Dr Yalda

Skin Health

Chemical Exfoliation VS Mechanical Exfoliation

There are two types of exfoliation: chemical and mechanical. I hope this blog explains the difference between them and helps you find the best exfoliator for your skin.

3 min read

Dr Yalda

Dr Yalda

May 01, 2020

Close up of girls lips, whilst she touches her lips with grains of sand on her mouth and fingers

Exfoliation should be a part of our skincare regime; it is the process by which we facilitate the removal of dead skin cells from the surface, allowing new skin cells to shine through.

What is Mechanical Exfoliation?

Mechanical exfoliation usually refers to using a physical device to exfoliate the skin mechanically. There are three main tools:

Cleansing brush:these can be either electronic or not, and mainly used on damp skin.

Scrubs:They contain small particles and beads and remain of the most common way of exfoliating.

Towels/cloths: Although towels usually dry the skin post cleansing, they also play a role in gentle exfoliation. Hot-cloth cleansing has become popular over the past few years, which includes using a soft cloth to clean and exfoliate your skin at the same time.

What is Chemical Exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliation refers to the use of acids such as beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) to dissolve away dead skin cells by breaking down their bonds. You have probably heard big skin brands talk about AHAs and BHAs, but what are they and how do they work?


These acids are derived from organic sugars. Common AHAs used in skincare are glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. These acids are commonly used to combat acne, file lines and wrinkles and also superficial pigmentation.


The most common BHA is salicylic acid. They are lipid soluble meaning they can dissolve in fats and oils. They are the perfect acid to use if you suffer from oily skin. They also have anti-inflammatory properties so commonly used in those who suffer from acne or rosacea.

Small concentrations of these acids in your at-home skincare can provide gentle and regular exfoliation. Chemical exfoliants can come in many forms from cleansers, to serums and creams. Some chemical skin peels also contain these acids but at a higher concentration and can be performed in-clinic for a deeper exfoliation.

So which method is better?

I always advise my patients to switch to chemical exfoliation. Don't be put off by the word "acid". These are just a few reasons why I prefer chemical exfoliation:

  • They do all the work for you as they don't require any scrubbing! If you suffer from problematic skin, these acids may be gentler on your skin than physically scrubbing.
  • Once they are applied, depending on their concentration, they can penetrate to deeper layers on the skin.
  • Continues to work after application giving you long-lasting results.

How can you incorporate chemical exfoliants into your skincare regime?

Now that you have learnt all about chemical exfoliants, these are the things to consider when adding it to your routine:

  • They make you more sensitive to UV radiation, so use them in your night regime and always wear sunscreen during the day!
  • Be careful when mixing it with retinoids. Initially avoid using retinoids and acids at the same time. This can irritate your skin, making it red and flaky. I advise that you use acid and retinoids alternate nights.
  • If you switch onto chemical exfoliation, you must stop mechanically exfoliating. Over exfoliation can make you break out, irritate your skin and cause pigmentation.
  • See which acid your skin prefers the most. Try one acid at a time, and if your skin likes it, then stick to the same acid!
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