We all know that proper cleansing, moisturizing, and applying daily SPF is the key to a healthy, glowing complexion. But how necessary is it to add exfoliating to our regular skincare lineup? Exfoliating removes cells from the surface layer of our skin by speeding up the cycle that our body naturally sheds these cells to give our complexion an instant but temporary glow. Sounds like a great thing, but we're also wary that we'll over-scrub, leaving our skin raw and red. We chatted with Dr. Jessica Krant, N.Y.C. dermatologist and founder of Art of Dermatology to sort out all the exfoliating confusion.
There’s More Than One Way to Slough
First off, we start with the basics. There are two methods of removing skin cells that are ready to be sloughed: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliating includes “any process in which the skin cells are removed by physical friction, such as with a loofah glove or a cleanser or cream with rough granules in it,” explains Dr. Krant. This action physically gets rid of the loose cells on the outer layer of the skin. Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, uses substances that biologically loosen the glue between the skin’s outer layer cells to allow the outer cells to shed. “Though it is physically gentler on the skin, it may be harsher overall depending on the strength of the product and what else is going on in the skin care routine,” says Dr. Krant.
What Method Should You Use?
“Choosing which type to use will vary based on body area, skin sensitivity, and other parts of the skin care regime,” says Dr. Krant. If you’re using strong products to treat acne or have conditions like eczema or rosacea, or simply have sensitive skin, using chemical exfoliants like glycolic and salicylic acids often found in lotions and washes can be irritating, as can scrubs with natural beads if you rub too hard. To sum it up: Pay attention to how your skin reacts to whichever method you use, and stop if you experience any discomfort. As for mechanical brushes like Clarisonics, Dr. Kant says they might be efficient in reaching deeper layers of skin quicker, but this isn’t necessarily good for your skin if you use them too often.
Use a Gentle Hand
It might seem that applying pressure and rough strokes while exfoliating is the key to removing those loose skin cells, but being too aggressive will actually damage the skin. Dr. Krant recommends choosing a softer loofah glove or a gentle cleanser like REN Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser ($30; dermstore.com) that includes hydrating jojoba beads as its exfoliant.
If you find that you experience irritation even after exfoliating with a gentler hand, Dr. Krant recommends trying to “use other methods of improved skin care to reduce the need to exfoliate in the first place, such as: using fewer irritating facial products, seeing a dermatologist to determine if flakiness is actually a medical condition that can be treated and resolved, or taking shorter, cooler showers with less harsh cleansing products.”
So, How Often Should You Exfoliate?
There’s no consensus on how often you should actually exfoliate, and it’s a topic that’s a hot debate amongst dermatologists. A common answer is two or three times a week, or on the other side of the scrubbing spectrum, once or twice a month. Dr. Krant falls in the latter camp. "I believe that actively exfoliating, if at all, should happen no more than twice a month, and that the daily skincare routine in between should be focused more on gentle care and reduction of inflammation, rather than daily or weekly irritation and trauma to the skin that can come from over-exfoliating,” she says.
Don’t Forget To Moisturize
While exfoliating may rid your complexion of loose dead skin cells so your face looks fresher with a brighter glow, it also removes what helps keep your skin moisturized. To help keep your skin hydrated, apply a fragrance-free repairing moisturizer like Dermalogica Barrier Repair ($42; drugstore.com) following exfoliation. “Removing the skin's protective outer layer, which is largely employed by the body as a moisture barrier to keep the skin's moisture in, can start the cycle of drying and new flaking," Dr. Krant says. "Applying a gentle emollient barrier can help to mitigate some of this effect."