Skincare Face Off: Physical Vs Chemical Exfoliation

Consider us your beauty myth busters.

Like many beauty battles, the physical vs chemical exfoliation debate is divisive, to say the least. Some people swear by a luxurious scrub during ‘The Shower’ (you know the one) while others prefer a chemical-based formula to deliver consistent smoothing. But regardless of where you sit on the exfoliation scale, it’s important to know what your options are.

Here, we speak to Joanna Newham, founder of her eponymous skin salon in Newport, to explain the actual difference between chemical and physical exfoliation and debunk a few myths in the process. Get your pen and paper out!

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If, like us, you were introduced to exfoliation as a 14-year-old you will be very familiar with the once popular (read: rudimentary and ultra-abrasive) scrubs of years gone by. The skincare game has come a long way since then and you can now find both chemical and physical exfoliators that do the job without the damage.

Physical exfoliation is when you use either a product that is gritty with delicate granules or an exfoliating brush to remove the surface layer of dead skin,” says Newham. Note: surface layer

Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, dissolves dead skin cells. During this process, these ingredients delve a little deeper to promote new cell turnover and smooth your skin.

Neither physical or chemical exfoliation is superior. Used correctly, both have their place – you just need to know when and how to use them. Which brings us to our next point…

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Before you pick your poison exfoliator, take a close look at your skin to discover what it needs.

The criteria for physical exfoliation

“Physical exfoliation is really good if a skin is quite a thick skin or if it has a build up of dead skin sitting on the surface,” she says. This could be due to a lack of exfoliation all together (we don’t judge) or the result of flakiness due to a microdermabrasion treatment. A physical scrub can be done up to twice per week.

The criteria for chemical exfoliation

“Chemical exfoliation will dive deeper into the skin and promote that continual cell turnover,” says Newham.”[It’s] more beneficial for skin in the long run.” Depending on the strength of the product, some chemical-based formulas can be used once or twice weekly, while others are gentle enough for everyday use. Always read the label and start on the conservative side; using too much, too soon can irritate skin. 

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We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again: it’s important to understand your skin before jumping on the latest Instagram bandwagon.

If you fancy a scrub

“Be mindful of how abrasive your scrubs are,” says Newham, “as you can cause micro tears on the surface layer of the skin or run the risk of capillary damage. I would definitely recommend asking a skin specialist or someone you trust about which product is right for you.”

If your skin is sensitive

“What to use is definitely dependent on your skin type and the formulation,” Newham continues. “If you have more sensitised skin, you run the risk of over-exfoliating so I would look to fruit enzymes like your papayas, your pumpkins or your pineapples. They’re a lot more gentle and will help to break down the bonds that keep those dead skin cells together.”

If you want to go the whole hog

If your skin can handle a little more, though, a chemical exfoliant comprised of AHAs (hello, glycolic, lactic or mandelic acids) or BHAs (think: salicylic acid) would be a good option. 


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It would be remiss of us to interview skin extraordinaire Joanna Newham without asking for a product recommendation or two. “In terms of physical I love the Priori LCA fx160 2xFoliant Peel + Scrub ($79) as it combines the exfoliation of the surface skin with a little chemical smoothing,” says Newham. “My holy grail, though, is the Sodashi Enzyme Face Polish ($110).”

When it comes to chemical exfoliation, Newham loves the Murad Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel ($95) as well as the famed (for a very good reason) Biologique Recherche p50 Lotion ($96). Do what you will with this information, but we seriously suggest you take her word for it (she’s kind of incredible).

Do you have an exfoliator, be it chemical or physical, that you swear by? Leave it in the comments below!


Suzanne Mapp

Very professional. Very informative. A page you would definitely read. Clever lady xxx

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