Physical Health, Wellness / Self-Care

The smooth Skin debate: physical scrubs vs. chemical Exfoliation

Both work, find out which is right for you.

words by: Adam Hurly
Dec 3, 2021

Exfoliation is the second step of any baseline skincare regime—it goes cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize—but many people skip exfoliating altogether. That’s probably because it’s not a daily task, while cleansing and moisturizing are twice daily necessities. Exfoliation, on the other hand, is a twice-weekly effort, and is also a bit more nebulous in its purpose.


To skip exfoliation is an unfortunate oversight, because the step provides smoothing, brightening benefits to the skin. It does this by lifting away dead cells and rough patches of skin, revealing your most youthful, firm complexion. On top of that, it also prevents those dead cells from getting trapped inside the pores, so exfoliation in turn prevents acne. By incorporating it twice weekly into your bedtime regimen (after cleansing, before moisturizing), you can ensure that you let the healthy cells enjoy their time in the sun. You also give your face a good night’s rest, in order to recover from your exfoliation method of choice.


There are two types of exfoliation from which to choose: chemical and physical. While they both promise the core smoothing and skin-clearing benefits of exfoliation, they also offer something unique. Read on to learn about the benefits of both types of exfoliation, and who should choose each one. We’ll also list our favorite products of each type.


Physical Scrubs

Physical exfoliants have a gritty texture, thanks to ingredients like jojoba beads, pulverized pumice, or ground seeds. By gently buffing away at the skin, they lift away dead cells and leave skin baby smooth. You know that smooth sensation after a day in the sand? It’s like that for your face, but much gentler since the face is so sensitive.


Physical scrubs focus on surface-level benefits. They also work wonderfully before a shave, to help remove dead cells and to lift the hairs, both of which can prevent razor drag or a subpar shearing. Some physical scrubs also have a cleansing base, and can thus be substituted in for your routine cleanser on the days of use.


Others are extremely gentle and allow for daily use—these will have a much sparser distribution of beads or seeds. The most universal advice we can give is to carefully follow the advice from each brand. They’ll have tested the product and will best understand how frequently it can be used. In the least though, you should plan on using it twice a week.


The Best Physical Exfoliators

Bulldog Original Face Scrub

Marlowe Facial Scrub and Cleanser


Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants utilize ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, such as glycolic or lactic acid), as well as beta hydroxy acid (BHAs, like salicylic acid), to break down dead skin cells. The AHAs are more surface-level exfoliants, while the BHAs seep into the pores and break down anything trapped inside (while also helping to mitigate oil production). BHAs are thus useful to help minimize fresh breakouts, or prevent them from forming.


You can find formulations with both AHAs and BHAs, or as standalone agents. You can also find chemical exfoliants that utilize fruit enzymes or poly hydroxy acids (PHAs) for the same effect. PHAs are much gentler than AHAs, though you can also taper your AHA intensity accordingly, if you want a gentle formula. Obviously, the words “chemical” and “acid” seem daunting for skin care, but you can trust their efficacy. Not to mention, the body naturally creates many of these ingredients itself, and our skin is naturally acidic in the first place, so it’s not like you’re applying acid rain to your mug.


You can find some cleansers with AHA or BHA exfoliating properties, as well as serums, daytime moisturizers, acne and dark-spot healers, or night creams. The potency of the formula should be clearly labeled, and should dictate how frequently you can use them. Typically, if it’s a cleanser or daytime hydrator (or even a spot cream), then daily use is fine.


Serums and peels are usually used less frequently (the latter of which is extremely high in potency, and should only be used once a week). Like with physical scrubs, just follow the specific directions provided by the brand, and use that as your starting point. Before your first use, do a spot check to make sure your skin doesn’t react inversely.


The Best Chemical Exfoliators

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel

Peace Out Salicylic Acid Treatment Serum

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% Exfoliating Serum

Peter Thomas Roth Peptide 21 Amino Acid Exfoliating Peel Pads


For more grooming tips, try our 25 days of self-care Christmas advent calendar.


Photo via Shutterstock