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Exfoliation, in simple terms, is the removal of dead skin cells from your skin’s surface.
Yes, your skin naturally sheds its dead cells — it just needs a little extra help to actually get them off the surface. You can help your skin get rid of these dead cells in two main ways: physical or chemical exfoliation.
Physical exfoliation involves manual loofahs and brushes, while chemical exfoliation uses — you guessed it — gentle chemicals such as hydroxy acids.
Some exfoliating is good for your skin. If you never exfoliate at all, you could end up with clogged pores and dull-looking skin. Exfoliating too often, on the other hand, can cause irritation.
The question, then, is this: What’s the exfoliating “sweet spot,” so to speak, for healthier skin?
Read on to find out the ideal frequency for your skin type, along with some tips to exfoliate for success.
According to board certified New York City dermatologist, Dr. Debra Jaliman, your skin type will help determine how often to exfoliate.
(Not sure what type of skin you have? Check out the No BS Guide to Discovering Your Real Skin Type.)
Dr. Anna Chacon, a board certified dermatologist in Weston, Florida, notes a few other factors that can affect how often you’ll want to exfoliate.
Exfoliation can help keep skin looking and feeling healthy as you age. Just keep in mind that skin can become drier and more sensitive as you grow older. Choosing gentler exfoliants over abrasive physical methods can offer more support to delicate skin.
If your skin’s already on the dry side, you’ll generally want to limit exfoliation to once or twice a week.
But during warmer months, exfoliating a little more often could help prevent excess oil buildup.
In short, physical exfoliation requires some manual labor on your part, while chemical exfoliation lets a product do all the hard work.
- Physical exfoliants include scrubs, pumice stones, and dry brushes. These tools help remove dead skin from the surface as you scrub or brush your skin.
- Chemical exfoliants include water-soluble alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and oil-soluble beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid. These products work to remove dead skin by going below the surface to dissolve the bonds holding skin cells together. Retinols and retinoids are also a type of chemical exfoliant as they both increase cell turnover time and create exfoliation.
Chemical products tend to exfoliate more gently than their physical counterparts, and they can be more effective. Still, they can also cause irritation if used incorrectly.
Using one type of exfoliant at a time is sufficient, Jaliman notes. “Otherwise, you run the risk of stripping your skin of its natural oils or over-exfoliating.”
She also cautions against using a physical and chemical exfoliant at the same time, unless both exfoliants are very gentle.
Remember, too, that skin care products like serums and masks may contain AHAs and other exfoliating ingredients without being labeled as exfoliants. In other words, you may already be using more than one type without realizing.
You can exfoliate your face at any time of day. Some people prefer to exfoliate in the morning for a fresh-faced look, while others exfoliate at night to remove any daytime buildup of dead skin.
Whenever you decide to exfoliate, cleansing is the first vital step. Use a gentle formula to wash your face and rinse thoroughly.
Get 15 tips on washing your face the right way.
When it comes to the actual exfoliation, the technique differs for chemical and physical types.
If you’ve chosen a physical method like a scrub, Jaliman recommends:
- applying a pea-sized amount to your forehead, chin, nose, and cheeks
- using a soft face brush, sponge, or wash cloth to massage into your skin with gentle circular motions for around 30 seconds
- rinsing with cool or lukewarm water
If you’re using a chemical exfoliant, Jaliman recommends sticking to the directions on the label, since every product is different. Follow with the rest of your skin care routine, including serums, spot treatments, and hydrating moisturizers.
And remember, Jaliman says, to always use sunscreen during the day. (You’ll want to apply sunscreen just before makeup.)
“Fresh skin is revealed when you exfoliate, so your skin is now more sun sensitive,” she explains.
If your face starts to look or feel irritated, it’s generally best to cut back on exfoliating and connect with a dermatologist.
Body exfoliation often involves more abrasive products, like pumice stones, that you wouldn’t use on your face. But gentler chemical exfoliation is still an option, of course.
Try to exfoliate as much of your body as possible. Dead skin can build up everywhere, but you’ll want to pay extra attention to areas that tend to be drier:
Jaliman recommends exfoliating your body in the shower.
- Cleanse first.
- Take your chosen exfoliant and gently rub it onto your skin in a circular motion.
- Apply lotion or cream directly afterward.
- For trickier areas, like your feet, you can buy specially formulated scrubs and peels or use a pumice stone.
Avoid exfoliating areas with cuts, sores, or broken skin until you heal. And, of course, if you notice any irritation, give your body a rest for a few days.
While you might feel tempted to try and remove as much dead skin as possible for smooth, glowing skin, exfoliating too often can actually have the opposite effect.
“If you over-exfoliate the skin, you may experience redness, irritation, and peeling,” Chacon explains. “Your skin may also feel uncomfortable and tight.”
If you notice any of the above, avoid exfoliating until your skin has calmed down. It never hurts to get some guidance from a dermatologist or other healthcare professional.
Exfoliating has a number of benefits.
“It gets rid of all that dead skin that makes our complexion look dull,” Jaliman says. This, she adds, helps prevent clogged pores and allows other skin care products to penetrate your skin more efficiently.
Exfoliation can also boost collagen production and promote a smoother, brighter complexion.
Just keep your skin type in mind when beginning an exfoliating routine. If you have dry, sensitive, or breakout-prone skin, physical exfoliation may prove too aggressive — but stronger exfoliants may work well for oilier skin.
Still not sure how you should exfoliate, or how often? A dermatologist can offer more personalized advice.
You’ll generally want to use different exfoliants on your face and body, since the skin on your face is more delicate.
Keeping your skin type in mind can help you choose the right product.
- Normal skin. Most products are likely safe to use.
- Dry skin. Aim to use gentler chemical formulas like glycolic acid.
- Oily skin. You can generally take your pick of physical exfoliants or stronger chemical exfoliants.
- Combination skin. Enjoy the best of both worlds by choosing gentle methods for drier areas and scrubs for oilier areas.
- Sensitive skin. Use gentle products formulated for sensitive skin and look for natural enzymes like papaya and pomegranate.
Looking for a hydrating physical exfoliant? Jaliman recommends Aveeno Positive Radiant Skin Brightening Daily Scrub. It contains jojoba and castor oil along with moisturizing soy extract.
She’s also a fan of Neostrata Facial Cleanser, which contains a polyhydroxy acid (PHA).
“It gently exfoliates without over drying your skin,” Jaliman says, going on to explain that the panthenol inside helps hydrate the skin while calming irritation.
Chacon advises testing any new product on a less delicate area of skin, like your feet. She also recommends reading reviews to see what others say about the product. Checking the ingredient list for anything you might be allergic or sensitive is always wise, too.
You can also find natural exfoliating ingredients, like cinnamon and finely ground oatmeal, in your pantry. Just take care when mixing up a DIY scrub, since large granules can easily damage your skin.
It can be tricky to find the right exfoliating balance for your skin. Once you know what your skin needs, though, it’s usually just a matter of sticking to a regular schedule and not overdoing it.
If you notice any unwanted changes, a dermatologist can always offer guidance tailored to your skin type and skin care needs.
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.