Physical or Chemical: What Kind of Exfoliator is Best?

woman exfoliating
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Exfoliation is essential for healthy and younger-looking skin. Why? During our day-to-day lives, dead skin cells build up on the surface of our faces. If we neglect to clean our skin, well, old makeup, dirt, and oil can also join this mix. The buildup of dead skin cells causes pores to become clogged, which can lead to breakouts and dull skin. The best way to get rid of this build-up of dead skin cells is to exfoliate

For those of you who are new to exfoliation, you may not realize there are different ways to exfoliate—chemical and physical. While the word “chemical” may set off alarm bells in your head, don’t panic just yet! You can use certain chemical exfoliating ingredients such as fruit enzymes and facial acids to exfoliate your skin. These chemicals are usually used in low doses or buffered with soothing ingredients to minimize any irritation. In fact, you’re probably using some chemical exfoliating ingredients without even knowing—especially in your facial cleanser.

Keep reading to learn the differences between chemical and physical exfoliation and to find out which type of exfoliant is best for your skin.

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation makes use of several types of chemicals in order to remove dead skin cells and other impurities from the skin. Some examples of chemicals that can be used as exfoliants include: several types of enzymes (including fruit enzymes), alpha hydroxy acids like lactic or glycolic, and beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid.

All chemical exfoliants work to break the bonds between the skin cells, loosening up the dead skin so it can easily be whisked away. One easy way to exfoliate your face with a chemical exfoliator is with exfoliating pads like Roc Daily Resurfacing Facial Disks. Simply swipe the pad over your skin, and it gets to work without you even having to rinse it off.

Often times there are chemical exfoliators in your facial cleanser, too, that work while you wash your face. If you use such a cleanser, it is best to leave it on the skin for between 30 seconds to a minute so that the exfoliating ingredients have time to work. There are also many exfoliating masks such as Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Exfoliating Mask which contains aluminum oxide and AHA. Or you could also use a gel exfoliant like Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant that you do not need to wash off.

Daily resurfacing disks
RoC Daily Resurfacing Facial Disks $11
Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask Enzymatic Dermal Resurfacer
Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask Enzymatic Dermal Resurfacer $60
Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Exfoliant
Peter Thomas Roth Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Exfoliant $29

Physical Exfoliation

The second type of exfoliation is physical or manual exfoliation. This type of exfoliation is fairly self-explanatory. Physical exfoliants are products that contain some type of rough material such as grains or ground up nuts. By rubbing the particles against your skin, you will buff away the layer of dead skin cells. Newer, younger skin will be revealed when you wash off the product. Plus your skin will be smooth and have a glow.

Physical exfoliants can vary in their ability to exfoliate—it all depends on what kind of product you buy. Even those of us with sensitive skin can tolerate most physical exfoliants well. Experiment with different products and different grain textures to see what works best for you. Keep in mind that exfoliants with microbeads have now been banned in the United States. You can try scrubs like Acure Brightening Facial Scrub or Burt's Bees Peach & Willowbark Deep Pore Scrub.

Brightening facial scrub
Acure Brightening Facial Scrub $10
Burt's Bees Peach & Willowbark Deep Pore Scrub
Burt's Bees Peach & Willowbark Deep Pore Scrub $8

Which One Should I Use?

It’s a personal preference! No matter what you pick, it’s simply important to use an exfoliator once or twice a week. Physical exfoliants can be gentle and safe and will most likely not cause any kind of reaction on the skin so it’s a good place to start. You can also use a product with lactic acid (like Kate Somerville's ExfoliKate) to exfoliate if you have sensitive skin.

We love chemical exfoliators simply because they’re easy to use, and they provide uniform exfoliation to the skin. If you’re like me and your goal is to minimize signs of aging, try a chemical exfoliator. You can use a facial cleanser with acids or a cream. 

Note that exfoliating isn't just for the face. Wherever you have skin, you could be exfoliating. (Yep, you can exfoliate your scalp!)

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment
Kate Somerville ExfoliKate $24
Article Sources
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  1. Cleveland Clinic. 5 ways to exfoliate your skin without irritation. Updated February 12, 2020.

  2. Soleymani T, Lanoue J, Rahman Z. A practical approach to chemical peels: a review of fundamentals and step-by-step algorithmic protocol for treatmentJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018;11(8):21-28.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Micro-Bead Free Waters Act: FAQs. Updated August 24, 2020.

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