Physical Exfoliators Vs. Chemical Exfoliators: What’s The Difference?

Physical Exfoliators Vs. Chemical Exfoliators: What’s The Difference?

When I was in school, I got some blackheads on my nose and forehead. My mom went to the best cosmetic store (there was no Sephora or Nykaa back then) and got me an Apricot Scrub. I used it and got rid of some blackheads, and that, my friends, is every 90s girl’s introduction to scrubs or physical exfoliators. Fast forward to 2020, when AHA-BHA-PHA toners and essences, that have made it to every woman’s beauty kitty. Today we’re going to talk about physical exfoliators (scrubs, washcloths, pumice store) and chemical exfoliators (alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids) that help you exfoliate your skin. We’re also going to be discussing which one is better in today’s day and age. Let’s get started.

What Is Exfoliation?

Simply put, it is the process of removing the dead layer of skin cells from the top layers of your skin.

Physical Exfoliators

Now, back in the 90s, we didn’t really have anything else because the skincare industry was quite limited, and most exfoliators included an apricot or a walnut scrub (fruits that are naturally granular), and DIY sugar and coffee scrubs soon made their debut with Pinterest. (I still love a sugar scrub on my lips by the way.) To this day, anything that is naturally granular in nature, is often combined with other ingredients and used as a physical scrub.

Pumice stones and washcloths are physical exfoliators too.

Chemical Exfoliants

Just as the beauty industry became the billion-dollar industry, the stigma associated with “acids” began to dissipate, and chemical exfoliators came into the limelight. In came Mario Badescu, COSRX, Pixi Beauty and Drunk Elephant with their beauty elixir, each showcasing an acid that helped a specific skin concern.

Chemical exfoliants are classified into 3 categories (Read my article on A-Z of acids here)

AHA or alpha-hydroxy acids

Preferred for normal to dry skin, and glycolic acid, lactic acid mandelic acid help exfoliate dead cells, tackle hyperpigmentation too.

BHA or beta-hydroxy acids

Ideal for oily skin, help with controlling excessive sebum and acne. Most common BHAs include salicylic acid and citric acid.

PHA or poly-hydroxy acids

Poly-hydroxy acids are a newer generation of acids. These are bigger molecules and cannot penetrate as deeply as AHA and BHA based chemical exfoliants. However, studies suggest, PHA is less irritating to use.

Most chemical exfoliants are available as face mists, essence, toners, peel pads and also in facials. Apart from exfoliation, they also counter acne, acne scars, spots and signs of ageing.

Physical Exfoliators Vs. Chemical Exfoliators: What’s The Difference?

The difference is that chemical exfoliants use acids to dissolve and loosen the cells, while physical exfoliants work by scrubbing away the dead skin and debris. The second difference is that chemical exfoliants do more than just scrub off dead skin, blackheads and whiteheads. They also reduce the appearance of dark spots, acne and signs of ageing.

Remember, using both physical or chemical exfoliators can irritate and sensitise the skin.

Physical Exfoliators Vs. Chemical Exfoliators: Which Is Better?

If you’re in your teens, I would say use a granular scrub. If you have acne, it’s better to consult a dermatologist who can start you off on a chemical exfoliant if needed. As you progress to your 20s, include a chemical exfoliator up to twice a week.

My Favourite Chemical Exfoliators

COSRX -BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

Pixi Glow Tonic (5% Glycolic Acid)

Thanks for reading!