The Ultimate Exfoliation Guide

The Ultimate Exfoliation Guide

Chemical vs Physical Exfoliation: Everything You Need to Know

Whether you’re searching for the solution to your rough skin worries, finding the perfect formula for your skin type, or just trying to figure out the deal between physical and chemical exfoliation, this guide has answers to all your questions and concerns.


What is exfoliation?

Our bodies are constantly creating new, healthy cells that rise to the surface of our skin. The older skin then dries and flakes away over the course of roughly six weeks. Unfortunately, our bodies also have a hard time getting rid of those old dead cells.

While snakes shed away their old layer of skin, we need to help ours along. That’s where exfoliation comes in: It disrupts and gets rid of all the dead skin on the surface of the face and body.


Why exfoliate?

There are a lot of reasons to exfoliate. When dead skin builds up too much, it leads to dry, flaking patches that can be seen and felt. It also creates clogged pores that hold in acne-causing bacteria.

Exfoliation unclogs pores and creates a smoother skin texture overall. It tackles some of the most common skin complaints, from acne and scarring to signs of aging such as dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles.

Incorporating an exfoliant also helps the other steps of a skincare routine work better. By getting rid of dead skin, other skincare products penetrate deeper, absorb better, and are more effective.

To get rid of dead skin buildup, there are two kinds of exfoliation, each with its own pros and cons: physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation.


Physical Exfoliation

Physical exfoliation is when you use an abrasive substance, usually a scrub, to manually work at and break up dead skin. The best part of physical exfoliation is its immediate effect: The skin is left instantly softer and smoother, and since massaging the skin promotes microcirculation, it also looks rosier and more radiant.

However, there are still drawbacks to manual exfoliation.



Products that use rough, non-dissolving ingredients like walnut shells can not only irritate but potentially damage the delicate facial skin. As these particles are ground down, they don’t remain uniform in size, and their sharp, irregular edges can penetrate too deeply and cause harm.

It’s also difficult to tell when you’ve done too much or just enough exfoliation with physical exfoliants. It’s easy to plow through the dead skin and start to work away at the new, healthy skin underneath without even realizing it.

Not all is lost, however! Physical exfoliates still exist, and they exist for a reason.

Rougher scrubs that use ingredients like peach or apricot pits, walnut shells, pumice, charcoal, or coffee grounds might harm the face, but the rough texture can aid tougher areas of skin, like the feet.

While physical exfoliants aren’t the best for dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin, very oily skin can still benefit. Sometimes that intense level of exfoliation is necessary to get through all those layers of oil. Rougher scrubs also work well against blackheads.

If you are going to use a physical exfoliant on your face, there are steps you can take to stay gentle with your skin. Try to only use a scrub once a week with a very light, gentle massaging motion. Don’t stay on one area for more than 15-30 seconds at a time, and “splash” the scrub away with water, rather than working it into the skin more as you wash it off.

Not all scrubs are created equal, either. While non-dissolving particles can harm the skin, more gentle formulas do exist.

Tatcha’s The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder, for example, is not overly abrasive as it gently works away dead skin with its fine and uniform exfoliant.

Salt and sugar scrubs are also great when used with water because it dissolves the crystals before damage can be done. Fresh’s Sugar Face Polish, Palmers’ Coconut Sugar Facial Scrub, and Lancome’s Rose Sugar Scrub use small sugar particles that melt easily with water. Then there’s Shiseido’s Waso Satocane — Pore Purifying Scrub Mask and Christian Dior’s Hydra Life — Time To Glow Ultra Fine Exfoliating Powder, which combine sugar with other pore-clearing ingredients for a smoother, healthier complexion.

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Other Physical Exfoliation

Along with scrubs, there are other forms of physical exfoliation. While they can be replicated at home, they’re more often performed by a professional.

Microdermabrasion is a process that uses an abrasive device to get rid of dead skin, like a sander. This is an effective treatment for scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, and discolored spots, even more so than other forms of physical exfoliation.

A typical microdermabrasion appointment takes up to an hour and is less invasive than typical dermabrasion. It costs around $150 a session, though it can range from $100-$250. Sessions also range from once or twice a month to every week.

Then there’s dermaplaning, also known as microplaning or dermablading, where an exfoliating blade is used to skim dead skin and hair from the surface of the face and neck. A typical treatment can cost up to $250 for a half-hour session, and it sometimes includes a chemical peel for an additional $150-$300.

However, there are still some safe at-home options to explore, though they’re not as sharp as a professional’s tool. Tweezerman’s Prep & Plane Disposable Dermaplaner Set and Japonesque’s Dermaplaner Facial Razors come with three individual stainless steel razors, while Tweezerman’s Bright Complexion Facial Dermaplaner comes with a larger housing and replaceable stainless steel blades. StackedSkincare ‘s Dermaplaning Tool also uses a single dermaplaning blade to remove dead skin and peach fuzz.

On the higher end, DERMAFLASH’s Luxe+ Advanced Sonic Dermaplaning + Peach Fuzz Removal is a dermaplaning set that uses sonic technology and a microfine edge with a safety cage, plus it includes an oil-removing cleanser and edge replacements.

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If blades and razors seem excessive, there are also face exfoliators, like a Konjac sponge, that are soft, gentle, and easy to use. They’re so gentle that they can even be used daily, and there are a lot to choose between, from Revlon’s Exfoliating Konjac Sponge or J.Cat Beauty’s Exfoliating Konjac Sponge with soothing green tea and Exfoliating Konjac Sponge with detoxifying charcoal to Erborian’s range of Natural, Charcoal, and Green Tea Konjac Sponges.

Another type of gentle physical face exfoliant is a silicone scrubber. Silicone bristles don’t harm the skin as easily as synthetic bristles, but they still help clean and exfoliate the skin. FOREO’s LUNA Mini 2 or LUNA Mini 3 are ideal options, but there’s also Stylecraft’s Scrubs Gentle Cleansing Facial Brush and J.Cat Beauty’s Silicone Face Exfoliator & Mask Applicator.

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Other body exfoliating products, which are okay to be a little bit rougher, include Ecotools’ Exfoliating Bath Sponge, Eve Lom’s Muslin Cloth, FantaSea’s Exfoliating Gloves, and Baxter Of California’s Exfoliating Body Bar. Even the lips need a little help sometimes with products like Winky Lux’s Sugared Matcha Lip Scrub, Wet n Wild’s Perfect Pout Watermelon Lip Scrub, or even Milani’s Rose Sugar Scrub.

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Chemical Exfoliation 

While chemical exfoliation sounds scarier and more harmful than physical exfoliation, it’s actually a gentler process as it doesn’t involve scrubbing at the skin. Chemical exfoliation smooths, brightens, and evens the skin’s tone over time.

Because every chemical exfoliant is so different, you should always follow the instructions for whatever specific product you’re using. However, there are a couple of things you can look for when first incorporating a chemical exfoliator into your skincare routine.

When trying a new skincare product, go slow by only using it once a week, and start with just a small amount of product in the beginning. If it’s a very gentle formula, work up to using it every other day at most over time to avoid irritation, but limiting its use to once or twice a week is still the best practice.

If you’re nervous about trying a new product, start with a patch test. Try the product as directed on your arm, and if there’s no reaction after 24 hours, it’s most likely safe to use on your face.

Sensitive skin can become sore to the touch, painful, or even feel thin when using high concentrations of intense ingredients. If at any point your skin becomes red, irritated, or bumpy, cut back on—or stop using—that product right away. However, when used correctly, chemical exfoliation is usually better for the face than physical scrubs.

There are two main types of chemical exfoliation: AHAs and BHAs.



Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are hydrating and anti-aging chemicals naturally formed in our bodies. While AHAs can be used with any skin type, they’re especially good for dry, normal, and sensitive skin.

The most common AHAs are lactic and glycolic acid, but other AHAs include citric acid, hydroxy caproic acid (from royal jelly), hydroxy caprylic acid (from animals), malic acid (from fruits), and tartaric acid (from grapes). These are water-soluble acids, so they can’t penetrate too deeply into the pores. They help remove the bonds that hold dead cells together on the surface of the skin so they detach and wash away.

Lactic acid, which is derived from lactose or other carbohydrates, is the gentlest chemical exfoliant, making it perfect for sensitive skin. Glycolic acid, extracted from sugar cane, is much more intense, so it dissolves even the smallest of dead skin cells.

There are a lot of different products that use AHAs, from cleansers to serums, treatments to peels. We love Allies of Skin’s Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum, Caudalie’s Vinoperfect Glycolic Peel Mask, Christian Dior’s Capture Totale Dreamskin 1-Minute Mask, Elemis’ Superfood Aha Glow Cleansing Butter, and Natura Bisse’s Facial Cleansing Gel With AHA. There’s Eminence Organic Skin Care’s Yam & Pumpkin Enzyme Peel and Derma E’s Vitamin C Instant Radiance Citrus Facial Peel as well, and Dr. Dennis Gross has an Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel and an Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin.

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First Aid Beauty uses AHAs in their Facial Radiance Pads, as does Freeze 24-7’s Skin Smoothie Retexturizing Glycolic Pads 10%. Then there’s Derma E’s Anti-Aging Regenerative Serum, SUNDAY RILEY’s Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, Jack Black’s Line Smoother 8% Glycolic Acid Treatment, SkinCeuticals’ Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, and Anthony’s Glycolic Facial Cleanser.

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Fruit Enzymes

Also chemical exfoliants, fruit enzymes remove dead skin cells without being as harsh as AHAs or BHAs. These break down the keratin in the very outermost layer of the skin.

Some fruit enzymes include papain (papaya) and bromelain (pineapple), but they are not as stable as AHAs and BHAs; they might harm the healthy skin under the dead skin if used incorrectly. Additionally, when used with topical treatments like retinol, fruit enzymes can become too harsh and cause dryness, flaking, irritation, and redness.

Epicuren Discovery’s Papaya Pineapple Bamboo Body Polish, for example, uses bamboo as a physical exfoliant along with fruit enzymes in its formula. There are also face masks available, such as REN’s Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask. Finally, there are wash-off and leave-on formulas to incorporate throughout a skincare routine, such as Elemis’ Papaya Enzyme Peel and Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner.

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Beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, penetrate deep into the pores to push out dirt, makeup, and impurities. Because these acids are not only strong, but are also oil-soluble, they can dry out the skin, so they’re best for combination, oily, and acne-prone skin.

While the main BHA you’ll find is salicylic acid, there’s also tropic acid, some citric acid, trethocanic acid, and beta hydroxy butanoic acid as less common BHAs. These anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial BHAs break down the bonds between the cells, which is why they go so much deeper into the skin than AHAs.

While there are a lot of great products with BHAs, some of our favorites include SUNDAY RILEY’s U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Acne Treatment Face Oil and Image’s Clear Cell Salicylic Clarifying Tonic. There are also cleansers with BHAs, such as COSMEDIX’s Clarify Salicylic Acid Foaming Cleanser.

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We also love formulas like Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant, Juice Beauty’s Blemish Clearing Serum, and Origins’ Clear Improvement Pore Clearing Moisturizer with Salicylic Acid.

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Multi-Acid Complex

Multi-acid complexes are just as they sound: formulas that use multiple kinds of AHA and BHA exfoliants in one product. Because they are more powerful, these complexes also tend to be more intense.

There are several AHA and BHA cleansers and creams, such as Peter Thomas Roth’s AHA/BHA Acne Clearing Gel, CeraVe’s SA Lotion For Rough & Bumpy Skin, Skin Medica’s AHA/BHA Cream and AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, Dr. Brandt’s Pores No More Vacuum Cleaner, and Murad’s AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser.

Then there are other multi-acid complex formulas, such as Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, Peter Thomas Roth’s Max Complexion Correction Pads, SkinCeuticals’ Blemish + Age Defense serum, Ole Henriksen’s Balance Cold Plunge Pore Mask, Charlotte Tilbury’s Super Radiance Resurfacing Facial, or Pacifica Glow’s Baby Brightening Peel Pads 10 Percent AHA Plus BHA.

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Skin Type

If you’re still not sure what kind of exfoliant to go for, we’ve broken it down based on skin type. Remember, you can also mix and match exfoliators because you can have acne-prone dry skin as well as sensitive combination skin; everyone’s skin is unique.

However, the most important thing to remember is if you’re going to exfoliate, always wear sunscreen. Exfoliation makes the skin more sun-sensitive, which in turn makes it prone to not only damage but long-lasting problems like aging and dark spots.

Lightweight face formulas—like EltaMD’s UV Daily SPF 40, Lancome’s UV Expert Youth Shield Aqua Gel SPF 50, SuperGoop’s Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40, or Clarins’ Dry Touch Facial Sun Care UVA/UVB 50+—keep the skin from feeling too heavy, greasy, or weighed down, especially in the hot and humid summer months. Mineral sunscreens are also skin-friendly and come from a variety of brands and formulas.



Only very oily skin can withstand physical exfoliation. Otherwise, stick with BHAs. AHAs also work with oily skin if BHAs are too intense. Try a multi-acid complex if regular AHAs and BHAs don’t work well enough.


Combination skin does best with BHAs. AHAs also work with combination skin if BHAs are too intense. Try a multi-acid complex on more oily areas if regular AHAs and BHAs aren’t enough.


Normal skin does best with AHAs.


Dry skin does best with AHAs.


Sensitive skin does best with gentle AHAs, like lactic acid. They also do well with fruit enzymes, as long as they’re used properly and not in combination with topical treatments.


Acne-prone skin should avoid physical exfoliation as much as possible. This type works best with BHAs like salicylic acid, but keep in mind these can be drying. Pair salicylic acid skincare with a moisturizer when needed, or decrease its use.


Still not enough? Check out our full range of exfoliating products to find the perfect match for your skin.

For questions, concerns, or article ideas, feel free to reach out to our eCosmetics Beauty Editor directly at