What is the difference between chemical & physical exfoliants?


As the weather gets colder and our skin becomes drier, it may be more tempting than ever to exfoliate every dry and dull skin cell from our faces. Before you make any drastic changes to your regime, why not learn a little more about the different types of exfoliators with some help from our Development Chemist, Faye!


Physical Exfoliators

Just like the name suggests, physical exfoliators contain physical particles that scrub off dead skin through friction. Traditionally, microbeads (tiny plastic beads) were used in products with exfoliating properties due to their spherical shape, providing gentle exfoliation by agitating dead cells on the skins surface and lifting them away. However, they do not biodegrade, resulting in bioaccumulation in our oceans and water systems. Marine life then ingests these tiny beads and become filled with plastic! In 2015, the Microbead-Free Waters Act led to many alternatives to microbeads becoming available, including sugar, ground up walnut shells, coffee grounds and jojoba beads.

The type of exfoliating particle you use is important to ensure you're not damaging your skin. Any particle with a rough and uneven edge, (like a grain of sugar or pulverised walnut shell) can do more harm than good to your complexion.

Crystalline ingredients have jagged edges which can cause tiny tears on the skin known as micro-abrasions, ultimately leading to broken capillaries, redness and irritation. These tears allow bacteria in, which can result in breakouts and acne flare ups!

Thankfully, we have particles like jojoba beads to make physical exfoliation safe for our skin again.

Jojoba esters consist of a complex mixture of natural, long chain fatty acids and fatty alcohols. Their spherical shape provides the same gentle exfoliation as a microbead to gently lift away dead skin cells and impurities. They are biodegradable making them both environmentally friendly and safe for all skin types!   

Physical exfoliators have a pretty immediate skin smoothing effect, which is why they’re favourable for many.


Chemical Exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators (like AHA’s and BHA’s) use ingredients that chemically dissolve the ‘glue’ that holds dead and damaged skin cells together, allowing them to be easily lifted away. Alpha-hydroxy acids are more commonly associated with surface-level exfoliation, as they help to even out fine lines, brighten skin tone, and generally smooth skin. They are water-soluble, which helps increase our moisture levels, making them a good choice for dry and stressed skin. AHA's include Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, and my favourite, Malic Acid…

Malic Acid, the AHA that naturally occurs in apple was first drawn from apple juice in 1785! It’s becoming an increasingly common ingredient in skincare products. It has exfoliating and tone improving benefits, resulting in brighter skin with continued use. What many people don’t know that like Hyaluronic Acid, Malic Acid is a humectant that draws moisture from the air so despite being exfoliating, it doesn’t dry out the skin. It’s buffering capacity means that it doesn’t interfere too much with the skin’s natural pH balance, which when upset can lead to dryness and even acne.

BHA's, or beta-hydroxy acids, are oil-soluble, meaning they can penetrate deeper into our skin, helping with blemishes by absorbing into our pores. Salicylic Acid is a popular BHA, loved for fighting breakouts and rebalancing oily skin.   

Whilst chemical exfoliators are generally seen as less abrasive than physical exfoliators, it is still possible to overdo it and leave your skin unhappy… 

Over-exfoliation is an easy mistake to make. Avoid the temptation even if your skin isn’t a smooth as you’d like it to be, as it can lead to a damaged skin barrier which can result in excess oil production, extreme redness and sensitivity. 

At most a chemical exfoliator can be used every 2-3 days, but we generally recommend starting at once a week and increasing or decreasing frequency based on your skin's needs. Either way, it’s best not to double exfoliate! If you use our Niacinamide Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser and Apple AHA Exfoliating Gel, alternate between the products day-to-day for best results. Please also consult with your GP or dermatologist before trying a new exfoliator when using a prescribed product (including retinoids), as they might suggest not overlapping use!


And that's everything you need to know!

Amy @ Team Q+A



Amy Robson


Aspiring author, craft addict, and Q+A's eCommerce Coordinator

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