The Truth About Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation

Discover the answer to the mind-boggling debate question about Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation — which one is better? Read to find out the truth.

Hmm… Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation? Which is which? Do you need to choose between the two? Or can you use both?

No matter what the answer to those questions is. One thing is for sure — exfoliation is a MUST! If you want to achieve that glowy glassy skin of your fave Hollywood actress, this is truly one of their secrets.

physical vs chemical exfoliation

Proper exfoliation really works wonders but here’s a disclaimer: It isn’t a one-time big-time process.

Now, before you start singing the song Let’s Get Physical while sloughing off your dead skins in the shower. Or before listening to the playlist of My Chemical Romance while applying chemical exfoliators. The first thing you should do is read this article.

Here you go!

What is an exfoliator?

Before going deeper into the truth about physical vs chemical exfoliation, you should understand what exfoliators are or exfoliators’ meaning.  

Exfoliators are simply exfoliating products or items. Products that remove dead cells from the outer layer of your skin.

Exfoliator meaning? Meaning to say, it can be a physical or chemical exfoliation tool you use to eliminate or loosen those unwanted skin cells. Some examples are exfoliating brush, sponge, salicylic acid, papaya enzyme, etc. [1]

Hope you got a good grasp of it. Let’s proceed.

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation, Everything You Need to Know!

Exfoliation will help you get rid of dry, dull skin, increase blood circulation, brighten and improve the appearance of your skin. There are a variety of ways to do exfoliation.

As well as important factors you need to consider. Because your skin condition will determine how and how much you exfoliate or even answer whether it is safe for you or not.

“Exfoliation is not a one-time big-time process”


Did this question ever cross your mind — what to use to exfoliate? Skin exfoliation can be accomplished through several methods and products.

Face scrubs and brushes are used for mechanical or physical exfoliation. Acids and skin peels are used for chemical exfoliation. [2][3]

That said, I think this is the best time to end the war of physical vs chemical exfoliation.

Physical exfoliation: What to Expect

Physical exfoliants are any substance or process that involves manual scrubbing to eliminate dead skins. In addition, this kind of exfoliation increases blood circulation, which can aid in lymph drainage and minimize puffiness.

You may already be using a physical product, such as cleansing scrubs, body brushes, or loofahs. The most significant benefit of physical exfoliation is its easy access.

This can be done at home with a muslin washcloth or a do-it-yourself scrub. It also provides instant results.

Mechanical exfoliation can often irritate your skin and cause transepidermal water loss (TEWL)  if done incorrectly. Transepidermal water loss can lead to a variety of undesirable skin conditions, including the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

What you can do to prevent TEWL is to use humectant oil or serum afterward. It helps to reduce inflammation and lock in moisture.

For manual exfoliation, there are a few abrasive products to choose from, including:

  1. Loofahs (USA, Canada)
  2. Dry brushes (USA, Canada)
  3. Cleansing brush (USA, Canada)
  4. Exfoliating mitts (USA, Canada)
  5. Pumice stones (USA, Canada)
  6. Micro derma rollers (USA)
  7. Muslin soft cloth (USA, Canada)

Some of the most common ingredients on cleansing scr3ubs or physical exfoliators are natural ground-down products, such as nuts, stones, seeds, and plant extracts.



Microbeads, which were small plastic beads, were once used by companies all over the world as exfoliating ingredients. (Thankfully it was exposed!)

Very intriguing! Good thing some of them came back to their senses and realized how harmful plastics are for our health and environment.

Unfortunately, there are still some stubborn businesses that intentionally add microplastic as emulsifiers or cheap fillers to their skincare products or cosmetics. And that friend is clearly a design error!

That’s why you and I should be vigilant, here’s one thing to help us keep an eye on those products — #beatthemicrobead

(PS, Sorry I got carried away. Haha!)

Chemical Exfoliation: What to Expect

Chemical exfoliation has the potential to produce more significant results than do-it-yourself or store-bought scrubs.

The word “chemical” in exfoliation generally refers to the use of an enzymatic element. These enzymes promote cell turnover in our skin by dissolving the adhesive that keeps dead skin cells in place, exposing new, dewy, healthy-looking skin.

The most common enzyme exfoliant is citric acid from citrus fruits. (I can still remember how my granny urges me to rub lemon peel on my face. Did you experience it too? Comment down below).

Another chemical exfoliants are acids. It includes lactic acid (found in milk and some plant products) and salicylic acid.

These ingredients are known as AHAs or BHAs, but don’t be confused by these “fads.” It’s not as complicated as they sound. What you have to do is simply apply the substance to the desired area and let it do its job. Rubbing is not necessary — you aren’t Aladdin.

Related: How to make Homemade Exfoliating Mask for Glowing Skin

3 Types of Chemical Exfoliants

  • AHAs. Glycolic and lactic acids are two popular AHAs that you might have noticed in your favorite products.

These water-soluble ingredients have a small molecular structure and can hydrate the skin, making them appropriate for dry skin. It’s scientific, after all! 

There’s also this what we call fruit acid complex. It’s an AHA from the mix of Bilberry Extract, Sugar Cane Extract, Sugar Maple Extract, Orange Extract, and Lemon Extract that are capable of improving moisturization and increasing the production of collagen and glycosaminoglycan.

  • BHAs. Salicylic acid and other lipid-soluble BHAs are ideal for dry, acne-prone, and sun-damaged skin. BHAs penetrate oil and unclog dirt, oil, and debris deep inside our pores. They are also anti-irritant and antimicrobial, which aids in the prevention of new breakouts.

The more natural alternative to salicylic acid is willow bark extract which I often used when formulating natural exfoliating products.

  • Enzymes. Enzymatic exfoliants are a form of chemical exfoliant that is ideally suited to sensitive skin. Papain (from papaya) and Bromelain (from pineapple) are enzyme chemical exfoliators that dissolve and digest keratin protein into smaller pieces, revealing clearer skin. 

Enzymes are derived from fruit and do not contain any acids or granules. These exfoliators work on the epidermis by slowly absorbing cellular buildup.

These are literally fruit powders that are so mild you can use them every day and by using them consistently, you’ll eventually see improvements. And using it is an excellent way to familiarize your skin with exfoliation.

Here’s the truth — both chemical and physical exfoliation can irritate the skin if used incorrectly.

That’s why if you are unsure of how to integrate a chemical exfoliant into your daily skincare routine you should consult a dermatologist or other healthcare professional. [2][3]

What process is better, Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation?

It’s important to remember that you can overdo it with exfoliants, whether they’re physical, chemical, or both. Too much exfoliation reduces the skin’s protective layer, making it susceptible to sun damage, dryness, and infection.  [2][3]

Here are quick truths you should remember:

  • TRUTH#1: Physical exfoliants just exfoliate the top layer of skin and are an excellent treatment choice if you need a quick remedy especially if you’ve been neglecting your skincare routine for a while.
  • TRUTH#2: Dead skin cells accumulate all over your body, and your limbs can benefit from a scrub as well! Physical exfoliants are a good option for your body because the skin on your body is tougher and less fragile than that on your face and can withstand manual scrubbing.
  • TRUTH#3: Chemical exfoliation penetrates deeper into the skin. This means that, even though you don’t see a difference right away, these treatments are working hard to develop and preserve skin that constantly glows, not just in the hours following a procedure.
  • TRUTH#4: Chemical exfoliation dissipates the ‘glue’ that holds cells together, making dead cells quick and easy to remove.

To find your skin’s perfect exfoliation balance, start slowly at first. Never use a product more than once a week.

Peel pads, for example, can only be used once a week while the Microderm can be used three times a week. And never layer chemicals in the same session. 

As your skin responds to exfoliation, you might be able to increase the frequency at which you use such products; however, if your skin becomes irritated or stripped, reduce the rate.

If you’ve reached your skin’s sweet spot, the effects should be visible—smoother, lighter, fresher, and clearer skin with an infinite glow. [1][4]

Try Our Top Pick Exfoliants

Physical exfoliants:

AHA exfoliant:

BHA exfoliant:

  • Paulas Choice- SKIN Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant (USA, Canada)

Enzyme exfoliant:

  • Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask. (USA, Canada)
physical vs chemical exfoliation

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation – Bottomline

Do you want both or neither? Some people prefer mechanical exfoliation because it provides a calming scrubbing sensation, while others prefer chemical exfoliation because it is gentler on their skin. 

But honest advice: TRY A COMBO. Using a chemical exfoliator daily (1-2 days per week) can brighten and smooth skin over time, while physical exfoliators are perfect for a quick fix before a big day. 

The two approaches can function in tandem to increase cell turnover while also smoothing, polishing, and retexturizing your skin. Just be sure to use them appropriately!

Exfoliation is just one of the ways to help smooth rough skin, which is one sign of skin aging. Grab the free guide below to show you 10 proven ways to prevent skin aging.

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1 Comment

  1. June 29, 2021 / 1:36 pm

    Good post. I prefer the chemical exfoliation, but I do the physical once a week.

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