Exfoliation v Microdermabrasion v Chemical Peels

Exfoliation v Microdermabrasion v Chemical Peels

What’s the difference, and what’s the best? 

There’s no doubt about it. If you want glowing, healthy looking skin, exfoliation is critical to your regular skincare routine.

Why do we need to exfoliate?

By removing dead skin cells from the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, exfoliation clears your skin of dead cells and assists in your skin’s natural cell turnover process.

By lifting away dead cells and unclogging your pores, exfoliation improves your skin tone and texture. It also minimises the chance of acne forming bacteria developing within the pore and triggering breakouts.


Long-term exfoliation can also increase collagen production - which is the key to glowing, vibrant skin. Collagen promotes skin elasticity, minimising the appearance of fine lines and sagging skin. 

What’s more… According to the American Academy of Dermatology, exfoliation allows skincare products to be able to penetrate more deeply, improving their effectiveness. 

When we’re young, a general physical exfoliation method might be enough to do the trick. This includes using abrasive scrubs on the skin (such as cleansing scrubs, body brushes or loofahs). As we age however, a more intense method may be required to achieve the same results. 

What happens to our skin when we age?

As we grow older, the process of cell regeneration slows down. This means that the body is slower to shed dead skin cells and generate new ones. When old skin cells start to pile up, the surface of the skin can end up looking dull and dry. This is where people typically see the first signs of ageing, or find that their makeup is no longer sitting nicely on their skin. 

While regular exfoliation will buff away the dead skin cells closest to the surface, more intense options, like chemical peels or microdermabrasion not only remove these cells, but also stimulate the growth of a fresh, new layer. This process stimulates the production of collagen, which results in plumper and more radiant looking skin. 

By encouraging regeneration of the epidermal cell structure, chemical peels and  microdermabrasion will provide far superior results to a regular facial exfoliant.

Let’s talk more about each. 

Both cosmetic procedures exfoliate the skin and can be done  in-office by a clinician or at home. Both microdermabrasion and chemical peels also achieve similar results. 

Benefits include:

  • Tightening of skin 
  • Evening out skin tone 
  • Minimizing acne scars
  • Cleaned-out pores
  • Reduction of fine lines 
  • Improves appearance of mild scars
  • Reduction in acne
  • Improved appearance of age spots, freckles, and dark patches (melasma) 

While they achieve similar results, they do not exfoliate in the same way. Microdermabrasion is a physical exfoliation, while chemical peels are a chemical exfoliation.


Microdermabrasion is a non-surgical facial resurfacing technique. With regular use, microdermabrasion will smooth out fine lines while minimising sun spots and scars. It’s a great solution for those who have enlarged pores and blackheads, acne scars, dull-looking complexion or uneven skin tone.

While chemical peels are a form of chemical exfoliation, microdermabrasion is a physical exfoliation. 


One of the biggest advantages of microdermabrasion is that it’s safe for all skin types, has little risk of complications and can be performed in a clinic, or at home with a hand-held device. 

How does microdermabrasion work?

Using a microcrystalline tip, the device polishes and exfoliates the top layer of tired, dull skin, while the vacuum suction unclogs your pores and increases blood flow. This process prompts an increased production of collagen and elastin, which results in plumper and more radiant looking skin. 

The procedure itself is pretty simple, regardless of whether it is done in a clinic or at home. 

First the skin is cleansed. For best results, it’s worth having a hot shower, steaming your face or using a hot face cloth on your face for 10 minutes before use. This will open your pores and prime it for treatment.

Once your face is totally dry, you (or your clinician) will pull your skin taut and glide the tool over your skin along the natural lines of your face, using an upwards and outwards motion. Use smooth, swift strokes and avoid hovering or going over the one spot more than once.

Does microdermabrasion hurt?

Unlike a chemical peel, you don’t need a pre-procedure plan for microdermabrasion, and you certainly won’t experience any pain throughout the procedure - just a slight tugging as the device glides over your skin. 

What’s the after care for microdermabrasion?

A microdermabrasion treatment has little to no recovery time, and you’ll notice an improvement in your skin tone and texture immediately after treatment. 

If it’s your first treatment, your skin may turn pink with slight swelling, similar to light sunburn. During this time, you should apply a hydrating serum and rich moisturiser to ensure your skin is properly hydrated.

Like a chemical peel, you’ll need to be diligent about using sun protection when going outside. 

Chemical Peels

So first… what actually IS a chemical peel, and how does it work?

A chemical peel involves applying a powerful acidic solution that creates a chemical reaction, causing the top layer of skin to dissolve and peel off - without scrubbing. Glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acid are the most common acids used for both at-home and in-office treatments. 

The treatment effectively resurfaces your skin, revealing the newer, healthier and undamaged skin below. As well as making you look more youthful, the treatment can also reduce the look of discolouration and scars. 


Do chemical peels hurt?

The process sounds a little extreme, right? Well, anyone who has had a chemical peel can attest to the fact that it can be painful… especially if you are opting for a stronger peel. A chemical peel will induce a stinging sensation that lasts the duration of the treatment. Clinicians might hold a fan over your face to relieve some of the burn - but it’s not going to be pleasant. That’s just the reality. 

The three strengths of chemical peels: light, medium and deep. 


  • A light peel, or superficial peel, will lightly exfoliate your skin. It only removes the epidermis, which is your topmost skin layer. It’s the most gentle of all three, but may still cause stinging and redness that subsides within a few days.


  • A medium chemical peel is slightly stronger than a light peel. It removes your epidermis plus the top layer of your dermis, which lies beneath the epidermis. This level is generally used for wrinkles, uneven skin tone and acne scars.


  • A deep chemical peel removes your epidermis along with the upper and middle layer of your dermis. It uses very strong chemicals, so you may need a local anesthetic before the procedure to help prevent pain and discomfort. It’s best used for deeper wrinkles, deeper scars, precancerous skin patches.

Some clinicians will give clients a pre-procedure plan to ensure their skin is prepped and ready to go several weeks before a chemical peel. 

Is a chemical peel suitable for all skin types? 

While chemical peels are a great option for many, they should not be used on people who have very sensitive skin. It’s also not a great option for those who have taken oral acne medication within the past six months, or those who are pregnant. 

Generally, people with fair-skin and light-hair will get better results from a chemical peel. Those with darker skin may also have good results, but are more likely to have an uneven skin tone after the procedure.

What is the aftercare for a chemical peel?

The exfoliation process will continue for several days after the treatment is complete. If you opt for a light or medium chemical peel, you will likely look a little red, and feel very sensitive after the procedure. Your skin may then flake or itch for several days until the treated skin has completely peeled away. 

If you have gone for the deep chemical peel, then side effects may include swelling, peeling and blistering, with a downtime of several weeks. 

While your skin is still healing, you should avoid abrasive skin care products or techniques in order to allow the skin time to heal properly.  

Chemical peels also cause skin to be more sensitive to sunlight. Make sure you apply a broad-spectrum SPF 50+ before going outdoors to protect it from the sun’s damaging rays.  

Ok, so you have an understanding of chemical peels… but what about Microdermabrasion?

So what’s right for you… a chemical peel or microdermabrasion?

While both treatments share the same goals - clearing dead skin cells, increasing the speed of cell turnover, and leaving skin brighter and smoother - both go about it in different ways. 

When deciding between the two treatments, it is important to know which option is best for your skin type and tone, as well as the skin concerns you are seeking to address and your tolerance to pain. While chemical peels are a great option, they are more painful than a microdermabrasion treatment. 

If convenience is important, microdermabrasion is also easier and safer to do at home with a hand held device. 

It’s also important to remember that while results will be visible after just one treatment, both require ongoing sessions to see a dramatic improvement in the skin. Also remember that as new skin cells are constantly developing, neither treatment will provide permanent benefits. 

If you’re ever not sure - it’s best to speak to a dermatologist or aesthetician.