Chemical VS Physical Exfoliators, Which Is The Best?

Chemical VS Physical Exfoliators, Which Is The Best?

The current market of exfoliants is in two lanes, physical (or mechanical) and chemical. Though they both technically do the same thing, buff off dead skin, they do so in very different ways. 

You want to make sure that you’re exfoliating right, as proper exfoliation allows your serums, moisturisers, and treatments to sink into your skin a whole lot better, which means you’ll be getting more bang for your buck.

Here’s a breakdown of the two types of exfoliators and which is the best for you. 

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants remove dead skin cells with the use of (can you guess it?) chemicals to aid cell turnover. Chemical exfoliators are not only great for smoothing but also for brightening the skin and giving you a glow! 

All chemical exfoliants work to break the bonds between skin cells, loosening up the dead skin so it can easily be whisked away. Unlike the gritty texture of physical exfoliants, they are smooth and penetrate deeper into the skin. 

What Chemicals Should I Look For?

AHAs are often derived from natural substances and are ideal for exfoliating dry skin as they remove the “glue” that is holding dead skin cells together (gross, we know), but the payoff is exquisitely smooth skin. 

If you're looking to tackle the signs of ageing or just wish to brighten up your skin and give it a glow, look for products with AHAs such as Glycolic Acid (derived from sugar cane) and Lactic Acid (from milk).⁠⁠

Fruit enzymes like bromelain (pineapple) and papain (papaya) are great exfoliants for sensitive skin. Our Daily Treatment Oil contains Papaya Seed Oil which helps to exfoliate and brighten skin as well as soothe irritation from shaving and waxing. 

BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble molecules, which means they can reach deeper into the skin and pores. This chemical also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, while also providing a more in-depth exfoliation. 

BHA is best for those with acne-prone, oily skin. And if blackheads are your concern, stick to BHA. They have an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial action making them suitable for red, sensitive and acne-prone skin. The most common BHA is Salicylic Acid, derived from aspirin. They can be quite drying so you may need to add hydrating products to your regime.⁠⁠

Our Exfoliating Tonic contains Willow Bark Extract, a natural form of Salicylic Acid. This exfoliating lotion is great for healing and preventing ingrown hairs by deep cleansing and unblocking the follicle allowing the hair to grow free.⁠⁠

Can You Use AHA And BHA At The Same Time?

Since AHAs and BHAs work in different ways to exfoliate the top layers of the skin, it is safe to use both! BHAs break down the bonds between cells, whereas AHAs cause the cells themselves to detach.

Physical Exfoliation/Mechanical Exfoliation

Physical or mechanical exfoliation is when you exfoliate manually, such as a scrub with small grains or a body brush. By rubbing these against your skin, you buff away the layer of dead skin cells, and new, younger skin will be revealed, when you wash off the product/dead cells. 

You can also physically remove the dead skin through a process called dermaplaning, which is ideal for those with scars, wrinkles, and stretch marks, but this is best to be left to the professionals as knives are involved.

Physical exfoliants vary in their ability to exfoliate; it all depends on the product you buy.  Even those with sensitive skin could still benefit from physical exfoliants. Experimenting with different grain textures is a great way to see what works for you. Larger grains such as fruit pits and nutshells can often cause microtears, so it’s best to avoid these.

What’s A Micro-Tear?

A micro-tear is a small break in the skin caused by exfoliating agents that are too sharp or jagged. These small tears weaken the skin’s barrier, making the skin more prone to being dry and flaky, as well as causing redness and areas of sensitivity.

Overzealous scrubbing at your skin with a physical exfoliator is never a good idea, but micro-tears shouldn’t be a big worry if you’re using a dedicated exfoliator gently.  

Though banned in the UK, some brands of exfoliators use microbeads; these are always best to be avoided as they are harsh on the skin and make their ways into our waterways and the stomachs of aquatic animals.  

Chemical Or Physical Exfoliation?

So, which one should you use? It’s actually a personal preference! Neither is better than the other. What’s important is that you exfoliate often; we recommend 2-3 times per week.

Though if you’re just starting with exfoliating, then physical exfoliants are gentle and aren’t likely to cause any kind of irritation of the skin. The benefits of chemical exfoliators are that they’re super easy to use and provide uniform exfoliation to the skin and reduce ageing. 

Often, the best choice of exfoliators is a mix of both chemical and physical. 

How To Exfoliate Your Body

We love to exfoliate using a body scrub, or with a dry brush. 
  • Using a body scrub - Make sure your body is thoroughly wet and softened with warm water, to avoid damaging your skin, and then cover your skin with an appropriate amount of product, moving in circular motions to massage it into your skin. It is best to avoid scrubbing daily, instead opting for twice or thrice weekly use. 
  • Using a dry brush - Dry brushing involves a daily body massage with a dry, stiff-bristled brush; it helps to gently buff away flaky skin, unclog your pores and promote lymph drainage. Start at your feet/ankles and work your way up using long, fluid strokes on the limbs and circular motions on the torso and back. You only need a few strokes per area; too many can break the skin. 
Check out our dedicated body scrub, or our exfoliating tonic that utilises the power of natural chemical exfoliants. 


Folli Oil is a natural, cruelty-free, Vegan skincare range that actually works. Using the finest, ethically sourced and sustainable plant-based and natural ingredients. Our products are handcrafted in small batches at our studio in the beautiful Cotswolds. We test on willing humans, not animals, and our packaging is recyclable. Shop now.
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