not only works for you and your routine, but also for your skin.

89 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Chemical and Physical Exfoliants?”

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  2. Michelle says:

    Always exfoliate!

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    My skin feels so soft and looks so fresh and youthful after exfoliating. Being in my 50’s keeping my skin looking as good as possible is so important!

  6. Gabrielle says:

    This is a great guide! Thanks for explaining the benefits and drawbacks of the different methods and also how often every skin type should exfoliate. This is getting bookmarked and shared!

  7. Sharon Harding says:

    Thanks for teaching me the differences between physical and chemical exfoliants,

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  17. Kristy says:

    I try to stay away from the physical exfoliants with beads, they can be harsh on the skin and also bad for the environment.

  18. Jamie Johnson says:

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this extremely informative and helpful article. I have always wondered about the different kinds of exfoliants. And I also had NO idea that you can use both AHAs and BHAs at the same time! I thought it would be overdoing it. Turns out, they complement each other! Great way to get the most out of my expensive serums and moisturizers. Great article! Thanks again for sharing! Will soon be trying some of these. I always worry because I have EXTREMELY sensitive, acne prone skin. But, unlike masks, exfoliating doesn’t bring everything to the surface. It also seems like also unlike masks, it doesn’t have to get worse before it gets better! It seems exfoliating immediately improves skin’s texture. Good to know! Indeed!

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  20. Rita Sheppard says:

    Thank you for such a thorough explanation of the different exfoliation processes.

  21. Aeriel Toomey says:

    I definitely prefer the physical over the chemical.

  22. Kristie says:

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  23. Margaret Smith says:

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  28. shannon fowler says:

    I am so bad about exfoliating. This was a great article though. It definitely makes me want to make it a priority.

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  34. Chava Zewicky says:

    I need to use a chemical exfoliating cleanser in the winter because I have dry uneven skin. And an acne cleanser in the summer to help with my oily t-zone and clogged pores. Both at the same time is good too.

  35. jana moseley says:

    I actually like the kinder, gentler physical exfoliants.

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  37. Rachel Collins says:

    I use an exfoliater at least 4 times a week. I’m trying to find the best one for my skin. I’ve tried so many, so I have a few favorites. I love trying new products and I have a big collection of exfoliate’s because of it.

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    I didn’t know exfoliating was so important. But I do use serums on my skin

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  49. Debbie Welchert says:

    Wow, what a lot of great information to take in. After taking everything in, I think the physical exfoliation is for me.

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  54. Michael says:

    The Difference between a Chemical and a Physical Exfoliant is a Chemical is a risk ! usually if it’s going to work or not going to work but may be worse and cause reactions . And a Physical Exfoliant works naturally with your Body Chemistry and has less or no risks !

  55. Brenda Disimone says:

    Thanks for the informative post !

  56. Paula D says:

    If you use an exfoliating cleanser that is extremely gentle, is daily use definitely too often?

    1. OROGOLD says:

      Hi Paula,

      In general, yes. Even gentlest cleansers are designed to remove the top (dead) layer of skin. Exfoliating more than 1-2 times a week would simply mean that you’re removing new skin, rather than dead skin cells. This is not recommended.

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  57. Nikolina Vukelic says:

    I really enjoyed reading the entire post, thank you for all the useful information!

  58. Janet Meisner says:

    I like the detailed info on chemical and physical exfoliants. It has given me much food for thought.

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  60. Jeanine Carlson says:

    Wow, what a great explanation!

  61. Irina Gnatiuk says:

    Great article! Thank you!

  62. Allie f says:

    Wow, this post so informative. I’m definitely transforming my skincare routine!

  63. Great info thanks for sharing 🙂

  64. I always learn so much from your articles, Thank-you

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    Thanks for posting this informative article.

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  69. Alicia Hewitt says:

    Thank you for the great info! I actually learned a lot about the difference! I never knew some of this. Thank you for sharing!

  70. Cynthia C says:

    I learned a lot reading this. I love the way my skin feels after exfoliating.

  71. Beatrice McGinnis says:

    Thanks, this was a very informative video. I think this is the product for me.

  72. scott says:

    Thanks for the great info.

  73. John H. says:

    I didn’t know that Konjac sponges are made from the root of the konjac plant.

  74. duncan says:

    Thanks so much for all the skincare tips!

  75. Mary Songer says:

    Thanks for another great post. Everything I need to know in one place. I can now get a better idea of what I need to use on my skin.

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  77. wen says:

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  78. Jennifer H. says:

    I have not tried the Konjac sponge.

  79. Luci Buddie says:

    PHYSICAL EXFOLIANTS seem better and three times a week seem great thanks for the information

  80. Rhonda Stefani says:

    Appreciate the very helpful information. I’m also curious to try the Asian Konjac sponge!

  81. Asim Ali says:

    Chemical exfoliates cause permanent damage where as physical promote a change.

  82. Nicole Margrif says:

    great information, love to learn about skincare

  83. Audrey says:

    Wow very informative!

  84. Susan A says:

    I prefer physical exfoliants for my extra oily skin. Thanks for the chance to win, love Orogold!

  85. Annette says:

    I prefer chemical exfoliation.

  86. Roxann says:

    I learned a lot about exfoliation after reading this. I didn’t know there were so many different options.

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