Why does chemical exfoliation fare better than physical exfoliation?

Who doesn’t love the skin that feels as smooth as a baby’s bum? We all do. To rid your skin of texture, bumps and blemishes is just as important as keeping it away from acne, pigmentation and extreme dryness or oiliness. And when you think of (achieving) smooth skin, you think of exfoliation—it does make sense theoretically and practically too. A bunch of celebrities also swears by exfoliation to improve the look and feel of their skin in a flash, whether it’s through peel-based facials or a liquid exfoliant at home. Perhaps, that is what explains the unremitting interest of skincare enthusiasts in physical exfoliation for all these years, and now, that pedestal has been bestowed to chemical exfoliation. But let’s get real, with the sudden, lightning influx of both information and products pertaining to chemical and physical exfoliation, consumers, especially beginners, are left perplexed and struggle with making the right choice. Here’s a primer on both chemical and physical exfoliation—make notes.

What is physical exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation, also known as mechanical exfoliation, refers to sloughing away dead skin, rough texture and flakes that accumulate on your epidermis with a scrub made up of exfoliative ingredients like sugar, fruit enzymes and nuts. Physical exfoliation has been appreciated for as long as you can remember, mostly because of how instantly it gives results, from the very first exfoliation. However, in the recent past, physical exfoliation has been subjected to controversies as it can cause micro-tears, contribute towards enlarged pores and even damage the skin barrier. 

While most of the part is true, it’s essential to pick and choose (well), when shopping for a “face scrub” that doesn’t include abrasive ingredients like walnut shells or microplastic beads that have sharp edges, which have, by the way, been banned in many parts of the world for it can be perilous to the skin as well as the environment. “Peep the ingredients list to make sure that none of the exfoliating agents are too large,” Dr Dennis Gross told Into The Gloss. A better and wiser choice, if you wish to opt for physical exfoliation, is using dermaplaning tools that let you enjoy similar-to-microdermabrasion benefits at home, minus any invasive procedure as well as harsh ingredients. Though not as mainstream as face scrubs, such mechanical exfoliation tools give smoother, softer skin quickly with minimised skin damage. 

What is chemical exfoliation?

With 31.2 million views on TikTok, #chemicalexfoliation subsumes a bunch of informative videos covering various chemical exfoliants, their benefits, how to use them and the best product recommendations under the category. That’s how big chemical exfoliation has become today. From evolved skincare users to nascent entrants, everyone is excited about chemical exfoliants today. Why? The reason is simple—convenience, efficacy, and skin-friendliness combined. Chemical exfoliation, as the name suggests, employs chemicals to exfoliate the skin. Chemical exfoliation is not just skin-deep, but promotes cell renewal and completely resurfaces the skin. When compared to physical exfoliation’s short-lived benefits, chemical exfoliation is not only more effective in the long run but also more repairing and treating. Plus, while chemical exfoliants can be slightly potent in the early stages, they are definitely not as gritty and damaging as physical scrubs.

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are the two common classes of chemical exfoliants. Connecticut-based dermatologist Mona Gohara told Vogue that she prefers water-soluble alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which gently loosen the upper layers of skin. AHAs are mostly derived from plants and fruits; glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid and citric acid are common AHAs that target pigmentation, uneven skin tone, dryness and texture. BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble, more potent, and work on extreme skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, blemishes, texture, bumps and more. Salicylic acid is the most widely-used (and common) BHA that has been touted as a saviour for oily, acne-prone skin. 

What’s best for you?

If you’re a lover of no-frills, efficacious and science-backed skincare routines, chemical exfoliation is your best bet. Look for products (toners, serums and treatment exfoliants like our Daily Liquid Exfoliant) that combine chemical actives with soothing and barrier-fortifying ingredients like aloe vera, chamomile, hyaluronic acid, rose water and niacinamide to ensure results without drying out or irritating the skin as chemical exfoliants can come with a side-effect of redness and irritation when used in higher concentrations at the beginning. You can also rely on the skin cycling method that involves giving your skin a few days of breathers between application of chemical actives; the method also makes introducing stronger ingredients like retinol and higher concentrations of AHA and BHA peels and serums easier and more fail-proof.