Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation: What’s the Difference

Written by Alison Moseley, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on May 17, 2021 No Comments

chemical or physical exfoliation

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells to help prevent breakouts, improve skin texture, tone and glow. Removing old skin cells at the skin’s surface reveals newer, more youthful skin and encourages further skin cell turnover. All forms of exfoliation can be categorized as two types: physical or chemical.

Learn more about each and which is best for your skin type.

The Benefits of Exfoliation

Exfoliation keeps the skin free of dirt, debris, excess oils, and old (dead) skin cells. Adding regular exfoliation to a skin care regimen provides many benefits including:

  • Acne Prevention: Exfoliation prevents breakouts by keeping pores free of debris
  • Skin Tone Improvements: Skin becomes smoother by creating an even texture
  • Improves glow by removing skin’s oldest top layer
  • Promotes skin cell turnover for a more youthful look

Exfoliation also makes the rest of your skin care routine more effective by boosting the effectiveness of other skin care products. Proper exfoliation improves the absorption rate of topical skin care products like, moisturizers and serums, allowing them to absorb deeper into the skin so they can have a bigger impact.

About Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation means the products do the exfoliating for you, versus a manual method. Facial peels, for example, are chemical exfoliates. Chemical exfoliators break the bonds between skin cells so dead cells and other debris can be easily rinsed away. Typically, chemical exfoliates penetrate more deeply into the skin, and they are just as good for brightening as they are for skin smoothing.

Common Chemical Exfoliant Ingredients

Chemical exfoliants are derived from several different active ingredients, the most common of which are hydroxy acids and fruit enzymes:

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA’s) dissolve the protein bonds between dead skin cells which allows them to be washed off the surface of the skin. Glycolic and lactic acids are popular AHAs. Because they are water soluble, these exfoliants work best for those with dry, not oily, skin.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs are not only great at exfoliating, but have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. This makes them a good choice if fighting acne is your priority, or if you have oily skin. Salicylic acid is a popular BHA.

Enzyme Exfoliants

Exfoliants made from fruit enzymes include Papain, which comes from papayas, and Bromelain, which comes from pineapple. These gentle exfoliants work by breaking down skin proteins into smaller particles. The naturally derived ingredients are suitable for those with sensitive skin.

The Drawbacks of Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants make your skin susceptible to redness, dryness, and sun damage, so always partner these exfoliants with a moisturizing sunscreen.

About Physical (Manual) Exfoliation

Physical exfoliation is any method which manually removes skin cells and other debris from the surface of your skin. This includes simple tools such as washcloths, loofahs, sponges, and brushes, and also products such as scrubs which contain exfoliating particles. Microdermabrasion and dermaplaning are methods of physical exfoliation available from your esthetician or dermatologist.

Common Methods of Physical Exfoliation

Because the process of manually rubbing the skin’s surface to loosen dead skin cells isn’t always gentle, physical exfoliation is best for those with thicker, oily skin.

Home Exfoliation

Manually exfoliating at home can be as simple as rubbing your face with a washcloth, sponge or brush, although there are more effective methods available. Exfoliating tools include Clarisonic brushes or Foreo devices which incorporate vibration and sonic pulses.

Exfoliating Products

Exfoliating skincare products are skin scrubs that contain small granules of salt, sugar, nutshells or beads. These particles act as an abrasive to clear away skin cells and debris. The scrubbing motion increases blood flow to the area for a healthy glow.

Professional Exfoliation 

Physical exfoliation methods available through your esthetician or dermatologist include microdermabrasion and dermaplaning. Microdermabrasion and it’s more aggressive partner, dermabrasion, both smooth the skin through a ‘sanding’ process and can be effective in reducing the appearance of wrinkles and scars.

Dermaplaning uses a special exfoliating knife to remove dead skin cells and fine hairs from the top layer of skin. The method is sometimes used to prepare the skin before a chemical peel.

These more aggressive methods of exfoliation offer results that can last for upwards of 3 weeks.

The Drawbacks of Physical Exfoliation

Physical exfoliation potentially damages the skin by causing small micro tears. This can happen if you rub too hard, or if the particles in your scrub are too large or too sharp. Exfoliating too often may increase oil production, which is counterproductive for those exfoliating to prevent acne.

Chemical vs Physical Exfoliation: Which Is Best?

  • Sensitive skin? Chemical exfoliation tends to be less harsh, while physical exfoliation can aggravate sensitive skin.
  • Want immediate results? Physical exfoliation provides a smoothness you can feel immediately, while improvements may take longer to notice with chemical exfoliation.
  • Looking for a glow? Chemical exfoliation may help brighten skin, while physical exfoliation may produce a glow by increasing blood flow to the area.
  • Exfoliating at home? Chemical exfoliants may cause some dryness, but it’s easier to go too far and damage your skin with physical exfoliation.
  • Seeking added benefits? Chemical exfoliation not only smooths skin, but may stimulate collagen production and improve skin elasticity.
  • Seeking precision? Chemical exfoliation makes it easier to achieve more even, uniform exfoliation since it’s easy to evenly apply topical exfoliation products. Getting an even exfoliation from a physical method can take some practice.

Tips for Proper Exfoliation

Know your skin type

Understanding your skin type will help you pick the exfolation method that bests matches your need. Normal and combination skin types can usually choose whichever method they prefer. Individuals with dry or sensitive skin should opt for a gentle chemical exfoliator, or physically exfoliate with just a washcloth or soft brush. Oily skin individuals can opt for a more aggressive chemical exfoliator, or stick with physical exfoliation. Stick to a once weekly schedule. People with darker skin or dark spots (pigmentation issues) may want to go with a gentle, physical exfolation method of chemical exfoliants.

Don’t Overdo It

Exfoliate no more than twice a week, once if your skin is very sensitive or oily. If you’re already using skincare products with retinol or hydroxy acids, choose a gentle exfoliant. The more aggressive your method of exfoliation, the less often you need to do it.

Keep Skin Hydrated

To avoid redness or dryness after exfoliating, keep skin well hydrated and protected from the sun. This not only means moisturizing, but drinking plenty of water.

Skip a Week When Needed

If your skin is sunburned, experiencing excessive dryness or oiliness, or if you have any type of cut or open wound, give your skin a break. Let yourself completely heal before exfoliating.



Alison Moseley, MD

Alison Moseley, M.D. completed her doctorate of medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where she graduated with the distinction of Magna Cum Laude. Dr. Moseley is Board Certified by the American Board of Dermatology and is active in various medical organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Society of Dermatology, the Texas Dermatological Society, the Texas Medical Association, and the Travis County Medical Society. She currently sees patients at our Lakeway location.

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