Chemical exfoliant vs. natural exfoliant

Skin Treatments

Don’t pick just any exfoliator. Check to see what skin type a product is intended for before making a purchase, and be sure it addresses your concerns.

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Are chemical or natural exfoliants best? 

“Exfoliate” is a word seen frequently in skin care, but what does it actually mean? Simply put, you exfoliate your skin when you remove dead cells from its surface to reveal the healthy skin cells beneath. 

There are two methods you can use to achieve this: natural exfoliation, aka “physical” exfoliation, or chemical exfoliation. Natural exfoliation relies on a textured physical object, such as microbeads, to slough off dead skin. Chemical exfoliation uses acids to dissolve dead skin cells. 

Natural exfoliant

Most people are more familiar with natural exfoliants. Any time you see something with the word “scrub” in it, it is using a natural, or “physical,” exfoliant. Some scrubs may also include chemical exfoliants, as seen in many acne face scrubs with salicylic acid. 

Natural exfoliants may consist of many things, but a few commonly seen materials are plastic microbeads, coffee grounds, sugar, walnut shell powder and tools such as exfoliating brushes

Natural exfoliant pros

If you have visibly dry and flaky skin, a natural exfoliant can be a great quick fix. Usually used in a circular motion, a physical exfoliant will separate the dry flakes from your skin. Its effects are almost immediately felt, instantly removing dead skin, dirt and oil from the skin’s surface, leaving a smooth, clean, often matte finish. 

Natural exfoliators also increase circulation, as the massaging motion you use when applying them helps increase blood flow to the areas you’re working on. Natural exfoliants are also generally less expensive than chemical exfoliants. 

Natural exfoliant cons

Natural exfoliants, due to their roughness, risk causing tiny tears in your skin’s surface if used too harshly. While they can be godsend for those with oily skin, they might be too irritating for users with dry, sensitive skin, and can cause excessive drying and even redness. 

In recent years, attention has also been brought to the environmental impact of natural exfoliants, particularly products that use micro-plastic beads. These particles stay in the environment long after they have been washed off of the skin, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that 90% of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans comes from microplastics such as microbeads.

Best Natural Exfoliant

Murad Skin Smoothing Polish

Murad Skin Smoothing Polish

This is a customer favorite, and with good reason. This scrub uses micro-polishing jojoba beads to help unclog pores, leaving a soft and smooth surface you can feel immediately. It is recommended for oily skin, and will help control excess oil without stripping away too much moisture from the skin.

Sold by Murad and Amazon

Chemical exfoliant

Chemical exfoliants are used to treat a wide variety of skin concerns, including acne, enlarged pores and wrinkles. They rely on alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Although chemical exfoliating ingredients can be present in some scrubs alongside natural exfoliants, they are also often found in face washes, serums and masks. Chemical exfoliants often seen on package labels include glycolic acid and salicylic acid. 

Chemical exfoliant pros

Chemical exfoliants can penetrate deeper into the pores than natural exfoliants, removing debris not only on the skin’s surface, but within it. Because they are deeper-penetrating, they can better address concerns beneath the skin’s surface, such as hyper-pigmentation. 

Since a variety of chemical exfoliants are available, you can find ones suitable for a wide range of skin types. When used correctly, chemical exfoliants canbe less irritating to the skin than physical exfoliants.

Chemical exfoliant cons

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that using products containing either AHAs or BHAs can leave your skin more sensitive to sun damage for up to a week, so you must protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet rays while using a chemical exfoliator. Chemical exfoliators can also be expensive, and take longer to reap results than a natural exfoliator, for which some results can usually be seen immediately. And when used incorrectly, chemical exfoliants can cause severe irritation of the skin.

Best chemical exfoliant

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

This highly popular exfoliant addresses a variety of skin concerns, including acne, wrinkles, dull skin and enlarged pores. It deeply penetrates the skin, packing a punch of exfoliating power without overly drying. Users give it high ratings, praising a noticeable change in skin texture after as little as a week of consistent use.

Sold by Amazon

Should you get a natural exfoliant or a chemical exfoliant?

Which exfoliant is right for you is hardly clear-cut. It largely depends on factors such as skin type and your particular areas of concern. For those with oily skin, the immediate benefits of a natural exfoliant are hard to ignore, since it offers instant relief of a build-up of excess oil. For those with dry or sensitive skin, a chemical exfoliant is less likely to cause irritation and excess drying. 

Since chemical exfoliants can also be used for oily skin, you should take into account your lifestyle. Are you outside in full sun often? If so, are you willing to wear a suntan lotion with a high sun-protection factor, or SPF, daily and avoid mid-day sun exposure? If not, then sticking with a natural exfoliant might be best for you.


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Sophia Jurgens writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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