What's the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation?

Staness Jonekos
Health Education

There are three different exfoliating methods. 

Manual (physical) exfoliation is moved across your skin’s surface using your fingers or buff puff. You are removing the dead cells by scraping off the top surface with physical friction. Many manufacturers use natural products such as seeds, apricot pits, or crushed oyster shells as the ingredient that causing friction. Some products use round beads or poly spheres that can be easier on the skin.

Chemical exfoliates are a topical bio engineered ingredient that can dissolve the glue like substance that holds the dead cells together. Most chemical exfoliates use either Alpha Hydroxy Acids or Beta Hydroxy Acids. This type of exfoliation is applied to the skin then rinsed off. You do not “scrub” to enjoy the benefits. The “chemical” does the work.

Enzymes work by dissolving the dead tissue. The enzymes are molecules that catalyze chemical reactions of other substances. The product is applied then washed off. You do not manually “scrub” your skin. The enzyme does the work for you.

Every 28 days skin renews itself leaving your skin with a fresh layer of baby cells. As we get older this shedding process, called desquamation, slows down leaving us with fine lines, dry areas and an uneven skin texture.

Exfoliation stimulates new cell growth by removing the cells your body is no longer shedding. It helps your body with the desquamation process by stripping the dead epidermal cells on the outer surface of your skin and exposing a fresher layer of living cells. It takes a few days for a noticeable amount of dead cells to accumulate. It is best to exfoliate once or twice a week. You don’t want to irritate your skin or remove healthy living cells by doing it daily.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

Physical exfoliants (scrubs) remove dead cells through friction. Chemical exfoliants (like salicylic acid) remove dead skin cells by dissolving the "glue" that binds them to other cells.


Continue Learning about Skin Cleansing

If I have normal type skin, how often should I wash my face?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MDDr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Unless you have oily skin, you should not wash your face more than once a day with a mild cleanser. ...
More Answers
Is there an alternative to harsh acids or scrubs for my body?
Dr. Ellen Marmur, MDDr. Ellen Marmur, MD
Scrubbing can aggravate rosacea or a painfully dry complexion. And because acids work by temporarily...
More Answers
Should I change my cleanser depending on the season?
Debra Jaliman, MDDebra Jaliman, MD
You should change your facial cleanser with the seasons; in winter you should to use a milder cleans...
More Answers
What Are the Health Benefits of Baths?
What Are the Health Benefits of Baths?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.