Physical vs Chemical Exfoliators: What’s the Difference?

Physical and chemical exfoliators are two different types of skincare products that work to remove dead skin cells and improve the overall texture of the skin. Physical exfoliators are products that contain small particles such as sugar, salt, or beads, that physically scrub away dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliators use acids, enzymes, or other chemicals to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily removed.

While both physical and chemical exfoliators can be effective at getting rid of dead skin cells, they have different benefits and drawbacks. Physical exfoliators are often more rapid in their results and can leave the skin feeling smoother and softer. However, they can also be more abrasive and may cause irritation or damage to the skin if used too frequently or too vigorously.

Ultimately, the preference between physical and chemical exfoliators when exfoliating depends on a person’s skin type and personal discretion. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of each!

Understanding Exfoliation

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. It is an essential step in any skincare routine that helps to reveal smoother, brighter, and healthier-looking skin. In France, gommage is a popular French exfoliating technique. There are two main types of exfoliators: physical and chemical.

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliators Skincare julie.tuzet

Physical Exfoliators

Physical exfoliators, also known as manual or mechanical exfoliators, work by physically removing dead skin cells through friction using abrasive particles or tools. These exfoliators contain small particles or granules that buff away dead skin cells, revealing smoother, brighter skin.

They are typically made with ingredients like sugar, salt, or ground nuts and can be found in the form of scrubs, brushes, or sponges. Physical exfoliators are best for oily or acne-prone skin as they unclog pores and reduce the appearance of blackheads.

However, physical exfoliators can also be too harsh on the skin and cause micro-tears or irritation. It is essential to use gentle pressure and avoid over-exfoliating, especially if you have sensitive or dry skin.

Some common physical exfoliators include:

  • Scrubs: These contain small particles like sugar or fine salt, that physically exfoliate the skin.
  • Brushes: These can be made of natural or synthetic bristles and are used to manually scrub the skin.
  • Sponges: These are typically made of natural or synthetic materials and can be used to gently exfoliate the skin.

Physical exfoliators are generally safe for most skin types, but they can be too harsh for sensitive skin. It’s important to use a gentle touch and not to over-exfoliate, as this can cause irritation and inflammation.

One benefit of physical exfoliators is that they provide immediate results, leaving the skin feeling smoother and more refreshed. They can also unclog pores and improve the impression of fine lines and wrinkles.

However, physical exfoliators can be too abrasive for some skin types, particularly those with acne-prone or sensitive skin. Choose a gentle exfoliator and avoid using it too often, as this can lead to irritation and damage to the skin barrier.

Chemical Exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators alternatively use acids or enzymes to disband dead skin cells. They are typically found in the form of chemical peels, toners, serums, or masks and are great for sensitive skin types or people who simply prefer a gentler approach to exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliators can be divided into two categories: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). Glycolic acid and lactic acid AHAs work by breaking down the skin cell bonds, while BHAs, like salicylic acid, penetrate deep into your pores to unclog them.

Note that chemical exfoliators can dry the skin and increase sensitivity to the sun. It is crucial to wear sunscreen daily and start with a lower concentration of acid to avoid irritation.

Chemical exfoliators use acids to dissolve dead skin cells and unclog pores. They are often gentler than physical exfoliators and are suitable for sensitive skin.

Here are some of the most common types of chemical exfoliators:

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)

AHAs are water-soluble acids that work by dissolving the glue that holds dead skin cells together. They are derived from fruit and milk and include glycolic acid (derived from sugar cane), lactic acid (derived from milk), and mandelic acid (derived from almonds). AHAs are effective at lowering the build of fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and acne scars.

Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)

BHAs are oil-soluble acids that work by penetrating deep into pores to dissolve sebum and dead skin cells. They are derived from salicylic acid, which is found in willow bark. BHAs are effective at treating acne, blackheads, and whiteheads.

Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs)

PHAs are similar to AHAs but have a larger molecular size, which means they penetrate the skin more slowly. This makes them less irritating and suitable for sensitive skin. PHAs are useful for improving skin texture, reducing the impression of fine lines, and hydrating the skin.


Enzymes are natural proteins that break down dead skin cells. They are often derived from fruits such as papaya and pineapple. Enzymes are gentle and suitable for sensitive skin. They are effective at reducing the formation of fine lines and hyperpigmentation.

Chemical exfoliators are a wonderful option for people with sensitive skin who prefer a softer approach to exfoliation. They are effective at enhancing skin texture, decreasing the appearance of fine lines, and treating acne and hyperpigmentation.

Just know that they can increase sun sensitivity, so wear sunscreen daily when using chemical exfoliators!

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliators Comparison

Physical and chemical exfoliators are vastly different methods to expel dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin’s surface. Physical exfoliators use abrasive particles to physically slough away dead skin cells, while chemical exfoliators use acids and enzymes to dissolve the binds between dead skin cells and the skin’s surface.


Both physical and chemical exfoliators are effective at removing dead skin cells and improving skin texture.

Physical exfoliators work by physically sloughing away dead skin cells, which can be effective in removing stubborn buildup. Chemical exfoliators use enzymes and acids to dissolve skin cells on the surface, which can be more effective for removing buildup in hard-to-reach areas.

Skin Type

Physical exfoliators are generally better for people with oily or combination skin, as they remove excess oil and unclog pores. However, people with sensitive skin may find physical exfoliators to be too harsh and irritating. Chemical exfoliators are generally better for dry or sensitive skintypes , as they are more delicate and less likely to cause irritation.

Frequency of Use

Physical exfoliators should be used no more than once or twice a week, as overuse can cause irritation or even damage to the skin. Chemical exfoliators can be used more frequently, as they are gentler and less likely to cause irritation. However, it is still important to follow the instructions on the product and not overuse.


Both physical and chemical exfoliators can provide instantaneous results, leaving the skin looking brighter and smoother. However, chemical exfoliators can also provide longer-term benefits, such as increased collagen production and improved skin texture over time.

Regarding physical vs chemical exfoliators, those with oily or combination skin are better off with physical exfoliators, while those with dry or sensitive skin likely prefer chemical exfoliators.

Choosing the Right Exfoliator

When it comes to choosing the right exfoliator, there are a few things to consider. Physical and chemical exfoliators both have their benefits, but choosing the right one for your skin type and lifestyle is key to achieving the best results.

Skin Type Considerations

When choosing between physical and chemical exfoliators, always consider your skin type first. Physical exfoliators, such as scrubs and brushes, are amazing for oily or combination skin types. They literally remove all your skin’s dead cells while unclogging your pores. However, those with sensitive or dry skin may find physical exfoliators too harsh and irritating.

On the other hand, chemical exfoliators, such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids, are better for sensitive or dry skin. They work by dissolving dead skin cells and promoting cell turnover, without the need for physical scrubbing. However, those with oily or acne-prone skin may find that chemical exfoliators are not as effective at removing excess oil and unclogging pores.

Lifestyle Considerations

In addition to skin type, lifestyle considerations should also be taken into account when choosing an exfoliator. If you have a busy schedule, chemical exfoliators may be a better option as they require less time and effort. Simply apply the exfoliator to the skin and let it do its job.

If you’d rather enjoy a pampering skincare routine, physical exfoliators can be a great addition. They provide a satisfying physical sensation and can be a relaxing way to unwind after a long day.

Mixing Exfoliators with Other Ingredients

Take note of any other skincare products you may be using. If you’re already using products with active ingredients, such as retinoids or benzoyl peroxide, it’s best to avoid physical exfoliators as they could be irritating.

Safety and Precautions

When it comes to exfoliating, you must take certain precautions to avoid harming the skin. Both physical and chemical exfoliators are very effective, but they can also be unbearable if not used properly. Here are some safety tips to keep in mind:

When using physical exfoliators, choose a product with gentle, rounded particles to avoid micro-tears in the skin. Harsh or jagged particles can cause irritation and even lead to infection. It’s also important to avoid over-exfoliating, as this can strip the skin of its natural oils and lead to dryness and sensitivity.

Mind the pressure with which the exfoliator is applied. Too much pressure can cause damage to the skin, so use a light touch and let the exfoliator do the work.

Chemical exfoliators can be highly effective but too harsh if misused. Go with a product with the appropriate concentration of active ingredients for your skin type. Those with sensitive skin may want to start with a lower concentration and work their way up.

Avoid using chemical exfoliators too frequently, as this can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation. Always follow the directions on the label, and if you experience any discomfort or irritation, discontinue use immediately!

Finally, it’s imperative to protect your skin from the sun when using chemical exfoliators, as they can increase sensitivity to UV rays. Be sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and limit sun exposure during peak hours.

By following these safety tips, you can enjoy the benefits of exfoliation without damaging your skin.

What to Know About Exfoliator Types

What are the benefits of chemical exfoliants for sensitive skin?

Chemical exfoliants are generally considered to be gentler on the skin than physical exfoliants. They work by breaking down the sealants between dead skin cells so they can be easily washed away from the skin. Chemical exfoliants are best for people with sensitive skin, as they are less likely to cause irritation or harm to the skin.

What are some examples of physical exfoliation products?

Physical exfoliation products include scrubs, brushes, and sponges that are designed to physically clear dead skin cells from skin. Some popular examples of physical exfoliation products include sugar scrubs, salt scrubs, and microdermabrasion tools.

What is the best chemical exfoliant for the body?

A number of different chemical exfoliants can be used on the body, including alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and lactic acid, and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid. The best chemical exfoliant for body care depends on your skin type.

What are the cons of physical exfoliation on the face?

While physical exfoliation can be great at removing dead skin cells, it can also be harsh on the skin, especially if done too frequently or with too much pressure. Physical exfoliation can cause micro-tears in the skin, which can lead to inflammation, irritation, and even infection.

Do I need both physical and chemical exfoliants?

While both physical and chemical exfoliants can be effective at clearing dead skin cells, it is not necessary to use both. Some people prefer to use only chemical exfoliants, while others prefer to use only physical exfoliants.

What is the difference between physical and mechanical exfoliators?

Physical exfoliators refer to products that physically remove dead skin cells and debris from the outer skin layer, such as scrubs and brushes. Mechanical exfoliators refer to tools that use mechanical action, such as microdermabrasion machines, to get rid of dead skin cells. While both types of exfoliation can be effective, mechanical exfoliation is generally considered to be more aggressive and can be more likely to cause damage to the skin.

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