Skin Care

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation

Exfoliation can be one of those things that you know should be part of your skincare regime, but you’re not sure how to approach it, or how to work out what’s best for you. We’ll start with the basics and then break down some of the different options out there.

April 5, 2024

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Why exfoliate?

Skin usually sheds in a 28-day cycle, but this can be held up, so exfoliation can prompt your skin to increase cell turnover. The process of exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. This, along with the clearing of your pores, provides you with smoother, healthier-looking skin. 

Another benefit is that this regenerated skin absorbs other products more effectively - so you’ll be getting the best value out of your follow-up serums and moisturisers. 

There’s a myriad of options, but we’ll break them down into two main camps: physical and chemical. Healthline tells us that “while acids chemically remove the outer layers of the skin, physical exfoliants do so manually”. Let’s take a look at physical exfoliation first.

Physical exfoliation

Most physical exfoliants come in the form of a facial scrub, with grains that rub across the skin to slough off dead skin cells. However, physical exfoliation doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of a grainy scrub - Vogue suggests a linen cloth as a more gentle alternative. 

For many people, the manual process and immediate results of physical exfoliation are a huge draw. They want to see and feel the improvement of their product right away. When you physically rub away dead skin cells you also get that rosy glow, as “the massaging action stimulates circulation and brings a natural colour to your cheeks” (DC Edit). Additionally, because physical exfoliation is recommended by most dermos to be a once-a-week ritual, your products are likely to last you a while. 

This being said, there are some risks with physical exfoliation. The process can be too harsh or abrasive for sensitive skin types, and larger-grained products can cause damage to the skin barrier. GQ raises the point that “not every corner of your face needs the same level of buffing”, and it can be difficult to regulate your application with the correct amount of product and pressure. Your exfoliation needs will vary depending on your skin type and concerns, but physical exfoliation is recommended for those lucky ones with no major skin concerns who are after that clean and clear feeling.

Chemical Exfoliation

For those with more sensitive skin, a chemical exfoliant may be the way to go. 

Healthline tells us that chemical exfoliants work by “breaking the bonds that hold skin cells together, shedding the top layers of skin cells, revealing regenerated skin.” While they aren’t as fast-acting as their physical counterparts, they can produce better results as they can penetrate further into the skin for a deeper cleanse.

While it may seem counterintuitive to expose tender skin to acidic formulas, these are often kinder than your physical scrubs. Ozmedica explains, “Chemical exfoliants can be milder and more gentle than physical scrubs because they don’t require scrubbing work into the skin gradually. This makes it more favourable for skin prone to acne, dryness, or sensitivity.”

The concentration and types of acids vary between products and attend to different skin concerns. You’ve got your AHA’s (alpha hydroxy acids), which are relatively gentle, and best for improving tone or discolouration by exfoliating the skin’s surface. The BHA’s (beta hydroxy acids) penetrate right into the pores and are a great cleanse for acne-prone and oily skin. PHA’s (polyhydroxy acids) are similar to AHA’s but are gentler and less penetrative thanks to their larger molecules, then there are fruit enzyme exfoliants which are at the most-gentle end of the spectrum.

The trouble with chemical exfoliants - like many skincare products - is knowing which one is right for you. It takes a little research to understand the acids involved and how they can help resolve your skin concerns. 

Exfoliate wisely

For some people, a combination of both physical and chemical exfoliation makes their skin sing. For others though, this can be too overwhelming, leading to aggravated skin. GQ warns that over-exfoliation leads to redness, rashes, dryness and breakouts. GOOP also cautions that too much exfoliation can “[strip] away the skin’s protective barrier, leaving it vulnerable to sun damage, dryness, and even infection.”