Chemical vs Physical Exfoliation - What is the difference?

June 17, 2020 2 min read

Chemical vs Physical Exfoliation - What is the difference?

We have been told exfoliating is good for us, but why is that so?

By the time we turn twenty, the rate of our skin cell turnover (aka skin shedding) starts to slow down and will continue to do so with age. As a result, our skin becomes less vibrant and we start to lose that youthful glow. 

Exfoliating removes dead skin cells off the surface of the skin, unclog pores and help to give your skin a nicer glow. There are two types of exfoliation - chemical and physical exfoliation


Physical Exfoliation

These include cleansing brushes and buffing pads, beads or grains. The advantage of physical exfoliation is that: 

  • They give immediate results
  • Can improve circulation if done correctly
  • Less risk of an allergic reaction 

The disadvantage of physical exfoliation is that they can tear the skin if too much pressure is applied. When choosing a physical scrub, look for products with finer granules or soft pads. 


Chemical Exfoliation

As the name suggests, these include ingredients like Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids and retinol. They commonly come in the form of Glycolic Acid Face Wash or Glycolic Acid Toner. Chemical exfoliants take longer to work compare to physical exfoliation but the results are longer lasting.

Chemical exfoliants can penetrate the skin and also aid in the delivery of other skincare ingredients, giving you a synergistic effect. 

The disadvantage of chemical exfoliants is that they are not always user friendly for people who have really sensitive skin or rosacea and results are not immediate. 


Pharmacist Tip: 

There is no reason why you can't do both and have the best of both worlds!

The key here is to incorporate slowly and with caution. An example would be to use your chemical exfoliating wash daily and physical exfoliant once a week instead of two or three times a week. This allows time for the chemical exfoliants to work and by the time it's full effect kicks in, the physical exfoliant such as a Clarisonic or a Foreo Luna will assist to remove the dead skin more easily without you having to apply too much pressure. 

This method is suitable for any skin type except for those with very sensitive skin, have acute acne breakout or rosacea.  



Author: Helen Lam, Pharmacist and Editor for ellé derm