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What’s The Difference Between Physical and Chemical Exfoliants?

Understanding the difference between physical and chemical exfoliants can be the difference between raw, irritated skin and vibrant glowing skin. Keep reading for all the details.

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Physical and Chemical Exfoliants - Fifth & Root

With the dry winter months just around the corner, many of us are eyeing our exfoliators to help get rid of dry, flaky skin. When used properly, exfoliants leave our skin looking brighter, our pores smaller, and help give our skin an overall glow. 

However, using the wrong exfoliator, or even just using an exfoliant incorrectly, can leave your skin irritated and your overall complexion can suffer. That’s why it’s so important to understand the difference between two kinds of exfoliants--physical and chemical exfoliants.

Knowledge is power, but in this case, knowledge will help you achieve a fresher complexion and a more even skin tone. Keep reading to learn the difference between physical and chemical exfoliants.

What is an Exfoliator

An exfoliator helps to remove dead skin cells. While that might sound kind of scary, this is an insanely important part of any skincare routine. 

Your skin is one of the most hardworking parts of your body. It works so hard that it’s constantly creating new skin cells to replace old ones. The issue is that your skin doesn’t really have a way of getting rid of these old cells. This can lead to dry and rough patches, flakes, clogged pores, and an uneven skin tone. If there’s enough dead skin, it can even make it harder for other products to absorb properly.

Most of these issues can be cleared up by adding a gentle exfoliation step to your skincare routine. By removing dead skin cells, however, exfoliants are helping your skin in other ways too. This process boosts collagen production, which means healthier skin with a smoother, more youthful appearance. 

Sounds amazing, right? Well, before you add this step to your routine, there are a few items you’ll want to consider...


  • Sensitive skin should use gentle exfoliators to avoid irritation.
  • If your skin is irritated, skip your exfoliation until it’s calmed down.
  • Be cautious if you’re taking acne medications or harsh retinol products. Retinols already increase cell turnover, and too much of a good thing, in this instance, can lead to peeling.
  • It’s possible to exfoliate too much, which can strip the protective barrier from your skin. When getting started, exfoliate once a week and work up from there as needed. 
  • It’s important to understand the difference between Physical and Chemical exfoliants. This helps you choose products that are right for your skin.

That’s right, there are different types of exfoliants. Certain types of skin can respond better to one over the other, so this knowledge is crucial. 

Physical exfoliants quickly remove dead skin cells for glowing, fresh skin - Fifth & Root

What Are Physical Exfoliants?

This type of exfoliant is pretty straightforward. These products need to be rubbed or scrubbed into the skin so they can physically remove any dead skin cells. They usually have small particles of an ingredient that help “scrub” the skin. Often this is salt, sugar, or even granules of nutshells. The smaller the particles, the more gentle the physical exfoliant.

One of the great things about these exfoliants is that you can almost instantly see the results. You’ll quickly notice smoother skin, and the scrubbing stimulates circulation which helps with lymphatic drainage. That means less puffiness and healthier skin.

If your skin is sensitive to chemicals, physical exfoliants are sometimes preferred over their chemical counterpart. However, if the particles included in the product are too big, scrubbing can easily become abrasive and lead to irritated skin. The key here is to use small, circular motions to help the product work. Plus, there’s no need to be too aggressive. Being overzealous with physical exfoliants will leave your skin looking red and feeling raw. 

What Are Chemical Exfoliants?

Unlike physical exfoliants, chemical ones don’t need scrubbing actions to loosen skin cells. Chemical exfoliants have ingredients that help to loosen bonds between dead cells, making it easier to remove them. This process also allows them to penetrate deeper into the skin for more enhanced cell turnover.

The most common “chemicals” in these products are AHAs, BHAs, and fruit enzymes. AHAs (or Alpha Hydroxy Acids) are a natural compound often taken from grapes, sugar, and even citrus fruits. It dissolves the protein bonds holding dead skin cells together which makes it easier to remove. If you’ve ever seen a product with Glycolic or Lactic Acid, those are AHAs. These can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so don’t forget your sunscreen when using these.

BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids) are helpful for skin that’s oily and acne-prone. They can get through oil to clean pores of dirt, oil, and bacteria. If you’re a connoisseur of acne-fighting products, you’re probably familiar with a common BHA--salicylic acid. 

Fruit enzymes are recommended for more sensitive skin. Plants like papaya and pineapple have compounds that help to dissolve proteins in much the same way AHAs do. While all of these sound great, they’re not without their risks.

Chemical exfoliants help loosen the bonds between dead skin cells - Fifth & Root

While many with sensitive skin avoid these products, chemical exfoliants can sometimes be more gentle than physical ones with large particles. The biggest drawback to chemical exfoliants is they’re not as fast-acting as physical exfoliants. Unless you opt for a powerful chemical peel (which you should consult your dermatologist about), these products need more time.

How Do WE Exfoliate?

In all honesty, we do a bit of both! 

Our Karmic Cleanse is a gentle exfoliating cleanser that uses both physical and chemical exfoliation. The key to getting all the benefits with none of the drawbacks is the word “gentle.” We use tiny particles of crushed Jade to provide just enough physical exfoliation without being abrasive. Plus, instead of using harsher AHA or BHA chemicals, we rely on fruit enzymes to gently reveal a brighter-looking complexion. 

Karmic Cleanse Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser - Fifth & Root

Plus, to give our gals with sensitive skin a boost, we’ve added antioxidants and soothing ingredients like CBD to keep your skin cool as a cucumber. When our skin needs an extra hit of exfoliation, however, we like to take things to the next level.

Once a week, we like to indulge with our Moonlight Mask. This cooling glow mask includes crushed moonstone for a more gentle exfoliation with some seriously good vibes. Turmeric not only gives it a fabulous color, but along with cucumber, it helps boost antioxidants while reducing sensitivity, redness, and puffiness. 

Moonlight Cooling Glow Mask - Fifth & Root

Brighter, More Youthful-Looking Skin is in Your Future!

Whether you prefer chemical exfoliants or physical exfoliants (or both!) be sure to give your skin what it needs. Sometimes that means exfoliating, but sometimes it means taking a break to hydrate, laugh, and recharge. 

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