What to use: physical or chemical exfoliant?

Updated: Jan 10

Exfoliation is such an important step in a skincare routine. Since I discovered chemical exfoliants, I can no longer live without it: it supports and enhances my glow so much! But what are chemical and physical exfoliants, and which method should you use as part of your personal skincare routine?

What is exfoliation, and why do we need it? Your top skin layer (stratum corneum) consists of dead skin cells and is our skin's main protective layer. New cells are made continuously in the deeper skin layers, which eventually move 'up' to later become the top layer. The cells on the top are constantly shedding. However, this shedding isn't always happening regularly, and sometimes this process moves slower than it should. In that case, it can quickly happen that those cells stick together and together end up forming a thick top layer made out of stapled dead skin cells. The staple can lead to uneven, dull, scaly, flaky skin. It can even clog your pores, which can result in sebum accumulation: the combination of bacteria and sebum can eventually lead to the development of pimples, which we obviously should try to avoid at all times. Exfoliation can help with this and is an excellent way of getting a fresher looking and radiant skin.

There are two main types of exfoliation: physical and chemical exfoliation. Let me explain!

Physical exfoliant Physical exfoliants (also called 'scrub' in the Dutch language) are grainy products or tools that mechanically remove the uppermost layer of dead skin cells by scrubbing the skin. The harshness or effectiveness depends on the type of exfoliation that is used: think of how large, hard, or smooth the exfoliation particles are, and on how you move them over the surface of your skin. Do you press hard or soft, and how long are you rubbing it in for?

In my own skincare routine, I never use physical exfoliants on my face because it is easy to damage the skin layer by pressing too hard or rubbing it too long. You then irritate the skin instead of nourishing it. I do love to pamper my body's skin with a body scrub from time to time. In that case, I do use an exfoliant of this type. Except for the chest area, the skin of the body is thicker than the face; it is safe to use a physical exfoliant here.

Chemical exfoliant My personal favourites for facial skincare are chemical exfoliants. The most common and easily accessible ones are the hydroxy acids AHA's and BHA's:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA's): include ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid. (Most scientific studies are based on the effect of glycolic acid.)

  • Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA's): salicylic acid. (This is the only one commonly used in skincare.)

These acids can be obtained from fruit acids. They ensure that the connection (cellular glue or desmosomes) between the uppermost layer of dead skin cells is reduced, making it easier for them to be released. The use of chemical exfoliants allows for fresh and more radiant skin to become visible. Chemical exfoliants are known to be gentler because it is less prone to error: it's unlikely to misuse them if you follow the products' guidelines, contrary to the use of physical exfoliants. (I will expand on the different types of chemical exfoliants in another blog because there is so much to share about these wonderful ingredients!).

So... what is my final verdict of physical exfoliant vs chemical exfoliant? Please don't get me wrong: there are still some outstanding products on the physical exfoliant market. It depends entirely on the formula. If you decide to use physical exfoliants, make sure it is a very gentle one and be cautious not to damage the skin during application and treatment: don't ever rub it too hard and too long!

Chemical exfoliants can be bought for different purposes and also for different skin types. Some may be better for dry skin, and some suit acne-prone skin perfectly. Also, the frequency of use can differ: some can be used on an almost daily basis and others only once a week. It all depends on the product's formula. Make sure always to read the instructions carefully before use. I suggest you try one and find out what you think of it. At the moment, I'm working on a formula that contains chemical exfoliants, but you'll have to wait for me to finish it before you can try that one 😉.