Chemical or Physical exfoliant – Which one is better for my skin?

A Guide to the Types of Exfoliation, its Benefits, and Recommendations

Ever wondered why you had bouncy skin when you were young? In our younger years, our skin cells had a high rate of cell turnover. This means that dead skin cells on our skin’s surface shed quickly, just every few days, and new skin came to the surface. Over time and as we age, this turnover rate slows down and the dead skin cells stick around for longer on our skin surface. This contributes to dull skin complexion and wrinkles. By exfoliating your skin regularly, you can give your skin a helping hand to get rid of those top layers of dead skin for better skin texture and complexion. 

In this guide:

Two Types of Exfoliation

There are 2 types of exfoliation – chemical and physical. Chemical exfoliation uses enzymes and acids usually in the form of a skincare solution to remove dead skin cells. Physical exfoliation uses a hard surface, like a scrub mix or brush, to physically remove the dead skin cells.

Both methods offer great results but have different costs and work at different speeds to exfoliate dead skin. And you can either just use chemical or physical exfoliation or you could use them together to get a more serious benefit. This guide to exfoliation will answer any questions you might have about whether you should chemically or physically exfoliate your skin, it’s benefits, and our recommendations for the best products available.

Physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation uses a hard substance to physically rub dead skin cells away and reveal brand new skin cells below. Physical exfoliators also come in several “roughness” or sizes that offer different degrees of exfoliation.

You can either use a scrub that you can wash off or a reusable brush. Scrubs have granules of varying sizes and reusable brushes are available in bristles that are fine to coarse. If you don’t have sensitive skin or have thicker skin, you can easily use coarse bristled brushes and coarse particle scrubs, otherwise stick to the finer alternatives.

Here some product options available in the range of the physical exfoliation “roughness” and which is best for each type of skin. Read on to figure out what will suit your skin the best. 

Exfoliating electric brushes

Exfoliating brushes are rechargeable electric and handheld brushes that you place on your skin and they gently move back and forth and exfoliate your skin’s surface. A good exfoliating brush will last years. I currently have a Clarasonic Mia from 2010 that is still going strong. 

1. Clarisonic Mia Smart Complete Set for Better Cleansing of Pores, Reduced Fine Lines, Wrinkles, Sagging, and Even Foundation Application – Fine Bristle Brush, Reusable, Best for Dry or Sensitive skin

If you have sensitive or dry skin, or suffer from eczema or psoriasis, try the Clarisonic Mia Smart with Accessories. It comes with several brush heads, and one of them is a fine bristled brush that is great for exfoliating your skin without irritation.

Read verified reviews of the Clarisonic Mia Smart.

It also includes a makeup blending brush, an eye massaging brush, and a facial massage brush that you can use after exfoliating to help prevent wrinkles and promote firming of skin.

BUY NOW: Clarisonic Mia Smart Complete Set

2. Clarisonic Mia Prima 1 Speed Sonic Facial Cleansing Brush – Coarse Bristle Brush, Reusable, Best for Tougher Skin

Read verified reviews of the Clarisonic Mia Prima 1

If you have oily skin or larger pores, you likely have thicker skin and can easily tolerate a coarser bristle brush, then the Clarisonic Mia Prime is a great option for you. Its default brush is great for all types of skin. And you won’t run the risk of using it for too long and end up over exfoliating because of its built in vibrating signals.

BUY NOW: Clarisonic Mia Prima 1 Speed

Exfoliating Scrubs

Not sure you want to spend money on an electric brush? Try a scrub instead to see similar results. The only downside is that you will run out of this and have to replace it soon if you use it often. Of course, you can always choose to invest in an electric brush later once you see good results from a scrub. 

NOTE: Some popular “scrubs” on the market use plastic microbeads that are harmful to ocean life. Once you use these scrubs and wash them off your face, they enter our water systems and never break down because they are plastic. While some states in the United States have banned these, they are still commonly available. Both of the following scrubs do not contain plastics, are biodegradable so they break down quickly in water, and you can use them without fearing that they will harm our environment.

1. Need Crystals Microdermabrasion Scrub –  Large granule scrub, Best for Oily Skin or Large Pores

The Need Crystals Microdermabrasion Scrub is great scrub for oily skin or large pores or if you just have tough skin and want to get the best bag for your buck. It has magnesium oxide crystals which are also known as microdermabrasion crystals. I would not recommend using it everyday but you can start off by using it once a week at first and then increasing the frequency over time. If your skin starts to feel too tight, scale back your frequency and keep your skin hydrated to protect your skin. 

Read verified reviews of the Need Crystals Microdermabrasion Scrub.

Here are the ingredients for Need Crystals Microdermabrasion Scrub:  1 tbsp. aluminum oxide crystals, 10 tbsp. creamy cleanser.

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2. Paula’s Choice The Unscrub Cleanser –  Small Granule scrub, Best for Dry or Sensitive Skin

If you have dry or sensitive skin, you should stick to scrubs with smaller particles like jojoba beads or brown sugar for a gentler exfoliation. Jojoba beads are made from jojoba plant seeds, are small and all about the same size, and are gentle on the skin. 

Read verified reviews of Paula’s Choice The Unscrub.

Paula’s Choice The Unscrub is our favorite jojoba seed scrub. It also has green tea and Vitamin E to help soothe your skin alongside scrubbing it with biodegradable jojoba seeds.  

Here are the ingredients: Aqua (water), Jojoba Esters (cleansing beads), Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride (skin-replenishing), Glycerin (skin replenishing), PEG-20 Methyl Glucose Sesquistearate cleansing agent), Methyl Glucose Sesquistearate (texture enhancer), Tocopheryl Acetate (vitamin E/antioxidant), Decyl Glucoside (cleansing agent), PPG-20 Methyl Glucose Ether (cleansing agent), Glyceryl Stearate, Stearyl Alcohol (texture enhancers), Polyacrylamide (suspending agent), Soapberry (Sapindus Mukurossi) Peel Extract (cleansing agent/antioxidant), Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract (skin-soothing antioxidant), Camellia Oleifera (Green Tea) Leaf Extract (antioxidant), Xanthan Gum (texture enhancer), C13-14 Isoparaffin (texture enhancer), Caprylyl Glycol (preservative), Citric Acid (pH adjuster), Disodium EDTA (chelating agent), Laureth-7 (texture enhancer), Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin (preservatives).

BUY NOW: Paula’s Choice The Unscrub

Chemical exfoliation

Unlike physical exfoliation where you can see exactly what substance is directly exfoliating your skin, chemical exfoliation works more under the hood. 

Chemical exfoliation products usually contain an alpha hydroxy acid or a beta hydroxy acid like salicylic acid, which work to dissolve your skin’s cell bonds which helps dead skin cells fall off. 

For people with acne or highly sensitive skin, a low strength chemical exfoliant can work much better than a physical exfoliant because most of the work happens at a chemical level and there isn’t much skin scrubbing involved that can irritate your skin

Of course you can also combine a physical and a chemical exfoliant to get both short and long term exfoliation into your skincare routine. Remember, always introduce products into your skincare routine 1 at a time. If you decide to use both chemical and physical exfoliators, try alternating them every other week at first and then work your way up to more frequent use as you see what your skin tolerates.

Gentle, low strength chemical exfoliants

1. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA

Our favorite low strength chemical exfoliant is Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA. The 2% BHA  (beta hydroxy acid) is salycilic acid which penetrates deep into your skin but works gradually. This means slower results but they last longer than trying to get quick results. It is also very gentle at only 2% so you can use this frequently without worrying about over exfoliation. 

Read verified reviews of Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA.

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA has a lightweight texture that absorbs instead of sitting on top of your skin so you can use it as part of your night or morning routine. 

The ingredient list for Paula’s Choice 2% BHA is: Water (Aqua), Methylpropanediol (hydration), Butylene Glycol (hydration), Salicylic Acid (beta hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Polysorbate 20 (stabilizer), Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract (green tea/skin calming/antioxidant), Sodium Hydroxide (pH balancer), Tetrasodium EDTA (stabilizer).

BUY NOW: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA

2. COSRX BHA 2% Blackhead Power Liquid

If you’ve tried salicylic acid in the past and find it to be too harsh, you can try CosRx’s BHA 2% Blackhead Power Liquid. It relies on its 4% Betaine Salicylate, a naturally occuring (from the willow bark tree) BHA derivative to gently exfoliate your skin. It also has a 4% niacinamide which is a form of Vitamin B3 and will help soothe your skin alongside exfoliating it.

Read verified reviews of CosRx BHA 2% Blackhead Power Liquid.

Here are the ingredients in CosRx BHA 2% Blackhead Power Liquid : Salix alba (willow) bark water, butylene glycol, betaine salicylate, niacinamide, 1, 2-hexanediol, arginine, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, xanthan gum, ethyl hexanediol.

BUY NOW: CosRx BHA 2% Blackhead Power Liquid

Higher strength chemical exfoliants

IMPORTANT NOTE: Both of the following recommendations are for alpha hydroxy acids which will make your skin more sensitive to the sun. So if you decide to use one of these options, YOU MUST USE SUNSCREEN during the daytime. Otherwise you will end up damaging your skin more than you are able to help it look better. 

1. Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Skin Perfecting Gel

Unlike BHAs which work slowly but more deeply, AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) don’t penetrate as deeply but quickly remove your top layers of skin by dissolving their cell to cell bonds. Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Skin Perfecting Gel does this very well and is a great product to use infrequently to get quick results. I’ve noticed that it takes about 5 days to get that peak post-exfoliation glow after using it so you could use my experience to time out using this before a big event.

Read verified reviews of Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Skin Perfecting Gel.

This is a lightweight gel and like many of Paula’s Choice products, doesn’t feel heavy on your skin. You use this as part of your skincare routine at nighttime or in the morning. You can also use this as a short term wash off solution where you put it on your skin for 3-4 minutes and then wash it off, before continuing with your skincare routine.

Here are the ingredients of Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Skin Perfecting Gel: Water (Aqua), Glycolic Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjuster), Chamomilla Recutita Matricaria Flower Extract (chamomile/skin-soothing), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice (hydration), Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract (green tea/antioxidant/skin-soothing), Sodium Hyaluronate (skin replenishing), Panthenol (hydration), Sodium PCA (skin replenishing), Propylene Glycol (hydration), Butylene Glycol (hydration), Hydroxyethylcellulose (texture-enhancing), Polyquaternium-10 (texture-enhancing), Phenoxyethanol (preservative), Sodium Benzoate (preservative).

BUY NOW: Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Skin Perfecting Gel

2. Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser Daily Foaming Wash

This isn’t a leave on type of product, but a daily facial cleansing with AHA. This face wash uses lactic acid and glycolic acid, both alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), to help your skin shed top skin cells and bring renewed younger cells to the surface. 

Read verified reviews of Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleaser Daily Foaming Wash.

The fact that it’s a face wash makes it a great option to use daily without worrying about over exfoliating, and still get the benefits of chemical exfoliation into your routine regularly. It also includes pineapple, pumpkin, and papaya enzymes which also help moisturize the skin while the AHAs exfoliate it.

Here are the ingredients of Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser Daily Foaming Wash: Water, Stearic Acid, Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate, Lauramidopropyl Betaine, Glycerin, Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate, Cetearyl Phosphate, Xylitylglucoside, Dimethicone PEG-8 Meadowfoamate, Anhydroxylitol, Xylitol, Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Bromelain, Papain, Lactobacillus/Pumpkin Fruit Ferment Filtrate, Lauramide DIPA, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice Powder, Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid, Citrus Aurantium Bergamia (Bergamot) Fruit Oil, Aniba Rosaeodora (Rosewood) Wood Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil, Geranium Maculatum Oil, Benzyl Alcohol, Sodium Hydroxide, Chlorphenesin, Chlorophyllin-Copper Complex (CI 75810), Maltodextrin.

BUY NOW: Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser Daily Foaming Wash

10 Benefits of exfoliation

Here are some important benefits of exfoliation and exfoliating regularly.

1. Minimize pore size

When dead skin cells stick around, they can get into your pores and make them look larger. Exfoliating your skin regularly will minimize your pore size by removing your dead skin cells.

2. Fades age spots by removing dead skin cells

Age spots are brown marks on your skin that are a result of sun damage. Exfoliating your skin will help increase skin cell renewal and help get damaged skin cells off of your face with time. In addition to exfoliation, remember to use sunscreen to prevent more sun damage.

3. Unclogs pores

Exfoliation helps remove dead skin cells that may be clogging your pores. Dust and dead skin cells mix with your natural skin oils (called sebum) and clog your pores. Physical exfoliation will scrub the dead skill cells off but chemical exfoliation will go a step further and also penetrate deeper than the skin surface to also clean out your pores. 

You may noticed tiny black spots on your nose or chin area and you may know that these are blackheads. Blackheads form when the keratin or dead skin cell plug oxidizes from the oxygen in the earth’s air and then turns dark. When the keratin or dead skill cell isn’t exposed to air, it stays white and you may know of these are whiteheads. Chemical exfoliation penetrates your skin to help clean out this keratin or plugs and prevent them from turning into whiteheads and blackheads.

4. Reduces wrinkles

Dead skill cells lingering on your skin’s surface also make fine lines and wrinkles look worse because the lines or grooves look deeper. Exfoliation helps reduce this appearance by dissolving the glue between the skin cells and helping remove the dead skill cells. It also helps bring new younger cells to the surface, bringing us to our next benefit.

5. Helps your skin better absorb moisture

You’ll find that when you add exfoliation into your skincare routine, your skin looks better. This is not just because you’re removing dead skin cells but also because the rest of your skincare routine is being put directly on young skin cells.

Exfoliating removes the top layers of dead skin cells and this helps any skincare that you apply to help introduce more moisture, antioxidants, or other skin health promoting ingredients more absorbable by your new skin. By removing the top layer or dad and damaged cells, your products are now coming in direct contact with fresh new skin cells which can reap the benefits of your skincare. 

6. Reduces or prevents acne

If you suffer from acne, exfoliation can help smooth out your skin and help your acne skincare products work better on your skin. Regular exfoliation helps keep your pores clean which reduces the risk of whiteheads, blackheads, and other types of deeper acne. And removing the top layers of skin will help your acne products make direct contact with skin cells that are younger and keep any breakouts in this skin to minimum.

7. Minimize surface scars on your skin

If you have any surface scars from wounds or acne, exfoliation will help increase skin cell renewal and get rid of the layers of skin over time to reduce the appearance of these scars and bring younger skill cells that do not have this damage to the surface.

8. Increases circulation and lymphatic drainage

Exfoliation also stimulates your lymph nodes which help clean your immune system and bring oxygen rich blood to your skin’s surface. You may notice that you look more alive or have a glow after physical exfoliation. That is in part because the stimulation of your skin increases blood circulation to your skin’s surface and helps detoxify your cells and reveal a redness or glow that you can see. 

9. Stimulates collagen synthesis

Exfoliation also helps increase collagen production in your skin. This occurs because your skin’s dermis treats exfoliation as a mild trauma in the skin and activates an anti-inflammatory response that begins collagen production in response. Because the skin thinks it is wounded, it activates fibroblasts which help produce collagen and elastic in your skin. Your blood rushes to what the skin thinks is injured (the skin you just exfoliated) and helps stimulate the wound healing process, synthesizing collagen in response.

10. Prevents ingrown hairs

Exfoliating also helps prevent ingrown hairs which occur when there is skin preventing a hair from growing straight up and so the hair grows in a curled fashion and remains below skin surface, becoming an ingrown hair. Exfoliation helps open up the way for these hairs to pop out instead of growing inward.

Being Healthfull - 10 Benefits of Physical & Chemical Exfoliation