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Chemical vs. Mechanical Exfoliation: What's the Difference?

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 8/01/2020

The secret to smooth, radiant skin is cleansing — at least, that’s what we’ve been taught. A good cleanser has the power to remove makeup, dirt, oil and other impurities from the surface of your skin to improve your complexion and keep your skin looking fresh. But what happens below the skin’s surface?

The real secret to youthful-looking skin is cell turnover. 

Have you ever wondered why a baby’s skin is so soft? It’s because a baby’s skin naturally sheds and replaces skin cells every couple of days.

As you get older, your rate of skin cell turnover slows down, and dead cells on the surface of your skin tend to hang around, clogging your pores and accentuating your fine lines and wrinkles. 

So, how do you get rid of those dead skin cells and speed up the cell turnover process? Exfoliation. Here’s what you need to know about exfoliation and how to include it in your skincare routine.

What is Exfoliation and Why Is It Important? 

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of skin. As an adult, your skin naturally sheds dead cells every 30 days or so to make room for new skin cells.

When those dead cells fail to shed completely, it can clog your pores and leave your skin looking dry and flaky. Exfoliation helps remove those stubborn cells, revealing a new layer of glowing, radiant skin underneath. 

Exfoliation improves the appearance of your skin and provides the following benefits: 

  • It unclogs pores, improving the release of natural moisturizing oils. 

  • It removes pigment-containing skin cells to fade age spots.

  • It minimizes the appearance of pores and scars in the upper layers of skin.

  • It reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

  • It improves absorption of moisturizers and other skincare products.

  • It helps reduce the frequency and severity of breakouts by unclogging pores.

  • It improves collagen production to improve skin elasticity. 

To keep your skin looking its best, exfoliation should be a regular part of your skincare routine. If you don’t currently exfoliate on a regular basis, however, it’s a technique that should be worked into your routine slowly.

Suddenly starting an exfoliation regimen can irritate or damage your skin, so it is important to start with a gentle exfoliant several times a week before working up to daily use.

Chemical vs. Mechanical Exfoliation

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, and there are several different ways to do it. Generally speaking, exfoliation methods are broken into two categories: chemical and mechanical (or physical). 

Mechanical or physical exfoliation involves using a hard substance to manually remove dead skin cells. You’ve probably used mechanical exfoliation products without even realizing it if you’ve used cleansers or other skincare products that contain microbeads. 

Chemical exfoliation utilizes acids or enzymes to remove dead skin cells. 

Each of these methods has its own benefits and is better for certain skin types. Here is a quick overview of some of the different types of chemical and mechanical exfoliants:

Chemical Exfoliants

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) — Typically used in light chemical peels, AHAs are derived from natural sources such as milk, fruit and sugar. Two of the most popular AHAs used in skincare products are lactic acid (derived from milk) and glycolic acid (derived from sugar). 

  • Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) — Also used in light chemical peels, BHA is also known as salicylic acid, and it is a synthetic derivative made from the same source as aspirin. 

  • Enzymes — Derived from natural sources like fruit, enzymes work in a similar way to acid-based exfoliants but at a slower pace which makes them very safe and gentle. 

Mechanical (Physical) Exfoliants

  • Microbeads — Once used in a wide variety of exfoliating skin care products, microbeads are tiny plastic particles measuring less than one millimeter in diameter. When high concentrations of these microbeads were discovered in lakes and oceans, the government took action to start phasing them out of production.  

  • Small Granules — Natural materials like jojoba seeds and ruby crystals are very small granules that are fairly uniform in size and shape which makes them an effective exfoliant with a low risk of irritating or abrading the skin. 

  • Large Granules — More abrasive materials like pumice and magnesium oxide crystals form larger granules which can be used in exfoliating skincare products for people with thicker skin. 

  • Natural Materials — Though certain natural materials like ground fruit pits and seeds or crushed nutshells have an abrasive quality, their irregular shape and uneven edges can damage skin. 

With the right products, exfoliation is something you can do at home. But how do you know which exfoliant to use? Keep reading to learn how to choose the best exfoliator for your skin type. 

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What’s the Best Exfoliator for Your Skin Type? 

As you may already know, there are four primary skin types: normal, dry, oily and combination. Normal skin is well-balanced in terms of moisture, being neither too oily nor too dry.

Dry skin produces less sebum (oil) than normal skin which can result in a tight, rough texture and dull complexion.

Oily skin produces too much sebum, giving skin a glossy appearance with visible pores. As you can probably guess, combination skin consists of a mixture of skin types in different parts of the face. 

You can’t change your skin type, but you can choose your skin care products wisely to keep your skin healthy and looking its best. The same is true for exfoliants. Choosing the right exfoliator is important if you want to remove dead skin cells without drying out or damaging your skin. 

So, how do you know which is the best exfoliator for your skin type? It’s not cut and dry, but here are some suggestions:

  • Acne-Prone Skin — If your skin is prone to breakouts, a harsh mechanical exfoliator may be too rough on your skin and might actually spread bacteria to make your breakouts worse. Instead, try a chemical exfoliator made with BHA and exfoliate no more than once a week. 

  • Dry Skin — Dry skin has trouble absorbing moisture, so you need an exfoliator that removes dead skin cells while also replenishing your skin’s natural moisture. Look for a product that contains both AHAs and BHA along with tiny granules like jojoba beads to soothe and exfoliate your skin.

  • Oily Skin — Generally speaking, oily skin has a higher tolerance for exfoliation, so you may be able to exfoliate up to five times a week, depending what product you choose. Look for an exfoliator that contains AHA or BHA and moisturize after exfoliating to avoid drying out your skin.

  • Combination Skin — If you have an oily T-zone but dry skin on your cheeks and forehead, you might need an exfoliator that combines chemical and mechanical exfoliation. A product made with glycolic and salicylic acids that also contains exfoliating beads may work well. 

  • Sensitive Skin — For sensitive skin, you should avoid harsh skincare products like mechanical exfoliants and synthetic acids. Look for a chemical exfoliant that contains natural enzymes like a fruit enzyme peel or one that contains lactic acid to gently exfoliate with minimal irritation. 

  • Aging Skin — As you get older, your skin’s rate of cell turnover slows down, which can leave your skin looking dull. A chemical exfoliator featuring glycolic acid will help slough off dead skin cells without stripping your skin’s natural moisture. It will also help boost collagen production while reducing pigmentation and age spots. 

  • Healthy Skin — If you have normal skin with few problems, you have the freedom to experiment with both chemical and mechanical exfoliants to see which you like best. 

Even if you choose the right exfoliator for your skin, you still need to be careful not to overdo it. If you exfoliate too frequently or apply too much pressure with mechanical exfoliants, you could cause irritation and inflammation in your skin.

Irritated skin can become red and flaky, or it could lead to more frequent breakouts. To help minimize these risks, always moisturize after exfoliating. 

Tips for Including Exfoliation in Your Skincare Routine

If you want your skin to look smooth and radiant, consider adding an exfoliator to your skincare routine. Before you do, however, make sure to choose a product that is well-suited to your skin type and take the time to learn how to use it. Here are some tips for including exfoliation in your skincare routine:

How to Apply a Chemical Exfoliator

  1. Cleanse your skin using your preferred cleanser and pat it dry with a clean towel or air dry.

  2. Apply a small amount of your chemical exfoliator to a cotton pad.

  3. Dab the product onto your face starting at the jawline, moving around the face to the cheeks, forehead, nose and brow bone.

  4. Do not apply chemical exfoliator directly to the skin on or around the eyes.

  5. Let the exfoliant work for up to 30 minutes before applying additional products. After 30 minutes, your skin will naturally balance out the product’s acidity, and exfoliation will cease.

  6. Continue with the rest of your skincare routine, being sure to include a moisturizer.

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How to Apply a Mechanical Exfoliator

  1. Cleanse your skin using your preferred cleanser and leave it a little damp.

  2. Add a small amount of your mechanical exfoliator to your fingertips. 

  3. Apply the exfoliator to your skin, rubbing in small, circular motions.

  4. Begin along your jawline, moving up your cheeks to your brow bone and forehead, then down your nose and around your mouth and chin. 

  5. Do not apply mechanical exfoliator to the sensitive skin on and around your eyes. 

  6. Rinse your face with lukewarm water and gently pat dry. 

  7. Continue with the rest of your skincare routine, being sure to include a moisturizer.

Whether you’re using a chemical or mechanical exfoliator, it’s important to know when to use it and what to do after you’re finished. For sensitive skin, you should exfoliate no more than once or twice a week, while oily skin can benefit from exfoliation up to five times per week. 

For normal and combination skin, exfoliate up to three times per week depending on the type of exfoliator you choose. If your skin is in the middle of an active breakout, skip the exfoliation part of your skincare routine until it heals.

Exfoliation removes the top layer of skin, so you should expect it to remove some of your skin’s natural moisture, as well. When you’ve finished exfoliating, it is important to restore your skin’s hydration by applying a moisturizer appropriate for your skin type. 

You should also apply a lightweight, broad-spectrum sunscreen (if you’re exfoliating in the morning) because your skin will be extra-sensitive for a little while and in need of an added layer of protection. 

If you’re struggling with dull complexion, clogged pores or fine lines and wrinkles, exfoliation could be your secret to smoother, more radiant skin. Choose an exfoliator appropriate for your skin type and follow the tips you’ve received here to incorporate it into your skincare routine.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.