why chemical exfoliants are better than scrubs

I know ya all love to hate on chemicals, but I’m taking a stand for chemical exfoliants (those with exfoliating acids). Chemical exfoliants are better than physical exfoliants in every way. Hear me out.

When I first started exfoliating, I’d use a scrub. Not that I had much choice in the matter. Scrubs were all I could find in the shops. And they worked ok. I could never get into St Ives Apricot Scrub (way too harsh for my skin), but I loved those with sugar. They usually smell delicious!

But I was never totally happy with them. Even though I tried to be gentle and not massage them on my skin too long, those little particles of sugar (or apricot, walnut, whatever) often left my skin raw and irritated. I thought that was normal.

Then, someone recommended I try glycolic acid. I don’t remember who that angel was, but I remember what happened. Bells rang. The clouds parted. Angels began to sing. My skin looked awesome. Softer. Smoother. Radiant. I got all the benefits of exfoliation without the side effects. About time too, if you ask me!

Since that day, I’ve been raving about chemical exfoliants to everyone who would listen. Today, I’ll be raving about them to you. I hope that, by the time I’m done, you’ll do the switch too. I promise, once you do, you’ll never go back again.

What Are The Benefits Of Exfoliation?

Before I tell you why chemical exfoliants are better than physical exfoliants in every way, let me tell you all about the benefits of exfoliation. Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the surface of your skin. Here’s why this is so good for your skin.

“The life cycle of a cell is about three months in children and only about 30-50 days in adults, which means our cells are dying a lot faster as we age,” says licensed medical aesthetician Bre Knouse. “This leads to dead skin cell build-up, clogged pores, dryness, dull complexion and rough texture.”

Here are all the benefits of exfoliation:

  • It makes skin softer and smoother
  • It brightens the complexion and gives it a subtle glow
  • It helps treat and prevent acne (if dead cells are off your skin, they can’t get stuck in your pores and cause breakouts)
  • It helps to fade away dark spots faster
  • It helps your skincare products better penetrate your skin

Who knew that removing old dead cells could do so much for your skin?

Chemical VS Physical Exfoliants: What Are They?

I know, just the word chemical is enough to throw you in a panic. But, there’s nothing dangerous about them. Chemical exfoliants simply work by dissolving the “glue” that holds skin cells together. Once that’s gone, they simply slough off and away.

“Chemical exfoliation is a method of removing dead skin with chemical exfoliants, which work to break the bonds that hold the skin cells together,”says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Melanie Palm. “Breaking these bonds helps to shed the top layers of the skin cells, which results in a smoother, brighter and more even-toned complexion.” 

There are lots of different chemical exfoliants, but the main three types that pop up again and again in skincare products are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. I’ll tell you all about them later.

Physical exfoliants are scrubs and treatments like microdermabrasion. They use physical particles, like apricot kernels or sugar, to manually remove dead cells off your face. You’re scrubbing them away (get it?).

“Physical exfoliation can be achieved by a number of methods, like using a scrub, brush or washcloth, to manually dislodge dirt and dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin,” Dr Palm says.

Related: What’s The Difference Between Chemical And Physical Exfoliants?

The Ordinary makes some of the best chemical exfoliants – and they’re so affordable, too! But which one is right for you? Subscribe to the newsletter below to download The Ordinary Products Guide (it’ll help you choose the right Vitamin C and retinol products from The Ordinary, too:

So, why are chemical exfoliants better than physical exfoliants and scrubs? Several reasons:

1. Chemical Exfoliants Are Gentler On The Skin

You’d think that a chemical would be way harsher than sugar or walnuts (which, by the way, are made up of chemicals too), wouldn’t you? It’s actually the other way around. Walnut shells, apricot kernels and other small particles used to manually exfoliate skin often have rough, jagged, and uneven edges that tear and scratch the skin, leaving it red and irritated.

Even gentler particles, like sugar, can seriously irritate skin if you scrub too hard or too long. And let’s face it, we often do. Isn’t it satisfying to see all that gunk come off? Chemical exfoliants can be irritating too. Usually, that happens when you use a concentration that’s too high for you. And there’s no need for that. Even 2% or 5% concentrations work well so there’s no need to start or go high.

With a scrub, you risk irritating your skin every time you use it. But when you pick the right concentration of your fave chemical exfoliant, you can use it safely – it’ll bother your skin only if you use it too often (I don’t care what brands say, you can’t exfoliate daily).

Related: Is The Clarisonic (Yes, That’s A Physical Exfoliant!) Good Or Bad For Skin?

drunk elephant tlc framboos glycolic night serum

2. Chemical Exfoliants Are More Precise

It’s so difficult to exfoliate skin evenly with a scrub. Exfoliation depends on you and how long you rub the scrub on your skin. And we don’t exactly time how many seconds we spend on our cheeks, forehead, etc, right?

Too often, we spend more time on the right cheek than the left cheek for example, so that one becomes softer and glowier (or redder and more irritated) than the other. That’s not to say you can’t get good result from a scrub. You just have to be more careful with them.

How well a chemical exfoliant works, instead, depends on the strength of the exfoliating acid it uses. So, if you apply 5% glycolic acid all over your skin, it’ll exfoliate all of its parts in the same way. You won’t get more exfoliation here and less there.

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It

boots ingredients salicylic acid

3. Chemical Exfoliants Are Multi-Taskers

This is the real reason why I switched and urge you to do the same. Scrubs are one trick ponies. Even when they exfoliate skin well, that’s all they do. But chemical exfoliants? They’re awesome multi-taskers:

Whatever your skin type is, there’s a chemical exfoliant that exfoliates it and tackles its woes at the same time. Now, find me a scrub that can do that. Can’t find even a tiny little one, can you?

Related: What’s The Best Chemical Exfoliant For Your Skin Type

the ordinary lactic acid 10 + ha 2 01

4. Chemical Exfoliants Are Better For Sensitive And Acne-Prone Skin

Physical exfoliants are so not a good idea if you suffer from acne. All that rubbing just irritates your skin, which is already inflamed. It’s a recipe for disaster. Switch to salicylic acid. Your skin will thank you!

Rubbing can also irritate sensitive skin. The only kind of physical exfoliation it can tolerate is a washcloth. But why not try lactic acid instead? You may be surprised by how gentle it is. Plus, it hydrates your skin to boot.

Related: 3 Safe Ways To Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

What Are The Best Chemical Exfoliants?

So now you know chemical exfoliants are much better than physical exfoliants and totally the way to go, which one should you buy? What are the best chemical exfoliants for you? It depends on your skin type:

Best For Dry And Sun-Damaged Skin: Glycolic Acid

A glycolic acid exfoliant to target all the signs of aging, such as wrinkles and dark spots. It helps fade hyperpigmentation away, smoothen out texture and hydrate skin:

Best picks:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): This exfoliant contains two exfoliants. Glycolic Acid to fade away dark spots and Salicylic Acid to unclog pores. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA ($33.00): A wonderful low strength Glycolic Acid exfoliant that makes skin softer, smoother, and brighter. Available at Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
  • The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): A gentle, no-frills Glycolic Acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
the ordinary salicylic acid 2 solution

Best For Oily And Acne-Prone Skin: Salicylic Acid

Unlike other chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid is oil-soluble. This means it can get inside the pores, unclogging them from within. It removes blackheads, whiteheads and pimples. Plus, it has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe redness.

Best picks:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): Don’t let the name fool you. This exfoliant has both salicylic acid to unclog pores and glycolic acid to fade away the dark spots pimples sometimes leave behind. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The cult exfoliant from the brand, it unlclogs pores and treats blackheads and acne. The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can take that, this is one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants out there. Available at Cult BeautyDermstoreNet-A-PorterPaula’s ChoiceSephora, and SpaceNK.
  • The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A simple, no-frills salicylic acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Sephora.
the ordinary lactic acid 10 + ha 2 02

Best For Sensitive Skin: Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is the gentlest chemical exfoliant, so it’s perfect for sensitive skin. Just don’t use it more than once a week.

Best picks:

  • Peach & Lily Power Cocktail Lactic Acid Repair Serum ($51.00): It has 10% lactic acid to exfoliate and brighten skin, plus antioxidants and soothing ingredients that can help you fight premature aging and reduce redness. Sensitive skin can’t tolerate the most powerful anti-aging ingredients, like retinoids, so this is the next best thing. Available at Peach & Lily and Ulta
  • Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment – US Version ($105.00): A luxury exfoliant that deeply hydrates skin and helps to fade away dark spots. Available at Sephora and Ulta
  • The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% ($6.79): A mild concentration that hydrates, exfoliates, and brightens the complexion. There’s also a 10% version available, when you’re ready to upgrade. Available at Beauty BayCult BeautyLook FantasticSephoraSpaceNKThe Ordinary and Ulta

Related: How To Choose The Best Exfoliator For Your Skin Type

The Bottom Line

Chemical exfoliants are gentler and more effective than scrubs and go the extra mile too. They exfoliate, hydrate, prevent wrinkles and even soothe irritations! What more could you ask for? Give them a go, you’ll never go back to scrubs again!