Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation - What's the Difference?
Exfoliation is an important part of your skincare routine. Get it right, and it can lead to less acne, fewer texture concerns, and a slew of other major benefits.
Unfortunately, though, exfoliation is something that a lot of guys get wrong or simply don’t know enough about. Here’s everything you need to know about this important skincare step.
Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation
Physical and chemical exfoliants technically do the same thing, sloughing away dead cells and helping to reveal new, clear skin. This mechanism has many benefits, including:
- Unclogging pores and preventing the formation of whiteheads and blackheads
- Preventing acne without causing irritation
- Increasing collagen synthesis
- Helping your other products soak into the skin better, thereby making them more effective (and helping you get more bang for your buck).
- Evening skin tone and resolving concerns like rough texture, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation
- Boosting circulation and lymphatic drainage
- Stimulating cell turnover
How Physical Exfoliants Work
Physical exfoliants use grains, a brush, or a scalpel to manually remove debris from the skin. They deliver quick results because they use some degree of force to exfoliate the skin.
Plus, physical exfoliants promote circulation (which is always a good thing), particularly if you apply in gentle, circular motions.
But it can be difficult to achieve uniform exfoliation if you’re not mindful during application. And some physical exfoliants are highly abrasive (if you’re doing it wrong - more on that later) and therefore more effective for guys with tougher skin.
Common Concerns with Physical Exfoliants
When it comes to physical exfoliation, look out for the types of particles in the exfoliant. Many of them can cause micro-tears in your skin (think small scratches, like when you rub sandpaper on wood) that can introduce bacteria and ultimately cause redness and irritation - plus they can harm the environment. These are the worst offenders:
- Nuts, particularly in face formulas
- Fruit pits like apricot pits
- Synthetic beads
Microbeads are the worst of the worst. Usually made from polyethylene, these miniature plastic beads are too small to be filtered out of wastewater. So they wind up in the oceans where they’re consumed by fish, other animals, and even people! That’s why President Barack Obama signed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act of 2015, which officially banned microbeads in the personal care industry starting in 2017.
But not everyone cleans out their medicine cabinets as often as they should - and you may still have a few products that contain microbeads if you first dabbled in exfoliation years ago. If so, it's best not to use them and make a change to a safer product.
How Chemical Exfoliants Work
Chemical exfoliants use acids and enzymes to remove the “glue” that holds dead skin cells to each other and to the surface of the skin.
There are two main types of chemical exfoliants: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). While they ultimately work in the same way, AHAs - like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and malic acid - are gentler than BHAs. This is because they are water-soluble molecules, which means they can’t penetrate as deeply into the pores.
Of all the AHAs, glycolic acid is the smallest and the most studied molecule - and it’s generally considered to be the most effective. That’s why it’s the primary AHA in our Smooth Finish Glycolic Acid Serum and our Smooth Finish Glycolic Peel.
BHAs like salicylic acid are oil-soluble, which means they can reach deeper into the pores. This makes them stronger exfoliants and more effective at dealing with deep-pore concerns like blackheads or major acne.
Chemical exfoliants are never going to be as fast-acting as physical exfoliants. While the former can provide nearly instant results, chemical exfoliants can take weeks to make a noticeable difference.
Common Concerns with Chemical Exfoliants
With chemical exfoliants, the biggest thing to look out for is their concentration. Glycolic acid, for example, can be found at strengths up to 30% - and exfoliants you’d find at the dermatologist’s office might be even stronger.
Keep in mind, though, that such high concentrations are not generally suitable for regular use. Lower concentrations deliver the same results without the high risk of irritation or a reaction - so you’re best off avoiding products that are too intense.
Next, you’ll want to look at the source of your chemical exfoliant. AHAs and BHAs are naturally derived from various plant sources. But these ingredients can also be created synthetically - which may be an issue for you.
Synthetic AHAs can be harsh on the skin, both because they’re often more concentrated and because they can contain extra unwanted ingredients. For example, synthetic glycolic acid often contains a by-product called formic acid that can cause sensitivity and a stinging sensation. If you’ve experienced stinging when applying glycolic acid, this chemical is likely the culprit - and it’s something you want to avoid.
How to Exfoliate Properly
No matter what kind of exfoliant you choose, you should be exfoliating at least twice a week - perhaps more if your skin reacts well.
When it comes to physical exfoliation, look for a face scrub for men that uses particles that are round, small, and not too rough, like:
- Bamboo fibers
- Jojoba beads
With chemical exfoliation, use naturally derived AHAs and BHAs, and avoid extra-high synthetic concentrations as these can be overly harsh and drying to the skin.
In both formulations, look for products that also have hydrating and skin-soothing ingredients. The last thing you want is to use an exfoliant that leaves your skin feeling dry and stripped.
Some top ingredients on your list include:
- Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that can neutralize free radicals and strengthen, tighten, and tone skin over time.
- Aloe vera, which is packed with nutrients - like polysaccharides and vitamins - that can help maintain clear, hydrated skin.
- Green tea extract, which provides powerful antioxidant benefits while destroying acne-causing bacteria.
- MSM, a natural component of the skin that can inhibit the breakdown of collagen, reduce inflammation, and make cell walls more permeable so nutrients can flow through.
- Hyaluronic acid, a powerful humectant that can hold over 1000x its weight in water.
Finally, remember to follow-up your exfoliation with useful and restorative active ingredients like vitamin C - which can diminish fine lines and prevent environmental damage - and more effective moisturizers like hyaluronic acid, or peptides to restore collagen levels.