Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation: What’s the Difference?

Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation What's the Difference

Exfoliation is one of the essential steps of skincare in which dead skin cells are removed from the skin surface. Skin that lacks exfoliation is more likely to develop clogged pores that leads to acne breakouts. At the same time, exfoliation gives smooth skin with improved texture. 

Broadly, exfoliants are of two types: chemical exfoliants and physical exfoliants. While the former includes skincare products that contain certain exfoliating ingredients, such as alpha and beta-hydroxy acids, the latter comprises gritty scrubs that require manual work. 

This article will compare chemical vs. physical exfoliation, what they utilize, and how they work. By the end of the article, you will learn what’s better for your skin type and what you should avoid. 

Difference Between Chemical and Physical Exfoliation 

Physical Exfoliation

Physical Exfoliation

Physical exfoliation (1) is also called manual exfoliation. It utilizes scrubs that contain grainy materials such as ground seeds, crushed nutshells, crystals of salt or sugar, microbeads, etc. 

When the scrub is applied and rubbed on the face, it removes the dead skin cells along with other impurities clogged in the pores. As a result, the skin becomes soft and smooth. However, it is important to use physical exfoliants with caution or else they can cause skin irritation and microabrasions. 

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical Exfoliation

Different chemicals (2), such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and certain plant enzymes, work as chemical exfoliants. These chemicals dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells and other impurities in the skin. As a result, the skin’s texture improves and it brightens. 

Besides this, these ingredients also address other issues such as fine lines, wrinkles, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, inflammation, etc., and work like an all-rounder. 

The common exfoliants present in skincare products are-

  1. AHAs- glycolic acid, mandelic acid, and lactic acid
  2. BHAs- salicylic acid
  3. Plant enzymes- papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple)

Below is the table differentiating chemical vs physical exfoliants based on different aspects-

AspectChemical ExfoliationPhysical Exfoliation
Method of actionUtilizes chemical compounds (acids, enzymes) to dissolve dead skin cells and promote cell turnover.Involves the use of abrasive substances or tools to physically slough off dead skin cells.
MechanismDissolves bonds between dead skin cells and the surface of the skin, allowing them to be shed more easily.Abrasive particles physically scrub away dead skin cells from the skin’s surface.
Types of agentsAlpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), enzymes (e.g., papain, bromelain).Scrubs, brushes, sponges, microdermabrasion, facial scrubs, exfoliating gloves, loofahs.
Skin sensitivityGenerally suitable for sensitive skin types, but certain acids may cause irritation if not properly used.Can be harsh on sensitive skin or skin conditions like rosacea if used too aggressively.
Depth of exfoliationCan penetrate deeper into the pores, providing a more thorough exfoliation.Primarily works on the surface of the skin.
Time requiredChemical exfoliation may require longer to see visible results as it acts on a cellular level.Provides immediate visible results as it physically removes dead skin cells.
Frequency of useCan typically be used 2-3 times per week, depending on the product’s strength and individual skin tolerance.Can be used more frequently, but excessive use may lead to irritation or damage to the skin.
Targeted concernsEffective for treating acne, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and uneven skin texture.Useful for improving skin texture, unclogging pores, and enhancing the skin’s radiance.
Post-exfoliation careRequires sun protection due to increased sensitivity to sunlight. Moisturizing is essential to replenish the skin’s moisture barrier.Sun protection is also necessary. Hydration and moisturization help soothe and protect the skin after physical exfoliation.

Chemical Vs Physical Exfoliation- What’s Better for Skin?

Since there are different types of skin, one exfoliation doesn’t work for all. At the same time, different body parts need different types of exfoliators. 

Physical exfoliation is best suited for areas that do not have delicate skin such as your knees, elbows, feet, etc. On the other hand, the skin on the face is soft and delicate and using gritty substances can do more harm than help. 

However, if you prefer physical exfoliation for the face, make sure it contains gentle exfoliants. Also, do not use physical exfoliants on acne-prone skin (3) as it can aggravate the condition. 

Avoid the following in your physical exfoliant-

  • Microbeads 
  • Grits with large and sharp edges 
  • Phthalates
  • Parabens
  • Synthetic colors and fragrances
  • Mineral oil

On the other hand, chemical exfoliants are safe for all skin types. In fact, they suit oily and acne-prone skin really well. While AHAs and BHAs can address more issues other than exfoliation, plant enzyme exfoliants are mild and suit sensitive skin. 

All you need is to pay attention to the concentration of these exfoliants in the products. It is advised to always start with low concentration and increase it gradually when the skin adapts. Starting with high concentration can cause skin irritation. 


Exfoliation is essential to keep skin healthy. The process unclogs the skin pores by removing dirt and sebum and thus prevents breakouts. As a result of exfoliation, the skin becomes soft and smooth. Besides this, it also helps in reducing hyperpigmentation, dark patches, and even skin tone.

What’s better for the skin between chemical and physical exfoliation depends on your targeted area. If you want to exfoliate your face, choose chemical exfoliation (initially in low concentration) over physical one. However, if physical exfoliation seems more convenient, pick products that have mild and gentle exfoliants. 

Besides this, you also need to consider your skin type, as sensitive skin gets more irritated and inflamed after physical exfoliation. So, choose your exfoliation mindfully to achieve the best results. 

Image Source : canva

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