What's the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliants, and Which Is Better?
We asked four top industry experts to weigh in.
With time, dead skin cells build up on the surface of our faces and can cause breakouts, clogged pores, and dull skin. If you’re anything like us, that doesn’t really align with that whole glowy skin vision we have for ourselves—so we know that exfoliation is key. Exfoliating helps slough off dead skin, and it also allows our serums and moisturizers to sink in better. At our best, we’re exfoliating regularly (say, twice a week), and we’re using one of two types of exfoliants: chemical or physical.
But with so much information out there regarding chemical vs. physical exfoliants and best exfoliation practices, things can get overwhelming. No worries, though: We talked to some experts and got the lowdown on the difference between the two types and when to use them. We even got a list of dermatologist- and skin expert-approved products to help you get that ever sought-after glowy skin.
What is chemical exfoliation?
If you’re new to exfoliating, don’t let the sound of a chemical exfoliant scare you—it’s not as harsh as it seems. According to celebrity esthetician Shani Darden, chemical exfoliants are the kind that use acids (such as lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, salicylic acid, etc.) to gently dissolve away dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin. Dendy Engleman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, explains that chemical exfoliants work to break down the cellular bonds of dead skin cells rather than physically buffering away the top layer of dead skin.
What is physical exfoliation?
A physical exfoliant is probably what you usually think of when you think of exfoliation. It’s the kind that physically removes dead skin cells via a mechanical tool or scrub. Maya Crothers, founder of Circcell Skincare, adds that physical exfoliants are the kind that use particle friction to remove skin cells, like sandpaper resurfacing wood (but much softer, obviously).
What type of exfoliation is better for the skin?
According to Tiffany Libby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan, both chemical and physical exfoliants have their pros and cons. And, as Crothers advises, choosing one method over the other has more to do with what your skin can tolerate.
A pro for using a physical exfoliant is that you can control the amount of pressure used to better suit your skin’s sensitivity level, per Crothers’ advice. However, it’s worth mentioning that physical exfoliants require a certain level of caution. Dr. Libby warns that some physical scrubs contain larger, more abrasive particles that can cause micro-tears to the skin, leading to irritation and even inflammation.
Most of our experts prefer chemical exfoliants over physical. According to Dr. Libby, chemical exfoliants are often overall safer, more controlled, and, in her experience, more effective with regular use. Plus, chemical exfoliants can help minimize and treat acne as well as even out your skin tone for a glowy and bright complexion. Darden echoes this, summarizing that chemical exfoliants are often more effective and yet less harsh.
When should we choose one over the other?
For your face, Dr. Engelman suggests using a chemical exfoliant. However, if you’re looking to exfoliate your body instead of your face, she suggests going for a physical exfoliant, especially if you’re dealing with ingrown hairs.
For regular use, the overall consensus is to choose a chemical exfoliant over a physical one, as manual exfoliation can be too harsh on some skin types. Darden does recommend, however, using a physical exfoliant if you haven’t taken care of your skin in quite some time and are looking for a quick “polish,” but also suggests using a chemical exfoliant every week.
These are the best exfoliants for your face and body:
1. Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub
If you’re going down the physical exfoliant route, it’s perhaps best to go for a gentle scrub. Dr. Libby recommends this one, which uses fine microparticles from bamboo extract to buff away dead skin without stripping your skin of its moisture.
2. SkinBetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads
When it comes to chemical exfoliants, Dr. Libby loves products with lactic acid, a hydrating alpha-hydroxy acid that is perfect for everyday use (even for drier and more sensitive skin types). We love this 2020 Beauty Crush Award winner since it also uses a patented retinoid that helps reduce acne. Yes, please.
3. Glo Skin Beauty Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant
Dr. Dendy also recommends this chemical exfoliant that’s safe for all Fitzpatrick skin types without risk of hypo- or hyperpigmentation.
4. Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel
Darden loves this chemical exfoliant that’s great for tackling clogged pores, lackluster skin, and hyperpigmentation. Simply use two of the peel pads per day and expect super-smooth skin in no time.
5. First Aid Beauty KP Bump Eraser Body Scrub
This physical exfoliant works great for those dealing with “strawberry skin” or “chicken skin.” This gentle scrub helps buff away keratosis pilaris bumps to reveal smooth skin.
6. Circcell Fruition Brightening and Polishing Mask
Twice a week, Crothers uses this mask made with real fruit purée. The natural acids and enzymes of the fruit act as a chemical exfoliant. Pro tip: Crothers suggests using it in the bath and letting the steam supercharge the effect of the mask.
7. Shani Darden Skin Care Retinol Reform
Darden formulated this instant cult classic with lactic acid to provide immediate brightening and smoothing benefits. You can also count on this product to minimize fine lines and wrinkles and combat hyperpigmentation and blemishes.
8. Summer Fridays Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution
Here’s a lightweight serum that’s formulated with lactic acid, niacinamide, and glycolic acid to combat uneven texture and lackluster skin.