What’s the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliation and Why Does it Matter?
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.
The Differences Between Physical and 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 overarching benefits. Regular exfoliation can:
- Unclog pores and prevent the formation of whiteheads and blackheads
- Prevent acne without causing irritation
- Increase collagen synthesis
- Help your other products soak into the skin better, thereby making them more effective (and helping you get more bang for your buck).
- Even skin tone and resolve concerns like rough texture, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation
- Boost circulation and lymphatic drainage
- Stimulate cell turnover
Physical and chemical exfoliants accomplish these tasks using very different mechanisms.
Physical exfoliants, for one, 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 more resilient skin.
Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, use various acids and enzymes to remove the “glue” that holds dead skin cells to each other and to the surface of the skin.
In this way, they evenly exfoliate the skin and help reveal gentle but consistent results.
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 generally more gentle 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 for Men.
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.
How to Get Exfoliation Right
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.