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What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliation?

Each has its own set of benefits.
  • Wendy Rose Gould
May 03, 2024

When you spot someone with gorgeous, glowing skin, it’s only natural to want to ask for all their skincare secrets. But even without asking, we can wager a guess that physical and/or chemical exfoliation is involved. Exfoliating is the process of sloughing off dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, and it can help reveal healthy-looking skin underneath. Without exfoliation, skin can look dull and feel rough.

Chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation are the two main types, each of which also has its own benefits. Here, we’re breaking down the differences between both and shouting out our best chemical exfoliants. Soon, it could be you with people asking about your glowing complexion.

What Is Chemical Exfoliation?

Inarticle Mechanical Vs Chemical Exfoliation HydraFresh

Chemical exfoliators utilize enzymes or acids to help break down dead skin cells lingering on the skin’s surface. Once dissolved, they can be rinsed away without needing the addition of any scrubbing action.

As for how to chemically exfoliate, this depends on the specific product you use. Sometimes, it involves applying a serum to clean skin followed by your moisturizer, while other times, you may apply it like a mask and then rinse it away. There are also liquids that can be applied with cotton pads, as well as pre-soaked pads that you simply wipe over your face and throw away. Regardless of type, at-home products are usually pretty gentle, serving as a mild alternative to professional in-office chemical peels.

Let’s dive into the three primary types of chemical exfoliating ingredients.

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHA)

Not only is salicylic acid a chemical exfoliant, it’s the primary one we’re referring to when we talk about BHAs. The Cleveland Clinic states that salicylic acid removes dead skin and can improve the texture and color of sun-damaged skin. This type of chemical exfoliant is also celebrated for targeting blemishes and can be used on the face and body. For example, a lot of people like to use a salicylic acid body wash to help target breakouts on the back and chest.

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)

Inarticle Mechanical Vs Chemical Exfoliation GlycolicAcidSerum

Another option for chemical exfoliation is to use AHAs, which includes a handful of different types of acids, such as glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids.

According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), products formulated with AHAs can have multiple uses, including smoothing the look of fine lines and wrinkles, visibly clearing out pores, and improving the appearance of skin in general. The FDA notes that the extent of the effectiveness of these products will depend on the concentration of the AHA(s), the pH, and the other ingredients in the formula.


BHAs and AHAs tend to get more attention, but enzymes are another option for chemical exfoliation. According to the Cleveland Clinic, like other chemical exfoliating ingredients we’ve mentioned, enzymes are used to help improve the look of skin tone and texture. And per a study from the National Institutes of Health, they can be a gentler option for exfoliating your skin and improving clarity.

Editor’s note: AHAs, BHAs, and enzymes can all leave your skin sensitive to the sun, so if you end up going with a chemical exfoliation for face and/or body, make sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher as directed in the morning. (We recommend the L’Oréal Paris Bright Reveal Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Daily UV Lotion.) Take other sun protection measures as well, including limiting your amount of time in the sun (especially during the sun’s peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), seeking shade, and covering up exposed areas.

What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Also referred to as “mechanical exfoliation,” physical exfoliation is exactly what it sounds like: using a physical mechanism to buff away dead skin cells that have accrued on the skin’s surface. This typically involves using a tool, such as a brush or towel, or an exfoliating scrub that’s massaged onto skin and then rinsed away. Here are some of the types of physical exfoliation you’re most likely to run into.


You can use a face or body scrub as your method of mechanical exfoliation. These are formulated with a range of exfoliating ingredients, such as finely milled powders, microcrystals, buffing beads, salt, and sugar. Finer scrubbing ingredients (like powders) are generally more suitable for facial skin, while larger scrubbing ingredients (like salt) are best for the body. Simply apply the scrub to your skin, massage gently in circular motions, then rinse.

Dry Brushing

Dry brushing is a popular way to enjoy some physical exfoliation action. This process requires you to rub a large brush, made with bristles that range from soft to hard, across dry skin. As you work, dead skin cells lingering on the skin’s surface are sloughed off. You’ll typically follow up with a shower to help further remove the buildup, then apply a nice moisturizing oil or lotion.

Facial Exfoliating Brush

You can also use a physical exfoliation tool that’s designed specifically for facial usage. While a dry brush typically has a dense and rigid structure, facial exfoliating brushes feature much softer bristles suitable for the delicate skin on your face. These can be electric or not, but they’re intended to be used on damp skin with a cleanser. They’re great for getting that squeaky-clean feeling!


While washcloths are usually intended for simply getting clean, you can also use them to help exfoliate the skin’s surface. There are even some washcloths specifically meant for exfoliation. Exfoliating towels are also a thing, and typically provide more intense exfoliation. Just know that those aren’t meant for the face.

Chemical Exfoliants vs. Physical Exfoliants

The difference between chemical exfoliation vs. mechanical is that the former dissolves dead skin cells with a chemical ingredient such as AHAs, BHAs, or enzymes, while a physical exfoliator buffs dead skin cells from the skin’s surface.

There’s no right or wrong answer regarding what’s best; it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference. Some find that physical scrubs are less irritating to their sensitive skin, while others feel that chemical exfoliators are more gentle. There’s even a camp that likes to have both types of exfoliators on hand and use both interchangeably.

Of course, everyone’s skin and goals are unique, so speak with a dermatologist for advice or if you have any specific concerns.

Our 6 Best Chemical Exfoliants Worth Trying

Want to give chemical exfoliation a go? Here are some of our favorite chemical exfoliants for faces to get you started.

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 5 Percent Glycolic Acid Peeling Toner

If you want an AHA as your primary exfoliating ingredient, opt for this toner that has a formula featuring 5% glycolic acid and aloe vera. Suitable for everyday use and all skin types—including those with sensitive skin—it visibly improves tone and texture by addressing the appearance of dark spots and revealing smooth and bright-looking skin. After one use, you’ll notice your skin has a smoother and more refreshed feel. Over time, you can also expect visible improvement of discoloration.

L’Oréal Paris HydraFresh Toner

This gentle exfoliating toner is 99% alcohol-free and has a gentle, non-drying formula featuring beta-hydroxy acid and pro-vitamin B5. It helps gently sweep away the look of dull and tired skin while protecting against moisture loss. It also refreshes skin, helps to reveal a brighter-looking complexion, and leaves skin feeling soft and supple.

Shop the Product

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleanser

Our daily exfoliating cleanser is formulated with two key chemical exfoliants for faces: glycolic acid and salicylic acid. It works by gently resurfacing your skin, removing excess oil, and nixing makeup and product residue for a smooth and bright-looking complexion. It also addresses the look of large pores and provides a bright, clean canvas for the rest of your skincare products.

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum

Formulated with 10% pure glycolic acid, this age-defying daily serum gently yet effectively targets signs of aging, including uneven skin tone, fine lines and wrinkles, dark spots, and dullness. You’ll see a notable difference in your skin’s texture after one week of consistent use, and over time, you’ll enjoy a more youthful-looking complexion with a reduced appearance of dark spots and lines.

L’Oréal Paris RevitaLift Derm Intensives 12% Pure Vitamin C + E + Salicylic Acid Serum

We also have an exfoliating serum with BHA. This dermatologist-tested formula features salicylic acid, as well as 12% pure vitamin C and vitamin E. It helps visibly correct key signs of early aging. This includes reducing the appearance of enlarged pores and fine lines, visibly evening your skin tone for a younger look, and helping to boost radiance.

Editor’s tip: One thing to keep in mind when adding an exfoliant to your routine—whether chemical or physical—is that how often you should exfoliate depends on your skin. Some people can handle daily exfoliation, while others may only be able to handle exfoliating once a week. Pay attention to how your skin responds to see what works best for you.

Next Up: How to Use a Face Mask: 10 Mistakes You Should Stop Making

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