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Chemical Vs. Physical Exfoliation

You may, or may not, have heard these two different terms being thrown around in the skincare world. Chemical exfoliation, and physical exfoliation.

So, what is the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation?

“Physical” Exfoliation

A physical exfoliant uses an ingredient, or a tool, that physically scrubs old, dead cells from the surface of your skin.

Some examples of tools are a brush, sponge, pumice or cloth that you rub onto your skin to achieve this outcome. You will generally notice if a product contains a physically exfoliating ingredient as it will feel gritty and rough on your skin.

Most commonly, these ingredients are ground down natural products such as nuts, stones, plants and plant extracts. There was a time when companies the world over used little plastic beads called micro beads. Thankfully due to their awful impact on the environment they have been banned in some countries, a trend that is on the rise.

“Chemical” Exfoliation

Hold the phone! Aren’t chemicals bad for us?

The word chemical gets a bad rap. We need to remember that the water we drink is a chemical. The air we breathe is a chemical and so many more other compounds that our bodies could not live without.

When it comes to exfoliation, the word “chemical” usually implies that an enzymatic ingredient is being used. These enzymes dissolve the glue that hold dead skin cells in place, helping our skin to speed up it’s cell turnover to reveal fresh, dewy, healthy looking skin.

The most commonly used enzyme exfoliants are citric acid (found in citrus fruits, did your nan ever tell you to rub lemon peel on your face? Mine did!) lactic acid (derived from milk and some plant products) and salicylic acid (usually derived synthetically but some wonderful botanical brands use the original form which is derived from willow bark).

You may hear these ingredients referred to as AHA’s or BHA’s, don’t let these “buzzwords” confuse you. Most chemical exfoliants will work their magic without you! Meaning that you just apply the product to the desired area, and let it do its thing. No rubbing required.


So, which is better, a chemical or a physical exfoliant?

Each have their benefits and their downfalls. Physical exfoliants are great at smoothing the surface of the skin and removing the cells that we want gone. However, some skins may not like the harsh friction that these physical exfoliants can cause, sometimes leading to irritation.

Physical exfoliants also aren’t much good for having any effects below that upper layer of the skin, unlike their chemical (or enzyme) counterparts. Enzymes have the unique benefit of being able to delve below the surface layer of the skin to remove impurities at a deeper level and can even create changes to your skin on a cellular level.

Remember: Some exfoliants can use a combination of both methods. Make sure you read the labels if you’re trying to avoid a particular ingredient. Or just ask!

Which one is right for you?

I think I have a 100% Strike rate in saying this in posts, but it can’t be said enough – no two skins are the same – however in this case there are a few added guidelines.

If your skin is prone to redness, maybe steer clear of a physical exfoliant, unless it’s veeeery gentle.

Make sure you follow the directions of an enzyme exfoliant. These can be irritating if left on for too long. Same goes for those with acne or breakouts, which abrasive scrubs will only irritate further.

Make your choice based on your needs, if you have no major skin concerns and just want to have a good scrubbin’, then go for the physical. However, if you want to make dramatic changes to your skins appearance and cell turnover (the key to anti ageing) give a chemical exfoliant a whirl.

Our favourite physical exfoliant

Our favourite chemical exfoliant


  1. The Best Ways to Exfoliate Your Skin Properly - July 5, 2016

    […] Exfoliate properly . | Image via Botanik Boutique […]

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