What’s The Difference Between Chemical And Physical Exfoliants?

by Gio
chemical vs physical exfoliation: which one is better?

Chemical vs physical exfoliation: which one is better?

One thing’s for sure. If you’re not exfoliating, you’re missing out. Exfoliants remove all those dead cells that make your skin look tired, dull, and old, giving your face a brighter and healthier look.

But, not all exfoliants are created equal. There are two types: chemical and physical exfoliant. And, one type is way, way better than the other.

Which one? The answer may surprise you…

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What Are Chemical Exfoliants?

How do they work?

Chemical exfoliants dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells together, allowing them to fall off. They can also dissolve the dead skin cells themselves.

Which ingredients do they use?

Chemical exfoliants are often called acid exfoliants because they use exfoliating acids to the do the job. The most common ones are:

Related: Glycolic Acid VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Should You Use?

Are There Any Side Effects?

Chemical exfoliants can cause irritations if used too often. Start by using small concentrations a couple of nights a week and build dose and frequency from there.

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What are physical exfoliants?

How Do They Work?

Physical exfoliants mechanically remove the dead cells on the surface of the skin.

What Ingredients Do They Use?

Physical exfoliants use all kinds of natural or synthetic particles that can brush dead cells off your skin. The most common are:

  • Apricot kernels
  • Britstles (Clarisonic)
  • Oatmeal
  • Salt
  • Silicone brushes (Foreo)
  • Sugar
  • Walnut shells
  • Washcloth

Related: Is The Clarisonic Good Or Bad For Skin?

Are There any side effects?

These little particles can have jagged edges that can scratch and tear up skin. Apricot kernels are the absolute worst. Avoid!

Plus, physical exfoliants may not exfoliate evenly. If you scrub your chin for 2 minutes and your cheeks for 2 and half, your skin will be more exfoliated in some places than others.

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Chemical VS Physical Exfoliation: Which Type Is Best?

Chemical exfolition all the way. Why?

  • It exfoliates skin evenly
  • It’s less likely to irritate skin.
  • Chemical exfoliants also do other stuff like hydrate skin and boost collagen production.

Seriously, who said that chemical is bad?

What do you think about chemical vs physical exfoliants? Let me know what your fave type of exfoliant is in the comments below.



Jamilla September 27, 2011 - 2:59 pm

I stick with mostly chemical exfoliants for my dry skin!

beautifulwithbrains September 27, 2011 - 5:45 pm

Jamilla, I prefer chemical exfoliants too. They are very effective.

addy September 27, 2011 - 3:44 pm

Wow, I never knew that there’s a difference between both exfoliants. Funny thing though, I’m using Hada Labo AHA & BHA Gentle Exfoliating Wash but I keep on getting pimples. I’ve never been allergic to any ingredient before, even salicylic acid.

beautifulwithbrains September 27, 2011 - 5:51 pm

Addy, is that a rinse off product? Cos AHAs and BHA need to stay on the skin to work, if you wash them off they just won’t do anything which may be why you’re still getting pimples. I know some experts recommend massaging face washes into the skin for a minute to enhance the effects of exfoliants before you rinse them off but I’m not sure how effective that would be either. Imo, if you’re going to use either AHAs or BHA (or both), you should buy leave-in products to get the most out of them (and your money).

addy September 30, 2011 - 3:28 am

ah thanks for the heads up! yes it’s a rinse off product. guess need to get a leave-on treatment then.

beautifulwithbrains September 30, 2011 - 6:16 am

Addy, you’re welcome. 🙂

Trisha September 27, 2011 - 7:12 pm

I prefer physical exfoliants. For some reason, my sensitive skin isn’t too happy with the chemical variety.

beautifulwithbrains September 27, 2011 - 7:37 pm

Trisha, sensitive skin needs time to get to chemical exfoliants, especially if the concentrations of the active ingredient is high. But a washcloth is a great alternative for sensitive skin too. Physical exfoliants work well too as long as they don’t have rough particles that tear up skin.

Wendles September 28, 2011 - 2:11 am

This was a great post! I always thought for some reason that a chemical exfoliant was harsher than physcial probably because of the “chemical” connotation but it makes so much sense now. I use both. I have been using glycolic acid (MD Formulations cleanser which is great btw) but I will now consider a salicylic base for the next time as I am prone to blackheads. I do love the dermabrasion physical exfoliant from Kiehls…it is strong, so as long as it is not used with a firm hand, it has been THE MOST supereffective physical exfoliant I have used.

A personal tip, I find the main thing in exfoliating is to spend longer exfoliating but gently….instead of a quick and hard scrub and rub. I find my skin (cells) needs quite a bit of time to soften up, before they can even be sloughed off. Doing it this has way has been noticeably effective.

beautifulwithbrains September 28, 2011 - 10:36 am

Wendles, it is such a shame that the word chemical has acquired such a bad connotation. It is more and more commonly used to describe synthetic ingredients (which are perfectly safe and effective anyway), when the word means everything that’s made up of matter. That includes water, plants, pretty much everything..

I’m glad the Kiehls exfoliator works well for you. And thanks for the tip. I agree, especially for chemical exfoliants. They need to stay on the skin to work. If you scrub skin really hard or for too little time, the results won’t be as good and may even irritate skin.

xin September 28, 2011 - 3:14 am

having tried both, i think chemical usually works better for me. BUT i love the feeling of grainy exfoliant when i am using it ;P if you know what i mean

beautifulwithbrains September 28, 2011 - 10:44 am

Xin, I know what I mean. 😉 I can’t give up physical exfoliants for good but I prefer chemical ones too. I think they are more effective and gentler.

Krys September 28, 2011 - 2:42 pm

I have both 🙂 I know that chemical exfoliants are better, but sometimes there’s this physical need to really give my face a good scrub. I use Soap & Glory’s Greatest Scrub of All. It’s got salicylic acid so perfect for days when I really need to feel “clean”.

beautifulwithbrains September 28, 2011 - 6:39 pm

Krys, I know what you mean! I usually use chemical exfoliants but there are times when I feel like I need to use a physical one too. 🙂

Amanda September 28, 2011 - 3:37 pm

I use a physical exfoliant (sugar) at the moment. I think it works better for me, probably because of its granules.

beautifulwithbrains September 28, 2011 - 6:47 pm

Amanda, sugar is a great exfoliant. I sometimes use it in a paste to scrub my lips.

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Christina @ Hair Romance September 29, 2011 - 1:14 am

Great post. I use chemical exfoliants but like you still love the feel of a physical face scrub.

beautifulwithbrains September 29, 2011 - 6:27 am

Christina, thanks. I think chemical exfoliants work better in the long run, but sometimes it feels nice to use a physical one too.

Vonnie (socialitedreams) September 29, 2011 - 1:47 pm

I switch off and use both…what an informative post 🙂 very nicely done 😀

beautifulwithbrains September 29, 2011 - 2:43 pm

Vonnie, thanks. I like to use both types too, even though I use chemical ones more often. 🙂

Amy December 24, 2011 - 4:29 am

I have found oatmeal is the best physical exfoliant because it has healing and calming properties and it is natural/cheap.

beautifulwithbrains December 25, 2011 - 3:32 pm

Amy, I like oatmeal too. It works really well and is so cheap!

Ana September 24, 2012 - 8:31 am

I use a salicylic acid mask, but I think I’ll go the washcloth/baby brush route since the SA one leaves me flaky.

beautifulwithbrains September 24, 2012 - 11:19 am

Ana, I’m sorry the SA mask doesn’t work for you. A washcloth is my fave type of physical exfoliant as it is really gentle and can be used every day.

Ruth July 18, 2015 - 8:35 pm

Just one thing to say… Your posts are always so informative !!!

Gio July 19, 2015 - 7:49 pm

Ruth, oh thank you! So glad you find them useful.

Hoang Hua July 20, 2015 - 5:54 am

Recently I been using oatmeal to cleanse my face morning and evening , I also apply BHA 2% of PC’s along with Pore Targeting Treatment of Proactive Plus , do you think I am over-exfoliating my skin ?
Look forward to hearing from you 🙂 !

Gio July 20, 2015 - 8:13 am

Hoang, the combination of BHA and benzoyl peroxide can be too strong for some people. If you didn’t have any problems with it so far, then your skin may be able to tolerate it. But I would either pick one or use them on alternate days.

reham April 10, 2016 - 3:49 pm

can you give me examples for natural exfoliants?

Gio April 11, 2016 - 3:27 pm

Reham, sugar and apricot kernels are natural exfoliants, but they’re not very good and could irritate skin, too. When it comes to exfoliation, chemical (with glycolic or salicylic acid) is much better.

Thiel June 27, 2016 - 2:49 am

I agree that chemical exfoliant a are so much better for your skin than abrasive scrubs! I use an AHA overnight lotion from derma e that works wonders, and I’ve overcome my distrust of toners to embrace pixi glow tonic, but when I just need to have that strangely productive feeling you get from physical exfoliation (it just feels like you’re really accomplishing something; just spreading a lotion or gel on your face and leaving it doesn’t have the same effect), I use a gommage peel. They’re not so polar in the US but I was introduced to them when I was living in Tokyo. You spread a gel over your skin, leave it for a few minutes, then massage it in circular motions. The gel rolls up into little balls and takes all you dead skin with it. It’s so fun it’s almost addictive, plus it’s way less harsh than most other physical exfoliants. I highly recommend trying a gommage!

(Sorry to come off like the skincare version of a Jehovah’s witness- “Can I tell you about our lord and savior gommage?”)

Thiel June 27, 2016 - 2:50 am

Ugh, please forgive the typos. My phone is not cooperative.

Gio July 14, 2016 - 8:11 pm

Thiel, if only using chemical exfoliants were so satisfying as using a scrub! There is something about seeing all that dead skin come off that’s really addictive. Too bad they don’t do skin any good. Gommage peels are a better alternative indeed. Thanks for pointing that out.

Shama August 20, 2019 - 7:48 am

Hii.. i have oily / acne prone skin.

i currently use the ordinary mandelic acid, cetaphil, the ordinary 2% salicylic masque, the ordinary Hyaluronic Acid, and cetaphil moisturizer..

I am not sure if should be using mandelic acid first or hyaluronic acid first? can you please help me with this…

Gio September 14, 2019 - 12:19 pm

Shama, mandelic first.

Lizzie October 27, 2019 - 10:51 am

Gio what chemical exfoliants do you recommend for the body, specifically upper back area? Thank you x

Gio November 8, 2019 - 12:31 pm

Lizzie, Paula’s Choice has a BHA exfoliant for the body that’s really good.

Denise November 1, 2019 - 2:00 pm

Can salicylic acid and glycolic acid be used together? I am acne prone and found good results with glycolic acid. I exfoliate with it every night. I am considering adding La Roche Effaclar treatment to my routine. Do you think that would be okay? Thank you.

Gio November 8, 2019 - 12:15 pm

Denise, in this case, I prefer to use products that contain both, like Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum.


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