Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Aheli Sen (Fashion & Beauty Expert) on 20th Feb 2021

Physical Exfoliators VS Chemical Exfoliators

Physical Exfoliators VS Chemical Exfoliators

We have used loofah to shower daily; scrubs with walnut or other bits to exfoliate the skin. However, in recent times, the world has gone through a chemical peel craze, and it seems quite legit. Why? Because it is hassle-free, easy to use, works better than loofah and scrubs, and does a fantastic job to get rid of the dead skin cells to free radiant, glowing skin.

For those who want to understand, the term exfoliation means getting rid of dead skin cells to bring to the surface fresh, new skin cells. Often the skin loses the capacity to get rid of the dead skin cells that layer on to form uneven skin texture, rough and patchy skin, clogs pores, paves the way for acne formation, and makes the skin look dull, dry and lackluster.

As one grows up, the natural capacity to exfoliate the skin becomes lesser and lesser, which means the only way out is to use exfoliation factors topically. Exfoliators are of two different types; physical and chemical. Let us discuss the properties of both to understand better and, thus, call out which one is better than the other later on in this article. 

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Physical Exfoliators: 

These exfoliators come in the form of granules in products, brushes, loofas, scalpels, etc. They are products or tools that have to be massaged onto the skin to remove dead skin cells. Physical exfoliators help the skin regain natural exfoliation power for a limited period. Continuous use at intervals helps shed dead skin and expose the youthful, radiant skin that lies beneath. As time goes, the body's natural exfoliation power is lost, and thus, using natural exfoliators in the form of products or tools helps.

Skincare with physical exfoliation usually contains sugar, fruit beads, salt grains, etc., to help remove dead skin. Depending on the grade of exfoliation that the product is made for, granules are created. If the product's function is to provide aggressive exfoliation, the granules are tiny in a considerable volume of liquid, crème, or gel. In contrast, for less severe and daily exfoliation, the granules are slightly bigger and in lesser volume.

It is recommended not to use physical exfoliators with beads that are too large and harm the skin.

Physical exfoliators provide instant lymphatic drainage to reduce puffiness of the skin from all the rubbing and massaging. It gives the skin an instant glow. People with dry skin should stick to physical exfoliators as they do not irritate the skin from being too harsh, like chemical exfoliators. The same applies to people with sensitive skin. 

Chemical Exfoliators: 

These exfoliators come in the form of, well, they could be in whatever format they are added to; gels, masks, sleeping masks, peels, lotions, creams, serums, etc. These exfoliators have no granules as they are, well, chemicals. They are derived from plants mostly. However, these exfoliators eat away or peel away the dead skin rather than having to be scrubbed away. These exfoliators need to be massaged onto the skin too. Various chemical exfoliators like Alpha Hydroxy Acid or AHA, Beta Hydroxy Acid or BHA, retinoids, etc. They also come in different concentrations.

It is recommended to start with chemical exfoliators with the least concentration and then build your way up to the highest concentration. Now, this is to prevent the skin from getting irritated and inflamed. Starting with the least concentration and working your way up over a long period gives the skin the time and opportunity to get used to the product.

Another very important matter to discuss is that when we say peel away, we usually do not mean that we can see the skin peel. It means that we may see a peel like that of gum when we wash away the exfoliator or none at all as some chemicals burn the skin. Again we do not mean a dense burn, something that only feels a little tingling; that is all.

Another piece of advice for those using chemical exfoliators is to keep it on the skin for not too long. Usually, most AHA products are recommended to be left on the skin for no more than 10 minutes. A tip for choosing chemical exfoliators would be first to consult a doctor to understand what works and how rather than to jump to conclusions we regret. The second tip would be to do a patch test before going full-on with the products. 

Let us now see what kind of exfoliator and which type work for different skin types: 

  • Normal Skin – little are blessed with this skin type with the perfect balance of oil, water, and just the right amount of natural dewy skin. It never usually gets irritated and thus can use any kind and type of exfoliator as mentioned above. 
  • Sensitive Skin – a skin type that gets irritated very easily. Physical exfoliators are a big no for such a skin type as it is prone to irritation. Even chemical exfoliators, for the most part, are a big no. The only kind of exfoliation that this skin can think of coming in contact with would be BHA. It is a chemical exfoliator that has the least irritability. 
  • Dry Skin – harsh physical exfoliators would be a big no for this skin type. As the skin lacks the required hydration and oil levels, physical exfoliators mostly would create micro-tears into the skin, and the skin would still be patchy as it has no means of being smooth.

    It can use physical exfoliators that have tiny particles and come in a moisturizing medium. The second format of exfoliators that are the chemical ones would mean AHA, which would peel off dead skin cells to reveal smooth skin that can better absorb hydration and oils. 
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  •  Oily Skin – It is essential that ones with excess oil on the skin remove dead skin cells regularly. Why? We would not want the dead skin cells to bind with the excess oil present on the skin's surface and clog pores and help bacteria grow. Again, why? Well, this is what gives rise to acne. To prevent acne from surfacing, remove dead skin cells using AHA, BHA, or retinoids. They slough away the dead skin cells to reveal smoother, less oily, and acne-free skin
  • Combination skin – an oily t-zone and dry patches on the skin otherwise means you have combination skin. As the name suggests, combination skin would also need skincare that is balanced to take care of both skin types, or it would mean usage of different products on different parts of the skin. Chemical exfoliators would be a better choice for such a skin type, but physical exfoliators could be used on the more oily t-zone. 

A Few Tips For Exfoliation: 

  • Exfoliate as and when required when it comes to physical exfoliators. 
  • Use chemical exfoliators like retinol four days a week and other retinoids and AHA not more than twice a week. 
  • Do not use an exfoliator on the skin that has a cut. 
  • Do not use more than one exfoliator at a time. If you have exfoliated with a physical exfoliator, then do not resort to a different one again on the same day or a chemical type. 
  • Do not exfoliate every single day. 
  • Space out using different chemical exfoliators if you want variety. If you have used AHA today, give the skin two days to use the same or a different chemical or physical exfoliator.
  • Many exfoliators are specially made for the body and not the face and vice versa. One needs to understand that they have been differentiated for a reason. The skin on the body and the face is extremely different and requires exfoliation of a different kind. The skin on the body is a lot thicker than the face and can thus take on more exfoliation than the face.