What’s The Difference Between Chemical And Physical Exfoliants?

chemical vs physical exfoliant

A good exfoliant should be part of everyone’s skincare routine. Exfoliants remove the dead cells that buildup on the surface of the skin which can cause breakouts and reveal the brighter skin underneath, making you look younger and healthier. But not all exfoliants work in the same way. There are two types of exfoliants: chemical exoliants and physical exfoliants. What’s the difference between them and which type should you use?

What are chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliants work by dissolving the “glue” that binds skin cells together and to the skin, thus allowing them to fall off. They can also dissolve the dead skin cells themselves. Chemical exfoliants can be used by everyone but are particularly suitable for those with sensitive skin as they don’t contain small particles or grains that could scratch and irritate skin. But which chemical exfoliant should you choose? The most common types are AHAs and BHA. AHAs, which include Lactic Acid and Glycolic Acid, are suitable for dry or sun-damaged skin and, in addition to exfoliating skin, they also improve its moisture content. Those with oily, acne prone or breakout-prone skin should, instead, use BHA (Salicylic Acid). Salicylic Acid has the ability to exfoliate both the surface of the skin and inside the pores so it eliminates and prevents clogged pores that can lead to acne or pimples. In addition, BHA also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, making it even more suitable for those with acne.

What are physical exfoliants?

Physical exfoliants work by mechanically removing the dead cells on the surface of the skin. One of the most common types of physical exfoliants are granular scrubs that contain small particles or grains (such as oatmeal or apricot scrubs) to exfoliate. But if these particles are too big or have uneven surfaces and textures, they can tear up the skin, causing more harm than good. Nut shells or fruit pits are the most irritating types, so try to stay away from those. A more gentle form of physical exfoliation, suitable for everyone including those with sensitive skin, is using a washcloth. They are soft and don’t irritate skin. And did you know that shaving with a razor is a type of physical exfoliation too?

Which type is best?

If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, definitely opt for chemical exoliants as they are less likely to cause irritations and, those with Salicylic Acid, can help treat acne. Personally, I prefer chemical exfoliants as I find them to be gentler on the skin. I use physical exfoliants too at times but I find it is harder to come across one whose particles aren’t too rough or big. You can also alternate between physical and chemical exfoliants if you like both types, but just be sure not to use them both at the same time, as that will definitely irritate your skin.

Do you prefer to use chemical or physical exfoliants?

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    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Addy, is that a rinse off product? Cos AHAs and BHA need to stay on the skin to work, if you wash them off they just won’t do anything which may be why you’re still getting pimples. I know some experts recommend massaging face washes into the skin for a minute to enhance the effects of exfoliants before you rinse them off but I’m not sure how effective that would be either. Imo, if you’re going to use either AHAs or BHA (or both), you should buy leave-in products to get the most out of them (and your money).

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Trisha, sensitive skin needs time to get to chemical exfoliants, especially if the concentrations of the active ingredient is high. But a washcloth is a great alternative for sensitive skin too. Physical exfoliants work well too as long as they don’t have rough particles that tear up skin.

  1. Wendles says

    This was a great post! I always thought for some reason that a chemical exfoliant was harsher than physcial probably because of the “chemical” connotation but it makes so much sense now. I use both. I have been using glycolic acid (MD Formulations cleanser which is great btw) but I will now consider a salicylic base for the next time as I am prone to blackheads. I do love the dermabrasion physical exfoliant from Kiehls…it is strong, so as long as it is not used with a firm hand, it has been THE MOST supereffective physical exfoliant I have used.

    A personal tip, I find the main thing in exfoliating is to spend longer exfoliating but gently….instead of a quick and hard scrub and rub. I find my skin (cells) needs quite a bit of time to soften up, before they can even be sloughed off. Doing it this has way has been noticeably effective.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Wendles, it is such a shame that the word chemical has acquired such a bad connotation. It is more and more commonly used to describe synthetic ingredients (which are perfectly safe and effective anyway), when the word means everything that’s made up of matter. That includes water, plants, pretty much everything..

      I’m glad the Kiehls exfoliator works well for you. And thanks for the tip. I agree, especially for chemical exfoliants. They need to stay on the skin to work. If you scrub skin really hard or for too little time, the results won’t be as good and may even irritate skin.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Xin, I know what I mean. 😉 I can’t give up physical exfoliants for good but I prefer chemical ones too. I think they are more effective and gentler.

  2. says

    I have both :) I know that chemical exfoliants are better, but sometimes there’s this physical need to really give my face a good scrub. I use Soap & Glory’s Greatest Scrub of All. It’s got salicylic acid so perfect for days when I really need to feel “clean”.
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    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Krys, I know what you mean! I usually use chemical exfoliants but there are times when I feel like I need to use a physical one too. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Christina, thanks. I think chemical exfoliants work better in the long run, but sometimes it feels nice to use a physical one too.

  3. Amy says

    I have found oatmeal is the best physical exfoliant because it has healing and calming properties and it is natural/cheap.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Ana, I’m sorry the SA mask doesn’t work for you. A washcloth is my fave type of physical exfoliant as it is really gentle and can be used every day.

  4. Hoang Hua says

    Recently I been using oatmeal to cleanse my face morning and evening , I also apply BHA 2% of PC’s along with Pore Targeting Treatment of Proactive Plus , do you think I am over-exfoliating my skin ?
    Look forward to hearing from you :) !

    • Gio says

      Hoang, the combination of BHA and benzoyl peroxide can be too strong for some people. If you didn’t have any problems with it so far, then your skin may be able to tolerate it. But I would either pick one or use them on alternate days.


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