Physical vs chemical exfoliation: which is best?

Physical vs Chemical Exfoliation | To Scrub or Not To Scrub

Physical vs chemical exfoliation. Scrubs vs peels. At Fountain Cosmetics, we make both options because exfoliation isn’t just black and white.

What is the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation?

‘Physical’ exfoliation refers to the physical action of buffing away dead skin cells through friction. You can physically exfoliate using a skincare product like a scrub or tools like soft washcloths or facial brushes.

Aren’t physical exfoliants damaging?

There are some people who claim that physical exfoliation is always too harsh or too damaging on the skin. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, a well-formulated facial scrub will be incredibly gentle when used properly. If you use scrubs with harsh, abrasive ingredients, use too much pressure or scrub for too long, these scrubs will eventually hurt your skin.

Als0, many scrubs available use seeds, salt, charcoal or other similarly crushed ingredients to create a grainy, exfoliating texture. These crushed ingredients can have uneven surfaces that will cause tiny micro-tears on the surface of your skin, leaving your skin open to bacteria and infection.

The other reason some people prefer chemical exfoliators over scrubs is that some scrubs can contain plastic particles that do not dissolve in water, littering our oceans and harming sea life.

We managed to get the best of both worlds with our Face Scrub. It contains rounded jojoba florabeads that gently exfoliate the skin without creating any micro-tears, and the beads are also ocean-safe so no sea life is harmed.

What about chemical exfoliants?

Chemical exfoliation uses acids to help the skin turn over cells. Low percentages of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are used to dissolve the bonds between skin cells, encouraging dead skin cells to fall off. This is an incredibly gentle process and you will not actually see any dead skin cells falling off your face!

Chemical exfoliants sound scary mainly because of the word ‘acid’, which makes us think of skin burning away and leaving gaping holes.

A properly formulated chemical exfoliant for home use will never be strong enough to burn holes in your skin (though we don’t suggest that you try!). You can get stronger chemical exfoliants at your local salon or day spa, which remove more dead skin but must be handled by trained professionals.

With chemical exfoliation, it’s important to wear sunscreen every day. It’s important to wear sunscreen every day generally, but if you use chemical exfoliants, the AHAs and BHAs can make your skin sensitive to the sun and undo any good work your exfoliation is doing.

Do I have to choose between physical and chemical exfoliation?

It all depends on your skin.

Some people have very sensitive skin that prefers less contact, so chemical exfoliation is the ideal way to remove dead skin cells without irritating the surface of the skin with scrubbing and friction. Others are sensitive to particular AHAs or BHAs, and physical scrubs are a great way to nudge dead skin cells out of the way to make room for new ones.

And some people benefit from using both on an alternating basis, using chemical exfoliants to start the process and occasional physical exfoliants to remove any stubborn dry skin. We like to use the Skin Exfoliant twice a week and the Face Scrub once a week, but change it up to see what suits your skin!

How do at-home peels fit into my routine?

At-home peels are a great way to lift dead skin cells and reveal a stunning glow, but like any exfoliating product, less is more. If you already have an exfoliating routine in place, adding an at-home peel without dialling down your routine may irritate your skin.

Remove 1-2 exfoliation steps from your routine when introducing a new peel, because the peel will take place of those steps. So if you scrub once a week, replace the scrub with the peel, just to see how your skin responds.

Use the peel once every two weeks at first and then once a week as your skin adjusts. If needed, reintroduce your original exfoliating products slowly, keeping an eye on your skin to make sure that it is not irritated or over-exfoliated.

Signs of over-exfoliation

With a little care and properly formulated exfoliating products, over-exfoliation is unlikely to occur. If you overuse your products or have too many exfoliating steps in your routine, you may develop:

  • dry, tight skin
  • redness and inflammation
  • breakouts that develop in usually clear areas of the skin
  • developing skin flakes in areas that are usually not flaky
  • dull, crepe-y and dehydrated skin
  • skin that has a harsh shine instead of a soft glow

If you experience any of the above, it’s time to put down the scrubs, peels or exfoliating acid serums and focus on hydrating and moisturising your skin.

Recovering from over-exfoliation can take from weeks to months, depending on how severely you have over-exfoliated, so take the time to heal your skin.