What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliation?

What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliation?

Back in the ‘good old days’, it was the norm to buff away flaky skin with a rough towel after a long steamy shower. Nowadays, in the world of beauty, we have SO many options when it comes to renewing our skin and removing unwanted cellular build up AKA dead skin...without the rough towel!

Why should we exfoliate?

There are many good benefits exfoliating, including brighter, smoother, blemish free skin that will better absorb the nourishing products you apply afterwards. The ‘dead’ skin that we feel so satisfied in removing is not technically dead, which may sound confusing considering skin therapists often refer to the upper layers of our epidermis as being dead all the time! These ‘dead’ skin cells actually play a very important role in our skin barrier and how it functions a healthy skin, and these cells just aren’t as young, juicy, and thriving as they once were. Without them we would be extremely impaired and sensitised, our skin would be prone to infections and bad bacteria, and acne and dermatitis would be prevalent. ‘Dead’ skin cells, while necessary, can become problematic when they build up on one another as our skin cell turnover starts to slow down with age and environmental factors. Usually our skin would exfoliate itself every 4 weeks but as we age that process slows right down to every 40-50 days. Without exfoliation, oilier skin types can appear ‘built up’ and thickened with more blackheads, and in drier, sensitive skin types skin can look lacklustre and dull. The best approach I can advise is to find a balance – exfoliate in moderation without overdoing it.

How often should we exfoliate?

There are different types of exfoliation that will work in different ways. You can physically exfoliate your skin by rubbing/sloughing/abrading the dead skin off or you use something chemical based to gently dissolve the glue that binds our cells together. Enzymes are another alternative way to exfoliate. Ultimately, with home exfoliation products, we recommend anywhere from 1-3 times per week, and professional exfoliation treatments we recommend every 2-4 weeks

Physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation can use a scrub or grainy like substance, or an exfoliating glove, to physically abrade and remove dead skin particles. While physical exfoliators can be used by most skin types, they are more suited to a resilient skin with open pores, sun damage and wrinkles.
Look for a good quality physical exfoliant in the form of a cleanser, polish or a mask –  Jojoba Beads are smooth with round edges and work well on a sensitive skin, whereas Pumice Crystals will work better for someone who needs stronger exfoliation to perhaps target deep lines, sun damage and even keratosis pilaris (a skin condition that is common on the upper arms and legs).
Physical exfoliation can also be performed as part of a professional treatment. Microdermabrasion and Epiblading are both treatments which remove redundant skin cells on a deeper level, and you will find both techniques are very thorough. An added bonus in these professional treatments is that they’re usually followed by a hydrating/soothing mask to replenish the skin. 

Chemical exfoliation

Whenever my clients hear the words chemical or acid I see fear in their eyes… It’s after this initial shock that I explain to them the ingredients are derived from natural sources, and then I hear a sigh of relief! 
The ‘chemical’ part of chemical exfoliation is the reaction that takes place in the skin after applying a naturally derived acid, and these chemicals work by dissolving the glue (keratin protein) that binds the dead skin cells together. Believe it or not, this can be one of the more gentle ways of revealing fresher, clearer and brighter skin. 
There are two types of acids (AHA’s and BHA’s) which are used in chemical exfoliation and they can be used at home in your cleansers, toners, serums, exfoliating pads or spot treatments, or as a professional treatment in the form of a chemical peel. The difference between using something at home vs. a professional treatment will be the percentage of ingredients used and how deep they travel into the skin. At home, different types of acids have different jobs to do once absorbed into the skin, so often you can mix them depending on what your concerns are.  In the clinic, chemical peels are often used to correct particular skin concerns such as acne, scarring, sun damage, and ageing. Post-treatment you can expect anything from a little flaking that may look like dandruff to A LOT of flaking that you could compare to a shedding snake! Most acids will cause a little tingling sensation in the skin as it gets to work, so this is nothing to be concerned about.


Alpha hydroxyl acids are an umbrella of ingredients which all work to improve our skin’s texture.
Lactic acid – derived from sour milk, lactic acid is a well-known ingredient that naturally occurs in our own skin, making it a well-received ingredient in skincare. As a humectant, this serves as a great hydrator as well as an exfoliator. Most skins can benefit from this ingredient including sensitive and it’s responsible for giving the skin a beautiful glow. 
Glycolic acid- derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is widely available as it costs less to produce. It is slightly stronger than lactic acid and can work brilliantly on congested areas such as the t-zone and on deeper lines and wrinkles. Its main purpose it for exfoliation, so if you want to improve clarity or hydration, other acids may be better suited. This can also be a very drying acid IF overused. 
Mandelic acid- derived from bitter almonds, this acid is a great alternative to salicylic acid, making this a pregnancy safe option for someone with acne, excess oil production and pigmentation. Studies have shown this to also improve stubborn melasma. 


There is only one Beta Hydroxy Acid that we need to know, and that is Salicylic Acid. This acid comes from the willow bark tree and is from the same family of ingredients that aspirin comes from, making it an anti-inflammatory.  This ingredient works like a bottle brush and travels all the way down to the base of our hair follicles to clean them out, attacking ingrown hairs and in some cases providing positive results on psoriasis due to it being a keratolytic agent. This acid also loves oil so works particularly well for acne and oilier skin types. When mixed with vitamin C, this cocktail can be a powerful treatment for pigmentation, especially post inflammatory pigment.

Enzymatic exfoliation

Although I wouldn’t necessarily put this type of exfoliation under the category of chemical, it is closer to that than a physical. This type of exfoliation is perfect for a sensitive skin or for a skincare newbie just starting a skincare regime. Unlike an acid dissolving the glue, enzymes digest the dead skin on the outer surface. Think of enzymes like Pacman, but instead of chasing ghosts he’s gobbling up the skin debris. Enzymes are great to use prior to an event as they are super gentle yet very brightening and hydrating. Popular ingredients with enzymatic action are found in berries and fruit - Bromelain (pineapple) and Papain (papaya) are two of the most popular enzymes found in cleansers, masks and peels.  

Mixing different types together

Now you’ve had a breakdown, you should feel more confident with choosing a type of exfoliator for your skin. Often with cosmeceuticals, you can find a combination of exfoliants in the one product. At Clinica Lase we have many combination exfoliators, including the PCA Pore Refining Scrub, which contains Mandelic acid (chemical), Papain (physical) and Rice Powder & Pumice (enzymes), and we’ve also just received a brand new product called Aspect Dr Illuminating Polish which contains jojoba beads, enzymes and AHA’s for some triple threat exfoliation. There’s a wide range of cosmeceutical grade products in the clinic, so get in touch and we’ll help find your exfoliating match made in heaven!