Are Physical Exfoliators Really That Bad For Your Skin?

Physical exfoliators, such as walnut or apricot scrubs, were once deemed skincare essentials. As skincare evolves, so does their effectiveness. Generally, there are two types of skin exfoliation — physical and chemical — and it's the process of removing excess dirt, oils, and old skin cells on the surface of the skin. This buildup can cause dry skin or clogged pores if it doesn't properly shed on its own (via Healthline). While skin exfoliation has benefits for acne treatment, skin tone improvements, glowing skin, better ingredient absorption, and the promotion of skin cell turnover, the abrasiveness of physical exfoliators still comes into question.

According to Westlake Dermatology, chemical exfoliation is when the product does the exfoliating, whereas physical exfoliation is manual. When it comes to walnut or apricot scrubs, it's the tiny, grainy pieces of the walnut shell or apricot pit that rub against the skin. Other forms of physical exfoliation can include washcloths, sponges, or brushes. However, this process can pose the risk of damaging your skin.

"I recommend that my patients avoid physical scrubs like this, as the exfoliating particles are too abrasive for skin and can actually cause small injuries, or micro-tears, as well as inflammation and infection," Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist, tells Byrdie. Additionally, it can leave the skin red and irritated. Too much physical exfoliation can also cause an increase in oil production, which, in turn, might do the opposite for those seeking its benefits, especially for those with acne (via Westlake Dermatology).

When should you use physical exfoliators?

Overall, many professionals recommend chemical exfoliation over physical exfoliation. If you still love the instant gratification of feeling smooth skin after a physical exfoliation, some doctors suggest using it gently and only once a week, but warnings remain for those with more sensitive or dry skin to steer clear of physical exfoliation (via Byrdie). 

When it comes to physical exfoliants, medical esthetician Jordana Mattioli tells Vogue that she prefers micro-exfoliants, which are smaller, non-coarse particles. Some of her favorite skincare ingredients include poppy seeds, bamboo, brown rice, rosehip seeds, and biodegradable beads made of jojoba esters. These ingredients are often in a powder form that, when mixed with water, are less harsh, not causing damage to the skin. 

For those with sensitive skin, a simple linen washcloth will do the trick (via Vogue). Other forms include microdermabrasion, which exfoliates the skin through studded tips, and dermaplaning, which exfoliates the skin through the use of a scalpel similar to a razor. Both are best done with a professional.

The alternative: chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation isn't abrasive like its physical counterpart, and it penetrates more deeply into the skin to complete the same goal of dead skin cell, oil, and dirt removal. Furthermore, there are three main types of chemical exfloiation: PHAs, BHAs, and AHAs.

As The Skin Institute explains, polyhydroxy acids, or PHAs, have a base of gluconolactone and lactobionic acids. They are often more suitable for those with sensitive skin because of their larger molecules, which limit how deep it penetrates into the more vulnerable layers of the skin. Beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, have a base of tropic and salicylic acid, often used for those with oily or acne-prone skin, as it functions to unclog pores. Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, include "naturally occurring acids," such as citric, malic, lactic, and glycolic acids. AHAs help improve the quality of tone and coloration of the skin.

Dr. Sejal Shah, a cosmetic dermatologist, tells Fashionista that "although it sounds harsher than mechanical [physical] exfoliation, chemical exfoliation is actually gentler on the skin because it doesn't involve scrubbing." However, over-exfoliating through, no matter through chemical or physical means, can cause damages like inflammation, susceptibility to sunburns, and a loss of moisture, disrupting the skin barrier (via Fashionista). Ultimately, it's always best to never overdo it and carefully evaluate the needs of your own skin.