Are physical or chemical exfoliants better?

In this blog, we’ll answer frequently asked questions about chemical versus physical exfoliation. For example, what is the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation? Moreover, how do you use them within a skincare routine? To understand this, let’s take the time to understand what “desquamation” is.

What is desquamation? 

Desquamation is a natural process of dead skin cells shedding from your face. However, this process might require a little boost. When your skin looks lackluster or lacks glow, exfoliation is fantastic because it can help speed up the process of desquamation and remove those top layers of dead skin cells.The very top layer is called the stratum corneum, and it desquamates. When we use products to help this process happen faster, the skin will look smoother, brighter, and more glowy. Additionally, skin cell production is also increased. Likewise, exfoliation has other benefits too such as combating acne, blackheads, wrinkles, and dark spots.

But, what type of exfoliation should we use?

Well, for one, chemical exfoliation works deeper in the skin, and physical exfoliation is more surface level. 

Physical exfoliation is manual, and it’s when you apply something like a scrub, bamboo beads, or cellulose to physically remove those outer layers. For example, when it comes to a physical scrub, large particles such as walnut chunks or cellulose bits can’t penetrate deeply into the skin. They only work on that top layer, and that’s why physical exfoliation is sometimes frowned upon. Moreover, physical exfoliants can be abrasive, and some like apricot or walnut scrubs might have jagged edges. We don’t want that to scratch or tear the skin. It’s better to use physical exfoliants with jojoba beads. These types are more sustainable, and they are smoother on the skin. 

The following two products bridge the gap between chemical and physical exfoliation. These are technically physical exfoliants, but they have chemical components.

Wishful Yo Glow AHA & BHA Enzyme Scrub -$39

This is made of cellulose. Cellulose is a plant fiber. Our bodies can’t break it down, and neither can the skin. But, when it’s placed on top of the skin, the liquid from the formula evaporates, and the cellulose actually kind of gums up. Although the face seems to shedding skin cells upon using this enzyme scrub, the product is simply gumming up on itself. This process allows it to exfoliate the skin. 

Rice powder

Another good exfoliation option is rice powder. Rice powder is very gentle, and it holds onto water. So, it makes a gentle exfoliant for the skin. Rice exfoliants are going to be way better than something scratchy or rough around the edges. While some can tolerate ingredients that are rough around the edges, it’s important to refrain from rubbing them on your face though. Also, remember that most estheticians don’t rely on those scrubs because 1) they can damage the skin and cause a little irritation for some people and 2) they leave behind residue.

At the same time though, physical exfoliants are a great way to get rid of crust quickly. If your skin feels like sandpaper, physical exfoliants are going to be a faster and quicker option than chemical exfoliants.

How do I use physical exfoliants?

If you’re using a physical exfoliant, wash your face first, and apply the exfoliant in even motions throughout the skin. Focus on more crusty areas. If you’re using a hybrid exfoliant, do the same. 

What are chemical exfoliants?

Even though the word “chemicals” sounds scary, the reality of it is not bad. If you want to exfoliate like a pro, you need to understand that everything is made of chemicals. Chemicals are wonderful when used appropriately, and they come in different concentrations. The higher the percentage of the chemical exfoliant, the more intense the effects are on the skin.

So, whether it’s an AHA or BHA, chemical exfoliants penetrate deep into the skin. However, AHAs and BHAs do work differently. 

What is the difference between an AHA and BHA?

To begin with, AHAs are water soluble. More simply, they’re good for people who have drier or more sensitive skin.  

BHAs like salicylic acid are great for people who have more oily skin, but they can be a little too drying if someone doesn’t have a lot of oil in their face.Salicylic acid works well for 

acne, blemishes, or blackheads.

Both AHAs and BHAs work by penetrating into the skin. Because the molecules of chemical exfoliants are so much smaller than physical exfoliant particles, they penetrate deeper into the skin. The molecules work their way down the little hairs on our faces and into our pores. And given that they are chemicals, they create bonds with different things and create chemical reactions in our skin. Many chemical exfoliants bind to skin protein and oils, and they tend to work a little better over time.

For example, when you first put on a chemical exfoliant, you might not notice an immediate change. But a few days later, you may notice a little peeling. That’s because the chemical exfoliant is getting deep into your skin and taking apart the bonds of older skin cells together. It allows them to slough off. If the chemical exfoliant is a BHA such as salicylic acid, it can also kill bacteria. This is what primarily separates BHAs from AHAs.

Conversely, the best thing about AHAs is that the molecules can be very small, especially glycolic acid. The tiny penetrates help to penetrate deeply into the skin and promote deep cellular changes. AHAs bolster skin cells by helping the skin to make more and produce brightness. There are AHAs like tartaric acid that come from grapes. There’s also glycolic acid which is amazing for hyperpigmentation. Glycolic acid comes from sugar cane, and when used regularly, it can brighten the skin and help smooth fine lines and wrinkles. 

Chemical exfoliants are better for resurfacing and for those who have deeper issues like pigmentation or acne. Before you use a chemical exfoliant, always make sure you’ve washed your skin well if it’s ready for that exfoliant.

How do I use a chemical exfoliant?

Wash your face first, and spread the exfoliant evenly across your skin. Make sure you’re not missing any spots. And make sure that you rinse the skin thoroughly afterward. 

If it burns or stings, make sure you use a neutralizer. After using the chemical exfoliant, you can hydrate with a toner or serum. You can also use Vitamin C or a treatment. Make sure that apply moisturizer too, or if it’s during the day, you can simply apply sunscreen which is a must when using a chemical exfoliant. Sunscreen protects the skin, and since we just removed the top layers of our skin, our skin even more prone to sun damage. So again, make sure you reapply that sunscreen throughout the day.

How often should you use a chemical exfoliant?

If you’ve never exfoliated before, you should start once a week. As your skin becomes more tolerant, you can begin to use on up to 2-3 times a week. How much you should use a chemical exfoliant heavily depends on the product, but some can be used every single day. For example, a gentle one can be used every.

Also keep in mind that if you’re using a serum that has salicylic acid or alpha hydroxy acid, you are exfoliating every day. 


Whether you’re using a physical or chemical exfoliant, make sure you patch test, and track your progress so you can see what works for you. Also, remember to apply that sunscreen!