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Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation: Understanding Different Types of Exfoliants

Exfoliating is one of the secrets to healthy-looking skin. Ahead, learn all about chemical vs. physical exfoliation, plus how to exfoliate with each method.

By now, you probably know that exfoliating your skin regularly can help to promote a smoother feeling, brighter-looking complexion and keep visible signs of premature aging at bay. However, not all types of exfoliation are the same—and it can be pretty tricky to figure out where to get started if you’re not familiar with both physical and chemical exfoliating. To help you navigate the differences between chemical and physical exfoliation (e.g., face scrubs) and fully understand the benefits of both techniques, we created a guide to the different types of exfoliation. Ahead, learn key facts about chemical vs. physical exfoliating, plus tips on how to exfoliate with each method for glowy, healthy-looking skin.

What Is Exfoliation?

Exfoliation refers to the process of using a treatment, product, or tool to slough away dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. There are different types of exfoliation options that can help address complexion concerns. They are designed based on skin types, which is something we’ll get to in a bit.

What Is Chemical Exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliation involves a topical acid, such as salicylic acid, which dissolves dead skin cells. Numerous acids can be used for this purpose, from mild over-the-counter varieties to stronger prescription-strength formulas only available at a dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon’s office. They typically work by weakening the bonds that hold skin cells together, allowing for dead skin to slough away easily.

What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation refers to abrasives that are designed to manually remove dead skin cells and exfoliate skin. This category includes washcloths, specialized beauty tools such as exfoliating brushes or gloves, and face scrubs. There are face scrub formulas that contain ingredients like pearlstone and apricot seeds, which are examples of physical exfoliants. These physical exfoliants work by physically sloughing away dead cells from the surface of the skin.I Physical exfoliation removes the topmost layer of dead skin to reveal the fresh skin cells underneath. If done correctly (i.e., not too aggressively), it won’t affect the lower layers of skin, and it shouldn’t hurt or irritate skin at all.

Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation: Which Is Better For Your Skin?

Exfoliation of any kind has known benefits: it can help improve the appearance of a variety of complexion concerns such as clogged pores and even discoloration. Removing dead skin cells and buildup—either via chemical exfoliating or with a scrub—helps enhance absorption of other skincare treatments, such as serums and moisturizers, in turn making your entire routine more effective. Exfoliating regularly also helps make your skin feel smoother and softer, which naturally makes your skin appear more radiant. It’s the best way to ensure your skin looks glowy and fresh on the regular (and that’s something we all want).

Some benefits are individual to the type of exfoliation you choose. At Kiehl’s, we recognize that there are reasons to use both chemical and physical exfoliants; it isn’t that one is better than the other. What it comes down to is which benefits you are looking to reap.

Benefits of chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation is most useful for improving skin tone and reducing dullness.I The two most commonly used types of acids are alpha-hydroxy acids, known as AHAs, and beta-hydroxy acids, known as BHAs. AHAs, such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, gently resurface the skin for a brighter, more even appearance. BHAs, like salicylic acid, can penetrate deep into the pores to dissolve dirt and oil, making them especially useful for treating some types of acne. Additionally, chemical exfoliants are generally milder than physical exfoliants, which means they can be used by those with sensitive skin or darker skin tones that may be more prone to scarring. Because chemical exfoliants don’t manually remove skin, there’s less risk of overdoing it and ending up with irritated skin.

Benefits of physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation can help improve the appearance of uneven skin texture and age-related concerns, such as fine lines and wrinkles. Research suggests that regular physical exfoliation may stimulate the production of collagen, the protein that gives skin its elasticity. If your body is producing a healthy amount of collagen, skin will appear firmer, smoother, and softer—key characteristics of a youthful-looking complexion.

What You Need To Know About Exfoliation

While exfoliating is a standard skincare step, over-exfoliation can cause your skin to become irritated or inflamed if done incorrectly or too often. Most experts recommend only using one type of exfoliant at a time to minimize the risk of damage. There are also certain facts about exfoliation you should keep in mind.

Know this before using a chemical exfoliant: Some acids, particularly AHAs, are known to cause sun sensitivity, which can lead to a higher risk for sunburn. Sunscreen should already be a part of your everyday routine, but using an acid only makes it that much more critical.

Know this before using a physical exfoliant: Physical exfoliation can be harsh on the skin, and those with sensitive or dry skin may find physical exfoliants too aggressive. If you’re using a face scrub, it’s essential to pay attention to what ingredients are in it. Some may cause micro-tears in the skin’s surface and lead to redness, irritation, or even infection. We recommend sticking to gentle abrasives, such as diatomaceous earth or oat bran.

Our Best Exfoliants For Each Skin Type

Now that you have a firmer understanding of chemical vs. physical exfoliants and the benefits of each, keep scrolling to discover our best exfoliator for your skin type.

For Sensitive Skin:

Milk-Peel Toner

If you’re looking for the benefits of exfoliation without any of the potential irritation, Milk-Peel Gentle Exfoliating Toner can give you the best of both worlds. This hydrating toner features mild lipo-hydroxy acid (a derivative of salicylic acid) to gently resurface and refine the skin without irritating sensitive complexions. It provides added hydration to keep skin feeling its best and is infused with emollients and almond milk.

Shake the bottle before use to fully incorporate the active ingredients. Then, apply a small amount of the toner to your face and sweep over the skin, taking care to avoid the eye area. Follow with your favorite skin-soothing serum and moisturizer to keep your complexion feeling hydrated and healthy.

For Oily Skin:

Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser

To improve the appearance of oily skin (and beat that midday shine), we recommend Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser. Our top-rated facial scrub features Amazonian white clay and diatomaceous earth to help absorb excess oil, refine the skin, and minimize the appearance of pores.

To use it, apply a small amount to damp, clean skin, and gently massage upward over the face and neck. Rinse thoroughly, and follow up with your go-to skincare routine for oily skin.

For Textured Skin:

Epidermal Re-Texturizing Micro-Dermabrasion

If an uneven texture is your main concern, Epidermal Re-Texturizing Micro-Dermabrasion can help refine the skin for a smoother-looking complexion. This powerful facial scrub boasts a blend of powdered micronized shells and willow herb, and it calmly exfoliates the face.

We recommend using this facial scrub three times per week following your daily cleanser. Apply a nickel-sized dollop to damp, clean skin and gently massage over the face for 30 seconds to two minutes. Rinse with lukewarm water and continue with your skincare routine.

For Uneven Skin:

Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate

If hyperpigmentation is your main concern, try Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate. This mild chemical exfoliator stars rice bran-derived phytic acid. The formula helps to gently improve dark spots and discolorations while you sleep for a clearer, more radiant-looking complexion. This overnight treatment is suitable for all skin types and complexions.

At night, after cleansing and toning your face, apply several drops of the lightweight concentrate to dry skin. With your fingertips, gently press the treatment onto your face until absorbed. Follow up with your preferred serum, eye cream, and moisturizer to finish your nighttime skincare routine.

For Dull Skin:

Clearly Corrective Brightening & Exfoliating Daily Cleanser

Brighten dull, tired-looking skin with Clearly Corrective Brightening & Exfoliating Daily Cleanser. Our top-rated treatment contains pearlstone—a known natural abrasive derived from volcanic ash. This cleanser exfoliates skin for a brighter, healthier-looking complexion. It also includes a blend of antioxidants, including peony extract and white birch extract, and visibly boosts radiance and improves skin clarity.

After cleansing your face, massage this brightening scrub over damp skin, taking care to avoid the eye area. Rinse well and proceed with the remainder of your

For Normal Skin:

Pineapple Papaya Facial Scrub

If your complexion is neither oily nor dry and you don’t have any major complexion concerns, such as discoloration, congratulations: You have what most would call a “normal” skin type. Keep it looking healthy and clear with Pineapple Papaya Facial Scrub. This fruity face exfoliator contains powdered apricot seeds, dried luffa, and a blend of fruit extracts to cleanse the skin.

Use it morning and night after washing your face to remove dirt, dead cells, and buildup on the surface of the skin. Follow it up with your favorite skincare treatments for smoother, healthier-looking skin.

For Men:

Facial Fuel Energizing Scrub

Yes, men need to exfoliate, too. Guys can keep skin clean and clear with Facial Fuel Energizing Scrub, our top-rated facial exfoliator formulated specifically for men. This invigorating scrub features powdered apricot kernels, caffeine, and menthol. It gently buffs away dead skin cells while energizing and refreshing tired complexions.

Apply a small amount two to three times per week to damp, clean skin and massage over the face. Rinse thoroughly and proceed with your go-to grooming routine.

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