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chemical vs physical exfoliation


The uppermost layer of skin naturally “turns over” approximately every 28 days by shedding dead cells and replacing them with fresh, new ones from below. Although this natural process of cell turnover slows as we age, anti-ageing goals aren’t the only reason to incorporate an exfoliation product into your skincare routine. By reducing the build-up of dead skin cells that can clog pores and contribute to blemishes and uneven texture, exfoliation is also beneficial for oily and mild acne-prone skin.


There are several ways to exfoliate dead skin cells, with perhaps the simplest of all being the use of a facecloth when cleansing. Taking the next step usually involves incorporating specially formulated products containing exfoliating active ingredients into your skincare routine. These fall into two main categories – physical and chemical – and may be used either on their own or in combination..

Retinol and hyaluronic acid are two of the most widely used and popular anti-ageing skincare ingredients in the beauty industry. In this article we explain what they are, what they do, and discuss how to use hyaluronic acid and retinol together.



The benefits of exfoliating the skin are wide ranging:

  • removing dead skin cells to help dull skin appear more radiant
  • reducing the appearance of visible signs of ageing (like fine lines, wrinkles, and discolouration) and sun damage
  • refining the appearance of pores
  • helping to prevent blemishes
  • removing makeup, stubborn residues, and external aggressors.

Regular exfoliation can also help skincare products you’re using for other concerns work more effectively. And as an extra bonus, the skin-smoothing benefits provided by exfoliation can help enhance the appearance of makeup!


Because different exfoliating skincare products remove dead skin cells in various ways, it’s important to understand how they work and how each may help generate optimum benefit for your skin type and concerns. Skincare products can contain physical or chemical exfoliants, or a combination of both—and there are distinct benefits associated with each. Let's unpack...


physical exfoliation scrub


Also referred to as manual exfoliation, physical exfoliation includes the use of buffers, cloths, dry brushes, loofahs, files etc, as well as skincare products formulated with ultra-fine granules to scrub away dead skin cells, smooth the skin’s surface, and refine the appearance of pores. This method of exfoliation is appropriate for many skin types including dull, dry, and oily skin, but can irritate sensitive skin and is generally not recommended for anyone with active blemishes.

It’s important to consider the specific ingredients being used to remove dead skin cells when selecting skincare products for physical exfoliation. The ideal physical exfoliants are particles with a smooth surface rather than jagged seed or shell fragments that might scratch or injure the skin.

SkinCeuticals product to try: Micro-Exfoliating Face Scrub

This daily skin polishing scrub combines hydrated silica particles for physical exfoliation, glycerin, and aloe vera extract in a moisturising cream base to refine uneven skin texture, clear pores, and promote a strong skin moisture barrier in normal, dry, oily, and combination skin.

hyaluronic acid serum


This method of exfoliation uses alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or fruit enzymes to reduce the build-up of skin cells, smooth skin texture (including fine lines and wrinkles), and improve the appearance of discolouration. Chemical exfoliators help dissociate dead skin cells from the surface so that they shed more easily.

Alpha hydroxy acids (this group includes glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, and citric acid) can also help promote skin cell turnover rate and bring fresh skin cells to the surface.

Beta hydroxy acids (such as salicylic acid and lipo-hydroxy acid) are oil-soluble, which allow them to penetrate and decongest clogged pores. Beta hydroxy acids are especially beneficial for oily and blemish-prone skin types.

The importance of pH in chemical exfoliants

The pH scale used to measure acidity ranges from 1 to 14, with a value of 1 being very acidic, 14 very alkaline, and the middle value 7 considered neutral. Skin naturally tends to be mildly acidic, with a pH between 4 and 7 depending on the area of your body. This enables your skin to discourage harmful microbes and combat damaging free radicals that might accelerate the ageing process. Very acidic (low pH values) or alkaline (pH 8 or greater) products can cause significant disruption to the skin’s moisture barrier, so the pH of a chemical exfoliant is important, impacting both the effectiveness of the formula and how the skin responds to it. Chemical exfoliants containing beta or alpha hydroxy acids with a pH range between 3 and 4 provide optimum safety and effectiveness.

b5 serum

SkinCeuticals product to try: Blemish and Age Defence Serum

A targeted, oil-free serum for ageing skin prone to blemishes. This acid blend combines 2% dioic acid with both alpha and beta hydroxy acids to reduce the formation of clogged pores and blemishes, whilst simultaneously promoting skin cell renewal to improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone.


SkinCeuticals product to try: Blemish and Age Cleansing Gel

Formulated for ageing skin prone to blemishes, this exfoliating, deep cleansing gel gently refines the appearance of clogged pores and helps reduce blemishes without drying the skin. It features a conditioning surfactant and a blend of lipo-hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, glycerin, and sorbitol to remove excess oils and makeup, whilst de-clogging pores and brightening skin.

How Often Should you Exfoliate Your Skin?

How often you should exfoliate depends upon a few key factors:

  • your method of exfoliation
  • your skin type - normal, dry, oily, combination or sensitive skin. Normal and oily skin types are usually more tolerant to stronger chemical exfoliants and more frequent use of a physical exfoliant. A combination or dry skin type may be better suited to less regular exfoliation, at least to begin with.
  • age - as you get older, cell turnover becomes slower, so your complexion may benefit from more frequent exfoliation to keep it looking its brightest and best. Be aware though, that skin also becomes thinner with age, potentially making it more sensitive to the exfoliation process.
  • As a general rule, we'd recommend exfoliating around three times a week. Chemical exfoliants containing alpha or beta hydroxy acids can be used daily on tolerant complexions, provided you build up to that frequency slowly. Physical exfoliants should be used less frequently, not more than once or twice a week.



    Application of a broad spectrum sunscreen should be the final step in any skincare routine every day.

    The goals of both physical and chemical exfoliation are to minimise build up of dead skin cells on the skin’s surface and reveal radiant, healthy-looking skin. However, removing this uppermost layer of skin can leave skin with increased sun sensitivity, so it’s especially important to use broad-spectrum sun protection after using a physical and/or chemical exfoliant.



    After applying moisturiser and protective sunscreen, allow the skin to relax and recover. This applies to use of both physical and chemical exfoliants. As you might expect, the scrubbing effect of some physical exfoliants can be abrasive and result in mild, temporary discomfort.

    On the other hand, chemical exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, which work to loosen the bonds holding dead skin cells to the newer skin, may cause the freshly exposed skin to feel slightly sensitive.


    Ultra Facial Defense Sunscreen SPF50

    SPF50+ broad spectrum facial sunscreen for very high-level protection against UVA/UVB rays with an ultra-moisturising formula.

    Old price New price A$68.00

    Blemish And Age Cleansing Gel

    Exfoliating cleanser with lipo-hydroxy acid foams to decongest skin and improve clarity

    Old price New price A$79.00
    One size available for Blemish And Age Cleansing Gel

    Blemish and Age Defense Salicylic Acid Serum

    An oil-free face serum that reduces adult acne, and improves visible signs of ageing

    Old price New price A$145.00

    Micro Exfoliating Face Scrub

    Smoothing exfoliating scrub with hydrated silica effectively cleanses pores and exfoliates to hydrate, soften, and improve skin texture

    Old price New price A$59.00

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