Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Viddhi Patel (Journalist)  on 17th Nov 2020

Exfoliation vs. Peeling: Learn the distinction and identify your ideal cleanser

identify your ideal cleanser

Choosing the right products, right techniques, and understanding your skin is tricky! Add to that, there is another dilemma to deal with. To exfoliate or to peel? The trap of confusion is overwhelming. Get to know everything you are curious about.

Cleansing your skin the right way to benefit the most has been debated over many times.

Peeling and exfoliation are practiced to rejuvenate skin. The main aim is to rid you of dead skin cells buildup on your skin and release deeply embedded dirt, oil, makeup residue, and every other impurity that your skin has to encounter.

The bigger picture- face exfoliants slough off the dead skin cells and polish the appearance of dull and rough skin. While peeling is another exfoliation process similar to chemical exfoliation and uses acids to break down bonds that keep them hanging onto your skin. Scrubs rub the surface; peels use ingredients that sink deeper into the skin.

The healthy, radiant skin revelation after going through procedures surely makes you glow. But the question remains, which one is for me?

Confused about whether exfoliation suits you or chemical peeling is your go-to procedure? Keep calm and read on. Get to know the two in and out. 

Exfoliation and peeling: understanding cleansers.


Your skincare routine consists of an essential step, exfoliation. The step deeply cleanses, dislodges pores buildup, refines the texture of the skin. The benefits of exfoliation have been reaped since ancient times in Egypt. Then minerals and alabaster particles were used as physical exfoliants.  

Why exfoliate?  

The constant regenerative process of your skin, where it renews itself over a specific time, demands attention. The newborn skin cells push the dead skin cells to the outer layers of the skin.
These dead skin get accumulated and eventually flake off, but there are times when they don’t let go and hang on longer, making your skin dull and giving it a rough appearance.

This is when exfoliation comes into play! It helps these old layers to shed that doesn’t serve any purpose to your skin. And prepares your skin for penetration of further treatments and products. 

Exfoliants are bifurcated into 2 parts.  

Physical/Mechanical exfoliants 

The exfoliants that are physically scrubbed like facial scrubs and brushes are mechanical exfoliants.

This method uses small grains, a towel, a scalpel, brushes, sponges, gloves, and scrubs to rub the skin mechanically. It is not as effective and advisable as it is prone to irritation.
Dr. Dray strongly suggests against mechanical scrubbing as it may lead to further skin irritation and dryness.  

Chemical exfoliants

Acids used in skin exfoliation are chemical exfoliants and enzymes to rejuvenate skin.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid formula, like that of beminimalist, work best while checking oils. According to certain studies, getting rid of blackheads are chemical exfoliants that work on skin by helping it naturally shed dead particles and are superior to mechanical exfoliants in terms of anti-aging.  

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Why does your skin type play a significant role? 

Dry skin-

Dry or flaky skin is in dire need of chemical exfoliation as it removes the dead skin layer, which acts as the blocker of skincare products and moisturizers from penetration.

Sensitive skin-

Mechanical methods are best avoided for sensitive skin types. It can lead to irritation and redness. A mild, short-contact chemical exfoliator with a gentle washcloth works well. And for AHA lovers, lactic acid formula combined with hyaluronic acid by beminimalist works best without drying your skin.  

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Oily, acne-prone skin

For acne-prone skin- mild exfoliant that can break up debris, excess oil, and dead skin buildup, eventually leads to breakouts suits best.  

Normal skin  

Normal skin is usually a combination of oily layer and dry cheeks or skin with no complications. This skin type can opt for anything that they feel like.

Replenish your freshly exfoliated skin with natural oils or moisturizer with SPF to protect the skin barrier.

Avoid exfoliation on cuts, open wounds, or sunburned skin. 

Why does exfoliation stand firm in the skincare industry?

It is a perfect way to revive your skin, your glow, and getting rid of the dead skin cells. It cleanses pores clogged with impurities, oxygenates the skin, softens skin texture, boosts regeneration of cells, and makes the skin ideal for moisturizers to penetrate deeply.  

Chemical peels  

The quite frequent procedure to treat photoaging, chemical peeling, treats deep wrinkles, and fine lines, acne scars, and boost the skin’s vitality, tone, and texture. It uses chemical/acidic solutions (salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid) to remove the top layers; the skin that grows after is smoother.

This derma-esthetic process stimulates skin exfoliation, depigmentation, and revitalization and is widely carried out as an alternative to lasers and derma abrasions.

Chemical peeling works based on the depth of peeling, and the concentration used depends on the severity of the damage or photodamage.

The levels of peeling are-  


The gentlest peel is efficient and doesn’t cause redness and doesn’t require downtime. But you should limit sun exposure and wear SPF. It acts on removing the epidermis(outer layer) and treats fine wrinkles, acne, uneven skin tone, and dryness, and you may repeat it every two to five weeks.  


This peel results in redness and removes skin cells from the epidermis and upper part of the dermis, and takes up to seven days of downtime.

Treat wrinkles, acne scars, and uneven skin tone through moderate depth peeling. You may repeat it for the desired result.  


Dramatic results, longer recovery time! The deep chemical peeling removes skin cells deeper into the skin; it is recommended for deeper wrinkles, scars precancerous growth and doesn’t need repeat procedures for effective results.

It causes a stinging or a burning sensation due to its level of penetration.

The skin-resurfacing procedure, chemical peeling, doesn’t remove deep scars or wrinkles or tighten saggy skin.  

Chemicals usually used for the procedure 


The mild, naturally occurring acid exfoliates the skin, all the while hydrating it. 


Stronger and penetrates the skin deeply to clean exfoliate, recommended for oily skin types. 

Lactic acid 

Deeply moisturizes, boosts hyaluronic acid production, and exfoliates.  

Salicylic acid  

Ideal peel, treats numerous skin disorders acne, large pores, and blackheads.  

Glycolic acid  

Smoothes skin and boosts collagen production. 

The ultra facial peel routine.  

Selection of depth and concentration 

The product and process selection depend on the goal you desire to achieve. Your skin type and the problem you want to address are the factors determining your selection.  

The procedure 

You may get it done in a doctor’s office or a surgery center, or there are at-home peels available in the market.

The procedure involves applying one or more chemical solutions- glycolic acid, trichloroacetic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, carbonic acid to small areas of your skin. It will create a controlled wound, letting the new skin take its place.

You may feel a burning sensation followed by a stinging sensation in the first five to ten minutes.  


A sunburn-like reaction may appear following the procedure; medium peeling and deep peeling may cause swelling, maybe even blisters that can break, crust, turn brown and peel off over seven to 14 days. It may take your skin several months to turn in its natural skin color and show the peel's full results.

You may repeat your light peeling in one to four weeks, medium peels in six to 12 months, and deep peeling doesn’t need to be repeated.  

Peeling helps you by working on: 

  • Fine lines  
  • Wrinkles by photodamage.  
  • Mild scars  
  • Some acne types, sebum production. 
  • Dark patches(melasma), age spots, freckles.  
  • Discolored skin  
  • Photodamage 

The facial peels act on the skin’s appearance by inflicting blisters, which eventually peel off, leaving your skin softer and radiant skin underneath.  

 It is advised against for some people:  

  • If you have taken oral acne medication isotretinoin if taken in the past six months.
  • Personal or family history of ridged areas due to keloids 
  • Pregnant  
  • Frequent or severe cold sores outbreaks.  

Side effects of chemical peels 


Although rare, there is a possibility of scarring, typically on the lower part of the face. 

Skin color change 

Peeling may turn your skin darker or lighter. Colored skin people are likely to suffer from these conditions, and it may even be permanent.

Scabs, swelling, and redness  

Redness is involved in the healing process of the skin. Medium or deep chemical peels may be followed with redness lasting for a few months.


Chemical peeling may lead to bacterial, fungal, or viral infection like a flare-up of herpes(cold sores) 

Heart, kidney, or liver damage  

Deep peeling with carbolic acid (phenol) can damage the heart muscle and cause the heart's irregular beating. Phenol can potentially harm kidneys and liver.  

The standard technique for me?  

After looking at the exfoliators and peelings briefly, let’s circle it out and understand what works for you. 

Exfoliation is ideal when-  

  • You want to clean your face deeply.  
  • Get rid of the blackheads.  
  • Reactivate the skin’s microcirculation leading to toned skin.  

Normal, combination and oily skin types benefit most from mild and gentle exfoliators. Not disturbing the natural equilibrium of skin and preventing redness requires gentle exfoliators..

Peeling exfoliates skin chemically through active ingredients. Fruit acids or enzymes work on dissolving dead cells, while exfoliators may tear your skin if used with abrasion.  

Peelings are for you if you want to: 

  • Deeply clean your face. 
  • Unclog pores.
  • Smoothen and soften skin.  
  • Speed up cell turnover.  
  • Chemical peeling gives a much-needed boost to our skin cells.
  • Treat acne. 

Peeling is also ideal for sensitive skin types or dry and acne-prone skin, as abrasive exfoliation can further irritate the skin.

Unlike physical exfoliation, which may spread the acne bacteria further to the rest of the skin, causing breakouts, peeling kills bacteria and helps clear up the skin for the long-term.

Physical exfoliation may dry your skin of moisture, while peels’ hydrating factors help hydrate the skin.

There are at-home peels products now that are easy to apply after usual cleansing as they self neutralize. Body peels too, are available that can be used for 10 minutes after showering.  

To sum it up  

The texture  

Peeling is a chemical exfoliator with a watery, gel-like consistency and physical exfoliator has a gritty texture.

Scrub or a facial peel help exfoliate the top layer of the epidermis, removing dead skin and excess oil.

Both give an instant brightening effect, controlling oil production and breakouts, but scrubs can harm your skin in the long run.  

Skin type 

It all depends on your skin type and concerns. You may opt for chemical exfoliation, considering it is precise, less irritating, and serves your goal without any acute adverse effects.  

The penetration 

While you may also choose peels as they are the most powerful, and depending on the concentration, penetrate much deeper than scrubs, they are perfect for some skin complaints and concerns.  

The areas 

Chemical peeling done by professionals is ideal only for the face, arms, and neck, while exfoliation is apt for your whole body.  

Minimalist’s Advice

For people who feel like they are hurting their skin by exfoliating with a scrub, peels work best for you as they rid your skin of unwanted stuff using chemicals.  

Scrub or peel, whatever you go with, don’t overdo it!  

It will dry out the skin and switch on the defense mechanisms making the skin produce excess oil.

Retinol or other vitamin A based products should be used with caution if you simultaneously opt for scrubs or peels.

Adding exfoliants to your routine unwisely may lead to irritation and potentially dermatitis. 


Your skin becomes more sensitive to the UV rays after exfoliation or peeling, so never forget to apply SPF 30 or more during the day.