How to Exfoliate Your Face

Dermatologists explain how to do it properly.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

If the universe started giving out free passes for perfect, supple skin, chances are no one who was given the opportunity would turn it down. While unveiling fresher, more radiant skin will take much more than a magical pass, adding a simple yet often overlooked step into your skincare routine can help you get closer to the skin of your dreams—exfoliating. Whether you're battling dullness, signs of aging, or congested pores, exfoliation could be the missing key to unlocking your skin's full potential.

Let's dive into the world of exfoliation, exploring its benefits, the different types available, and the right way to incorporate it into your routine. Get ready to discover how this professionally recommended step can significantly impact your skin's health and glow.

What is Exfoliating?

Exfoliation is more than just another step to add to your skincare routine—it's a way to promote overall skin health. Exfoliating is most known for sloughing off dead skin cells, revealing brighter, radiant skin underneath, but Dr. Purvisha Patel, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Founder of Visha Skincare adds, "[exfoliating] tricks the skin into thinking it is wounded," thus boosting collagen production. This is crucial for reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and acne. Though adding another step to your skincare routine may seem daunting, the many ways your skin can benefit from regular exfoliation confirms it's worth the time and effort (which may likely only be a few minutes daily).

Different Types of Exfoliants

While the average person may automatically think of physical scrubs when they think of exfoliating, the truth is there are different types and ingredients that can be used for effective exfoliation. Exfoliation can be categorized mainly into chemical and physical types, each serving unique purposes and suitable for different skin types.

Chemical Exfoliants

Dr. Patel explains that chemical exfoliants use "enzymes or fruit acids (AHAs or BHAs) or vitamin A derivatives to dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, making them easy to shed." These are suitable for most skin types but beneficial for those with specific skin concerns like acne or aging signs.

Related: Best Chemical Exfoliants for Every Skin Type

Physical Exfoliants

Physical exfoliants, as described by Dr. Patel, "involve using a scrub or tool to physically slough off dead skin." Common ingredients in these exfoliants are microbeads or natural elements like sugar or salt. "Physical exfoliators mechanically drive cellular turnover and feel more like a scrub with a grittier consistency," explains Board-Certified Dermatologist Dr. Lian Mack. Both experts agree that while physical exfoliants are effective, they should be used cautiously, especially on sensitive skin.

Choosing the Right Exfoliant for Your Face

Our dermatologists emphasize the importance of choosing an exfoliant based on skin type, as exfoliating isn't one size fits all. Below are some guidelines to help determine which type of exfoliant may work best for your skin type and concerns.

Oily Skin

According to Dr. Patel, Physical exfoliators are highly recommended for oilier skin types to help reduce oil production and prevent acne. These exfoliants (such as Dr. Patel's recommendation,  Visha Skincare Sugar Scrub) can help with congestion caused by clogged pores and debris. Dr. Mack adds, "Oilier skin types are usually more acne-prone because of the congestion created by clogged pores and cellular debris. Reducing oil and the clumping of dead skin cells with an exfoliator prevents breakouts. "

Related: The 9 Best Pore Cleansers That Actually Remove Dirt, Oil, and Build-Up

Combination/Balanced Skin

Dr. Patel notes that chemical exfoliants work best with this skin type as they gently dissolve dead skin cells, calling out ingredients such as retinol, bakuchiol, and tretinoin to be safe and effective. For combination skin types that may experience oily in specific areas of the skin, using a physical scrub (as mentioned earlier) may help control oil and any associated congestion.

Dry/Sensitive Skin

For dry or sensitive skin, Dr. Patel suggests leave-on products with low-concentration AHA and BHA liquids for gentler exfoliation. They provide deeper results while offering hydration (due to accompanying ingredients). Dr. Mack also recommends mild exfoliants, including ingredients like salicylic acid and glycolic acid, such as her personal favorite Provence Beauty's Sugar Plum Exfoliating Toner. To prevent epidermal trauma resulting in inflammation, scaling, or peeling, Dr. Patel recommends avoiding physical exfoliants altogether. For mature skin that tends to lean on the drier side, products that restore moisture and combat the effects of thinning skin, such as Dr. Macks go to,  Visha Skincare's RejuVenating Moisturizer, are beneficial for mature skin, which tends to be a bit on the dryer side.

How Often to Exfoliate (and How to Do It Correctly)

As you may have figured by now, determining the right frequency for exfoliation largely depends on your skin type. Dr. Patel recommends that those with dry or sensitive skin exfoliate between 1-2 times a week. In contrast, individuals with normal to oily skin might find it beneficial to exfoliate every other day. If choosing to use physical exfoliants,  Dr. Mack recommends using no more than 1-2 times a week to prevent adverse reactions if your skin finds the product abrasive. 

Below are some guidelines for adding exfoliating into your routine as recommended by our experts. 

Use Products For Your Skin Type: Be sure to choose an exfoliant that aligns with your skin's specific needs because, as previously mentioned, exfoliants aren't made equally. Following the guidelines our experts recommended is a great starting place. 

Apply as Intended:  For best results, always follow the product instructions, including the order in which it should be applied to the skin. For physical exfoliants, massage gently for the recommended time. For chemical exfoliants, follow instructions carefully and avoid the eyes and lips unless otherwise stated as these skin areas can be easily irritated. 

Listen to Your Skin: Pay close attention to how your skin reacts after exfoliation. Adjust the frequency and type of exfoliant based on your observations. If you notice symptoms like inflammation or peeling, it's a clear sign to either reduce the frequency of exfoliation or switch to a milder exfoliating method. Listening to your skin's response is key to maintaining its health and balance, and always patch test before jumping in to try a new skincare product.

Maintain a Balanced Skincare Routine: Exfoliating is not meant to replace other steps in your skincare regimen. It's still important to cleanse daily, hydrate, and protect your skin year-round with an SPF moisturizer. Exfoliating is a great addition, however, it doesn't erase the need for a solid foundation, a basic skincare routine.

When done correctly, exfoliation can significantly enhance your skin's health and appearance. The key is understanding your skin type, choosing the appropriate exfoliant, and, most importantly, listening to your skin.

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