Face scrub and exfoliator: Differences, benefits and when to use each

Face scrub and exfoliator: Differences, benefits and when to use each

24th May 2024 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

The terms face scrub and exfoliator are often used interchangeably but there are some key differences. We explain more below


If you grew up in the 1990s, there’s a strong chance that when someone uses the phrase “face scrub” your mind immediately goes to the St Ives Apricot Scrub.

It feels like it was the OG of face scrubs and is still going strong today.

However, in recent years/decades, the face scrub and exfoliator market has boomed. Today there are thousands of face scrubs, face peels, face exfoliators, exfoliating pads, and more. Each one designed to leave you skin clean and clear.

Yet while the terms “face scrub” and “face exfoliator” are often used interchangeably, there are some key differences between a number of products and methods found on the market today and they each come with their own set of benefits and potential drawbacks.

In this article, we explain everything you need to know about face scrubs and exfoliators including when to use, when to avoid and what to look for. We list recommendations below, but we’ve also previously handpicked our best face scrubs on a dedicated page if you want to learn more, or get more recommendations.


Face scrub and exfoliator: What’s the difference?

What does moisturiser doShutterstock

A face scrub is technically a face exfoliator, but a face exfoliator can also include chemical, and brush exfoliators. Here are the key differences:

Face Scrub: A face scrub is also known as a physical exfoliator and it’s a skincare product that typically contains small particles or granules that physically remove dead skin cells. As you massage the scrub over the skin, it buffs away dirt, oil and cells. The particles can be made from a variety of materials, including nut shells, fruit pits, sugar, salt, or synthetic beads. Very few scrubs contain plastic beads anymore because they have been found to pollute the water.

mamabella recommends: Neutrogena Visibly Clear Pink Grapefruit Daily Scrub (£4.99); UpCircle Coffee Face Scrub Citrus Blend (£16.99)

Face Exfoliator: This term refers to any product or method that removes dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. This technically includes physical exfoliators like face scrubs, as well as chemical exfoliators. Chemical exfoliators use acids or enzymes to dissolve or loosen the dead skin cells without physical rubbing.

mamabella recommends: Paula’s Choice BHA Exfoliant (from £12); The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution (£8.99)


Face scrub and exfoliator: Which is best?

Face-oil-for-oily-skin-dry-skin-how-to-use-bestGetty Images/iStockphoto

From this point on I’m going to refer to all physical exfoliators as face scrubs, and use the term face exfoliator to refer to chemical exfoliators.

Benefits of face scrubs

  • Immediate results: Physical face scrubs offer instant results and gratification. They leave the skin feeling smoother immediately after use.
    Increased circulation: The physical action of scrubbing can boost circulation to the face which helps improve your skin’s health, leaving it glowing and smooth. This is why they recommend scrubbing your body to get rid of cellulite, because the increased circulation helps get smooth the skin.
    Cheaper price: Physical face scrubs tend to be cheaper than chemical exfoliators. It’s not always the case but as a general rule. You can also create your own homemade face scrub, making it even easier and cheaper.

Drawbacks of face scrubs

  • Skin irritation and damage: If the scrub particles are too harsh, or if you scrub too vigorously, you can cause micro-tears in the skin. This can cause irritation, increased sensitivity, and even breakouts.
    Not suitable for all skin types: If you have sensitive skin, skin that’s thin due to menopause or ageing, and or acne-prone skin, you might find physical scrubs too abrasive and damaging. Check out our What skin type do I have? guide if you’re not sure which skin type you have.

Benefits of face exfoliators

Witch hazel for skinShutterstock
  • More gentle: Chemical exfoliators, like those that contain AHAs, BHAs and PHAs such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid, are typically more gentle on the skin compared to physical scrubs. They work by breaking down the substances that hold dead skin cells together, allowing for a smoother skin surface over time.
  • Suitable for acne-prone skin: Chemical exfoliators are able to penetrate deeper into the pores than physical face scrubs, helping to clear out oil and reduce breakouts, texture and acne. Azelaic acid is particularly good for acne and ageing.
  • Promotes cell renewal: Regular use of chemical exfoliators can help stimulate the production of new skin cells, improving skin texture and tone over time. This can also help boost collagen production which can leave your skin looking younger.

Drawbacks of face exfoliators

  • Over-exfoliation: It’s easy to overuse chemical exfoliators and this can strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to dryness, irritation, and a compromised skin barrier. When your skin barrier is compromised, it can lead to redness and texture. Read more in our guide on everything you need to know about your skin barrier.
  • Sensitivity to sunlight: Some chemical exfoliants, particularly AHAs, can make the skin more sensitive to the sun. This means you need to either stay out of the sun, or make sure you’re using sunscreen.
  • Skin purging: Sometimes, the use of chemical exfoliators can cause what’s known as skin purging. This causes your skin to get worse before it gets better as you skin gets rid of all the dirt and build in the lower layers of your face. It means that the face exfoliator is working and can two a couple of weeks to settle down but it can be annoying.

Face scrub and exfoliator: FAQs

Versed moisturising for oily skinVersed Skincare

Below we’ll be answering readers questions about face scrubs and exfoliators. If you have a question that’s not answered below, send us a DM on Instagram or Facebook.

Is face scrub and exfoliator the same?

No, a face scrub is a type of exfoliator but not all exfoliators are face scrubs. Face scrubs are physical exfoliators with particles that manually remove dead skin cells. Exfoliators can also be chemical, using acids or enzymes to dissolve dead skin cells without scrubbing.


Should you use face scrub before or after exfoliating?

If you are using a face scrub, you are already exfoliating. We don’t recommend using two different types of exfoliators at the same time because it can lead to over-exfoliation, skin irritation and it can damage your skin barrier.


How often should I exfoliate my face?

How often you should exfoliate your face depends on your skin type and the type of exfoliator you are using. Typically, it’s safe to use a chemical exfoliator two or three times a week and a physical scrub once a week. However, if you have sensitive skin you may require less frequent exfoliation. You can learn more about this in our how to layer skincare guide.


What happens if you never exfoliate?

If you never exfoliate, dead skin cells can build on the surface of your skin. This not only leaves your skin looking dull, but it can lead to clogged pores, uneven skin texture, and potentially more breakouts and blackheads.


Should I moisturise after exfoliating?

Yes, it is important to moisturise after exfoliating. Exfoliation, whether it’s done using a face scrub or chemical exfoliation, can strip some of the natural oils from your skin. Moisturising helps to restore hydration, protect your skin, and maintain its barrier. Just be careful about using moisturisers that have exfoliating ingredients in them as this can lead to over-exfoliation and cause irritation.


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