Home beauty Chemical Exfoliation vs. Physical Exfoliation: What’s the Difference?

Chemical Exfoliation vs. Physical Exfoliation: What’s the Difference?

Chemical Exfoliation vs. Physical Exfoliation: What’s the Difference?


Regardless of what is trending on TikTok or the beauty fad of the moment, glowing skin is always in. Our dermatologists agree—the key to a radiant complexion is exfoliation. According to Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias, exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells, which helps improve skin texture and tone, prevents acne and reveals newer, more youthful-looking skin. There are two types of exfoliation: chemical and physical. While both of these methods reveal brighter skin underneath, they are different. 

As a general rule, New York dermatologist Margarita Lolis, MD, recommends chemical exfoliants for sensitive or acne-prone skin as they tend to be gentler. “Physical exfoliants are appropriate options for those with skin-texture concerns that can tolerate more abrasive products,” she explains. 

We spoke to skin experts like Dr. Lolis to break down the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation and explain the benefits of each. Read on to discover which one to reach for and when.  

  • Dr. Matthew Elias is a dermatologist based in Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Margarita Lolis, MD is a dermatologist based in New York
  • Brendan Camp, MD is a dermatologist based in New York

What Is Chemical Exfoliation?

The purpose of chemical exfoliation is to remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. “Chemical exfoliation utilizes chemicals to break bonds between skin cells so the exfoliated skin can then be cleansed off the skin,” explains Dr. Elias. Chemical exfoliation not only helps to reveal fresher, smoother skin underneath dead layers, but it also can be beneficial for a variety of skin concerns, including acne, uneven skin tone, and fine lines.

There are several types of chemical exfoliants, alpha hydroxy acids commonly referred to as AHAs, beta hydroxy acids or BHAs, polyhydroxyacids or PHAs, and finally, enzymes. “AHAs are water-soluble acids derived from fruits and milk. Examples include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. AHAs are effective for surface exfoliation and can help improve skin texture and tone,” says Dr. Lolis.

BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble acids, which is just a fancy way of saying they dissolve in oil rather than water. Salicylic acid is the most common among them. “BHAs are particularly effective for oily and acne-prone skin because they can penetrate into the pores to dissolve sebum and dead skin cells,” says Dr. Lolis.

According to her, PHAs are similar to AHAs but with larger molecules, making them less penetrating and potentially less irritating. Examples of PHAs include gluconolactone and lactobionic acid. Dr. Lolis recommends PHAs for sensitive skin types that may have trouble withstanding something stronger.

Finally, enzymes are proteins that break down the keratin protein in the outer layer of the skin. Common enzymatic exfoliants include papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple). Like PHAs, this type of exfoliant tends to be gentler on the skin.

What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation may be what you think of when you think of exfoliation. The key lies in the name. The process uses physical ingredients or abrasives to remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Typically, physical exfoliation employs the use of small particles, like sugar, salt, or ground coffee, to abrade the skin surface, according to dermatologist Brendan Camp, MD. It can also help accelerate the natural exfoliation process. 

Sugars and salts are common ingredients in facial or even bodily scrubs, but physical exfoliants can also come in the form of towels, cloths, exfoliating brushes and sponges. 

Is Chemical or Physical Exfoliation Better for Skin?

Both chemical and physical exfoliation are means to a similar end. They both aim to rid your complexion of dead skin cells and leave behind a radiant glow. However, chemical exfoliants have the added benefit of helping treat acne by unclogging pores, penetrating into the sebaceous gland and killing acne-causing bacteria, according to Dr. Lolis.

However, physical exfoliation can offer more immediate results and help skin-care products penetrate deeper, according to Dr. Camp.

“Physical exfoliation usually yields much faster results but carries the risk of damaging the skin,” explains Dr. Elias, “while chemical exfoliation, though slower to yield results, tends to be much safer for all skin types.”

The Best Chemical Exfoliators

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Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant ($66)

Exfoliants, by nature, can be too harsh for everyday use. However, this one is enzyme-based and extremely gentle. Dr. Lolis signs off for regular use. You can use this daily with low irritation potential.

BUY NOW – $66

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Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($35)

You may have been recommended this liquid exfoliant by your “For You Page,” or you may have seen it on one of your favorite beauty guru’s shelves. Either way, this is also one of Dr. Camp’s favorite exfoliants. He loves the addition of salicylic acid, which helps clear out pores and even skin tone.  

BUY NOW – $35

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Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 ($148)

This product has earned cult classic status for a reason. Despite being labeled as a lotion, this product has the texture of a toner. Loaded with a powerful blend of acids like citric, malic, lactic, and salicylic acid and hydrating ingredients like glycerin, this lightweight lotion eats away at dead skin and gradually moisturizes with each use. 

BUY NOW – $148

Award Photo: Lotion P50 Original 1970
Award Photo: Lotion P50 Original 1970

The Best Physical Exfoliators

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SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub ($35) 

Fragrance and sulfate-free, this scrub is meant to be gentle. It is made with naturally occurring silica to buff the skin without scratching it. Aloe and glycerin deliver an added boost of moisture. 

BUY NOW – $35

SkinCeuticals exfoliating scrub

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PMD Clean Smart Facial Cleansing Device ($99)

As previously stated, physical exfoliators don’t have to be scrubs or granules. They can also come in tools. This bristled cleaning brush vibrates 7,000 times per minute, laying a fresh foundation for the rest of your skin-care products. 

BUY NOW – $99


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