What is the difference between physical and chemical scrubs?

Lynne Hyland OK! beauty Editor

By Lynne Hyland

Lynne is OK!'s beauty editor and covers celebrity beauty news, product launches and beauty hacks.
What is the difference between physical and chemical scrubs?

Want to make an immediate difference to how your skin looks and feels?

Reach for a facial scrub. While some skincare products involve a waiting game while the rejuvenating magic happens deep down, exfoliants deliver results you can see and feel on the surface right away. Dead, dull cells are whisked away, pores get a detoxing clear-out and your skin is left smooth, soft and perky. The phrase “you scrub up well” has never been more apt.

We’ve also come a long way from the days when we scrubbed ourselves raw with scratchy grit. Today’s scrub formulas are far more sophisticated, and some even give results worthy of a professional facial. However, beyond all the beauty science, exfoliation still boils down to two basic methods: physical and chemical. So how do they work, and which should you choose?

Physical scrubs are exactly as they sound. They involve lightly rubbing your face with the product to slough away the dead top layer. Light bounces better off the fresh, plump cells they reveal, which is why your complexion looks more glowy when it’s freshly exfoliated. 

Physical scrubs fell out of favour for a while, firstly because of the aforementioned scratchiness, and then because formulas moved onto (now-banned) plastic microbeads, which were kinder to skin but harmful to the ocean. Thankfully, physical scrubs are now back in the good books, with brands using ultra-fine biodegradable and natural particles to slough skin gently and with a clean eco-conscience. 

Chemical scrubs are your second option. “This involves the use of gentle fruit acids to ‘unglue’ the dead skin cells and allow them to slough away,” explains award-winning aesthetics expert Dr Sophie Shotter, founder of Illuminate Clinic. “Commonly used acids are glycolic, citric and lactic acid.” 

So which type of scrub is better? There are benefits to both methods, and it can come down to your skin type and personal preference. The main thing is to read the instructions carefully and only use a product as frequently as recommended. “My advice is always to start gently by introducing a new active product gradually,” says Dr Shotter.

If you’re thinking that both types of scrub sound equally good, we have some great news: you don’t need to choose. There’s a trend for formulas that offer a mix of both chemical and physical exfoliation, and you’ll find one of them in this month’s OK! Beauty Box.

Our new Glow & Go edit contains a travel-size tube of Murad Vita-C Triple Exfoliating Facial, worth £9.38. Incredibly, this product has been clinically proven to give smoothing effects as good as a session of professional microdermabrasion! It combines micro-minerals, enzymes, and both AHA and BHA acids, and the formula even cleverly changes colour when you’ve scrubbed for long enough.

You’ll find it in this month’s box  alongside four other quick and easy radiance boosters, worth over £95 in total. Treat yourself to the whole lot for just £7.50 if you’re a new subscriber, and you’ll be good to glow.