Difference Between Chemical and Physical Exfoliation
By Rebecca Rodriguez - July 2, 2022

Exfoliation is the process whereby dead or damaged skin cells on the outer layer of the skin are removed. Naturally, when the cells of the outermost skin layer die, they fall off by themselves (although we cannot see this) once a month or thereabouts. However, this process refuses to see itself till the end sometimes for several reasons such as aging, dehydration, and sun damage. As a result, dead skin cells can build up on the skin, making it look dull, dry, flaky, and rigid. Exfoliation is a way to speed up the process, and while some recommend doing it yourself with the aid of scrubs and machines, some advise you to leave it to chemical compounds designed for the purpose.

Table Summary

Chemical ExfoliationPhysical Exfoliation
The chemicals like BHA, AHA, and fruit enzymesProcedures like scrubbing and dermaplaning.
Gentle on the skinIt can be very abrasive to the skin.
Woman using loofah pad on her face

Getty Images / Image Source


Chemical Exfoliation is exfoliation with enzymes and acid-based products, which break the protein bonds between the dead cells, so they come off quicker. There are three main categories of chemical exfoliates: alpha-hydroxyl acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), and poly-hydroxyl acids (PHAs). There is also the option of a Chemical Peel, but this requires the intervention of a professional.

Physical exfoliation involves manually removing the dead cells with slightly rough materials, such as scrubs, baking soda, sea salt, microbeads, or perhaps objects like a brush or sponge. Physical exfoliation includes machines that perform procedures like microdermabrasion and dermaplaning.

Physical VS Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical products interact with skin types differently, and that could include reactions. The significant difference between chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation is in the intensity. While chemical exfoliates are designed to be gentle on the skin, physical methods tend to be more abrasive on this skin, leading to over-exfoliation that further damages the skin. For example, AHA also tends to cause sun sensitivity, which needs to be paired with sunscreen. Also, chemical exfoliation takes longer to have noticeable effects than physical methods.