Exfoliating: Physical vs Chemical

Megan Dominion

We all love taking good care of our skin. Your skin has a cycle of 28 days at which point new skin cells are formed in your skin’s epidermis and work their way up to the surface. Exfoliating assists this process by helping the old skin to shed, leaving you with a brighter, more even complexion. The tricky part is that we want to exfoliate without damaging the skin’s natural protection barrier. Let’s look at all the different ways and products commonly used to exfoliate your skin in a safe and effective way, including how often to exfoliate your face. 

Physical exfoliants

Physical exfoliants use a granular scrub which actually (physically) buffs the skin’s surface to remove the build-up of dead skin cells. A lot of people prefer physical exfoliants as they give you that “squeaky clean” feeling and you can physically feel that your skin texture is smoother after use. These products are often referred to as ‘microabrasion’ products but there are a few things to be watched out for here. The results, benefits and dangers of using these will depend on your skin type, history, other products you are using and skin conditions you may have, such as acne.

When to use a physical exfoliant

It’s not recommended to use a granular scrub or microabrasion product if you suffer from acne or rosacea, or if you are using certain medications high in Vitamin A / retinol, or have recently had a skin procedure such as a chemical peel or dermaplaning done. In fact, I’m yet to come across a dermatologist who would recommend a physical exfoliant for your face. The risk of damaging your skin can be too high and many dermatologists recommend leaving the physcial exfoliants for less sensitive skin areas such as the rest of your body. Think foot scrubs.

Physical Exfoliants and the environment

Another thing to consider is that products that contain physical exfoliants are often using microbeads. Yes, sadly, they are still around, despite microbeads being banned, these microbeads are too small to be caught in water treatment plants and end up down the drain and in our rivers and oceas. We recommend using this app to scan your products and check whether it contains microplastics or microbeads.

Chemical exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants more commonly use enzymes or acid-based products that dissolve the protein bonds that are usually found between dead skin cells. By removing those proteins, your skin is more equipped to remove dead skin cells. In a nutshell, it’s a safer way to accelerate skin cell turnover without aggravating your skin as much as a granunal scrub would. The process is often referred to as micro-exfoliating and is more commonly recommended by skin care professionals. It’s often found in a powder format which you mix into a paste with a bit of water to activate the enzymes and (usually) hydroxy acids. It’s known to brighten the skin, but might not give you the same ‘polished’ or clean / soft feeling that a granular exfoliant would.

Should you exfoliate your body?

Absolutely, yes! Your body can hold on to excess dead skin just the same as your face does. However, most people usually just focus on the face when it comes to exfoliating. It’s common to use an exfoliating sponge on the larger areas or your body, but many people also love using a thick scrub (sometimes with added sugar or coffee granules) to help shed dead skin and help your skin to feel smoother, softer and cleaner. Many people use body exfoliants when they are preparing for a body treatment such as a self tan or spray tan, as exfoliating before these procedures lengthens the effect of them. In other words, if you’re planning on going for an artificial spray-tan, you should exfoliate your entire body the night before to ensure that you’ve removed all dead and excess skin so that you don’t ‘lose’ your spray tan in your skin’s next shedding cycle.

Body exfoliants also usually involve scrubs and brushes depending on your skin’s sensitivity and type.

What to use to exfoliate your face

You absolutely should not use a scrub, brush or large granules on your face. By doing this, you will most likely strip or damage your skin’s outer barrier. The barrier is what is needed to protect your skin from environmental factors, pollution and the sun. Your barrier also retains moisture in your face, so using a harsh scrub or brush will most likely damage your skin, dry it out and make it more vulnerable to things such as aging and pigmentation. Opt for a chemical exfoliant rather.

Can you exfoliate while using retinol?

Yes you absolutely can. Just remember that both exfoliants and retinol are active ingredients, so combining them will increase the risk of irritating your skin, and thinning your skin barrier. So if you do, be careful to give your skin time to recover, maybe use a repairing balm as well somewhere in your routine and give your skin a break of both exfoliating and retinols if you findyour skin feeling a bit more sensitive or red.

How often should you exfoliate your face

This depends on your skin type, skin conditions, treatments you’ve been doing and so forth. It also depends on the strength of your skin’s barrier. E.g if you’ve had a Dermapen / Microneedling treatment done, then your skin will be very sensitive so you shouldn’t exfoliate for quite some time until your skin’s barrier has healed. You also shouldn’t exfoliate if you’re using a Vitamin A based medication such as Accutane as your skin will likely be very sensitive as well. The same goes for other conditions like acne breakouts or rosacea flare-ups.

In a perfect world, and without recent treatments, medications and flare-ups or breakouts: you can safely exfoliate your face 1 – 2 times a week or as needed. You’ll generally feel if your skin looks a bit dull or feels a bit rough. As a rule, you should not exfoliate your skin every day as your cells need a bit of time to replenish or recover from the previous exfoliation. You don’t want to lose moisture or make your skin vulnerable.

At which stage in my skincare routine should I exfoliate

This depends on your preference. Some people like to cleanse first, and then exfoliate while others like to do it the other way around. The general rule is to always use a physical or granular exfoliator with water and to rub it in circular motions or to follow the product’s instructions. Chemical exfoliators usually require keeping the paste or product on your skin for a certain length of time so it has time to eat those little dead flakes away.


Always follow the recommendations on the product you have used and remember to always test a new product for irritation when you begin using it. If you experience a break-out or redness / itching after exfoliating then you might want to make an appointment with a skincare specialist to see what may be aggravating your skin.


Megan Dominion

Megan Dominion is SILKUP's Managing Editor. She's been down both the curly hair and skincare rabbit holes many times and loves that there's always something new to learn; a new science, method, product or personal experience.