Are Chemical Exfoliants Better Than Physical Ones?

To scrub or not to scrub? From funky face sponges to state-of-the art cleansing brushes, there is no shortage of exfoliating solutions. Exfoliation is an important step in everyone’s skin care routines as it not only prevents breakouts by removing dead skin cells built on the surface, but also helps maintain a smooth complexion. While there are different benefits when it comes to using a physical or chemical exfoliants, it’s important to consider the right one for your skin type.

australian laser & skin clinics melbourne vic

Benefits of Exfoliation

Exfoliation is needed for healthier and younger-looking skin. Over the course of the day, dead skin cells build up on the skin’s surface and when these old skin cells start to pile up, it can leave the skin looking dull, rough, and uneven. If we neglect to clean our skin well, old makeup, dirt, and oil can also accumulate. The build-up of dead cells results in clogged pores can lead to blemishes and acne. Exfoliating is the best way to deal with this build-up.


Factor Physical Exfoliants Chemical Exfoliants
Method of Removal Abrasion and physical force Absorb into the skin to increase cell turnover
Ingredients Tiny particles or granules: salt grains, sugar, jojoba beads, nutshells Fruit enzymes and gentle acids: AHAs and BHAs
Effects on Sensitive Skin Often too harsh Gentle enough
Benefits Instant results leave skin feeling clean and clear right away Minimises irritation and acne breakouts
Usage Use once a week, depending on skin sensitivity Use once to three times a week, depending on skin sensitivity



Physical Exfoliation

Physical exfoliation involves using various abrasive tools or substances to physically slough away the outermost layer of your skin. You can buy motorised dermabrasion sponges or brushes or use rough sponges and scrubs that do the same job without the motor. Oily skin types benefit most from mechanical exfoliators as they can withstand a more abrasive cleansing.

Exfoliating brushes and scrubs are widely available. They’re convenient to use at home and provide an easy and relatively effective way to rid of dead skin cells and impurities, while also temporarily minimising the appearance of large pore. They are most effective for getting rid of blackheads, although is not the gentlest way to exfoliate. Excessive abrasion can result in irritate skin and for those with sensitive skin it’s better to opt for gentle, fine-grained cleansers.

One benefit of physical exfoliators is that after application, you get an instant gratification of a freshly scrubbed, smooth face. Because the particles within the scrub are physically removing the dead skin cells right away, the skin is left looking healthy with a naturally glowing complexion.

Physical exfoliants need to be handled with care, however. Many scrubs contain particles such as fruit pits and nutshells that are two large or sharp for delicate facial skin. When they rub against your skin, they can damage the skin barrier causing it to be sensitive and inflamed for several days after application, especially if you have reactive skin.


Chemical Exfoliation

Most chemical exfoliants can be classified as two types: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHA). The two most popular AHAs are glycolic acid and lactic acid, while BHA usually refers specifically to salicylic acid. These acids help slough away dead skin cells, while potentially normalising your skin cell turnover and stimulating the growth of healthy skin.

Chemical exfoliants can be milder and more gentle than physical scrubs because they don’t require scrubbing work into the skin gradually. This makes it more favourable for skin prone to acne, dryness, or sensitivity.

Since chemical exfoliants don’t involve rubbing the skin, they are generally safer than many physical exfoliants. Hydroxy acids have the ability to penetrate the skin for deeper exfoliation of your skin. Enzymatic exfoliators are also effective but they aren’t as strong as hydroxy acids, meaning they’re better for sensitive skin. Salicylic acid is especially effective for oily, acne-prone skin. Combination skin will benefit from an AHA that controls oil-production.


Alpha-hydroxy Acids

AHAs work by dissolving the bonds between the skin cells to dislodge dead surface cells from the skin. New cells can emerge to the surface once the AHAs help to remove the pore-clogging debris from the uppermost skin layer. They have a small molecular structure and are water-soluble which helps hydrate and enhance our skin’s natural moisture levels. This can help those with sun damaged and dry skin by diminishing the look of wrinkles and fine lines.

The two most well-known AHAs are lactic and glycolic acid, which are often used in cleansers and serums in varying percentages. Some less commonly used AHAs include mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid.


Beta-hydroxy Acids

BHAs are best for oily or acne-prone skin as they are oil-soluble and can penetrate deeper. They break through oil and go deeper into the pores, helping to treat both blackheads and whiteheads. They also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties which is key in preventing newer outbreaks from occurring.

The most popular BHA is salicylic acid, which is commonly used as an active ingredient for treating acne while less common BHAs include beta-hydrocybutanoic acid, tropic acid or trethocanic acid.


How to choose between chemical and physical exfoliants?

Choosing between chemical and physical exfoliants, really comes down to a personal preference, depending on your own skin type and needs. Regardless of what you pick, it is important to follow the packaging instructions which typically recommend using the exfoliators only one or twice a week. This is because over-exfoliation can dry out the skin and lead to the overproduction of oil. Exfoliating too often in combination with other topical products such as retinoids can also increase the risk of irritation.