Difference Between Chemical & Physical Exfoliants

Episode #141 / Jan 4, 2010
One of the three most important skin care products to use each day is an exfoliant. However, there are two different types: physical and chemical. Dr. Schultz will explain the difference between physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants.
Lanny on January 4, 2010 at 2:38pm

Thank you a lot for this video! I was just going to write to you asking about this. As I understand, neither of the exfoliant is better than the other, right?

Álvaro on January 11, 2010 at 4:22pm

Is it ok to use a physical exfoliant for the face everyday (a gentle one, with polyethylene)?

Thank you for the tips!

Neal Schultz, M.D. on January 15, 2010 at 7:52pm

@Lanny: You’re correct that neither is better than the other but they are different. So, as mentioned in the video, physical exfoliants are much tougher to use for sensitive skin but, when used in conjunction (but at different times) with chemical exfoliants for large-pored skin, can do a superior job. In addition, there are really very few times when physical exfoliants would be recommended for thin, small-pored or, again, sensitive skin. It’s also important to not use both chemical and physical exfoliants at the same time.

Neal Schultz, M.D. on January 26, 2010 at 3:45pm

@Alvaro: It is okay to use a physical exfoliant every day as long as you don't have sensitive skin and are gentle to give the skin a chance to recuperate.

Marc on April 8, 2010 at 1:12am

Does Retin-A do the same thing as salicylic and glycolic acid? I guess what I'm asking is, if I'm on Retin-A, do I necessarily need to use salicylic or glycolic acid? Will using Retin-A and a gentle physical exfoliant reduce the appearance of my large pores?

Neal Schultz, M.D. on June 1, 2010 at 1:08am

@Marc: Retin-A, like glycolic and salicylic, is a chemical exfoliant. Because Retin-A can be irritating, if one were to combine additional exfoliants with it, I would recommend combining glycolic or salicylic which are chemical exfoliants rather than a physical exfoliant because physical exfoliants tend to be more irritating with retinoids. Of course you can't use them at the same time, so use them on alternating nights or different ends of the day. Regarding minimizing enlarged pores, please see What Causes and Minimizes Enlarged Pores.

Sharon on July 14, 2010 at 11:14pm

Thank you for the wonderful advice you provide on this site and the answers to my e-mail questions. I have very sensitive skin. I have rosacea and sebhorreic dermatitis. I use a gentle cleanser and since I have added a gentle, fragrance free toner containing deionized water, aloe vera gel and methylparaben, as per your advice, there is improvement in the redness of my skin plus a significant reduction of the flakiness of the seb derm which I could not reduce with the periodic use of desonide 0.05% . I have tried physical exfoliants and they always leave my skin red, irritated and still flaky. I cannot use salicylic acid without becoming irritated and am concerned if I can safely use a chemical exfoliant such as glycolic acid and antioxidants since my skin always reacts with redness, burning, itching, flaking,etc. to so many ingredients. Should I skip the third step of the skin care regimen and stay with my current regimen? What do you recommend Dr. Schultz? Thank you very much.

Neal Schultz, M.D. on August 4, 2010 at 11:24pm

@Sharon: Thank you for your kind remarks. I suggest you introduce a Vitamin C based antioxidant at bedtime before you add a gentle glycolic product. Try to find a Vitamin C based product with either methylsilanol ascorbate or tetrahexadycyl ascorbate. If your skin is able to tolerate the Vitamin C for 2 to 3 weeks, then try a glycolic based eye cream (milder than regular glycolic products) on small areas of your face before using it on your entire face (i.e., to test it). For more information on testing products such as these, please Avoid Problems with New Skin Care Products.