It might seem counterintuitive, but exfoliating will actually keep your skin moisturized.

By Victoria Moorhouse and Erin Lukas
Updated Jun 23, 2020 @ 6:30 pm
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You may think exfoliating dry skin is a skincare catch-22 of sorts.

Exfoliating an already-parched complexion seems like it would just lead to more dryness, and therefore lots of irritation.

But, we’re here to set the skincare truths straight with the help of a few experts. And contrary to what you might believe, exfoliating dry skin is essential in keeping it hydrated and healthy. Because dead skin flakes have got to go.

What is Exfoliation?

"Exfoliation is the removal of the skin’s outer most layer, which consists of dead skin cells," says Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Exfoliation increases the rate of your skin regeneration process to improve tone and texture."

Getting rid of these dead skin calls can help improve a number of skin issues, including clogged pores, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles. Regular exfoliation can also allow skincare products like serums and moisturizers to better penetrate the skin.

Why Should You Exfoliate Your Face?

"Those flakes prevent moisturizers from fixing dry skin, so getting rid of them is a must to allow moisturizers to work, as well as to remedy the unattractive look of dull flaky skin," explains Dr. Neal Schultz, board-certified MD, New York City-based dermatologist, founder of DermTV.com, and creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz.

But that's not all. In the summer, when skin tends to be more oily, exfoliation can be helpful in preventing breakouts.

"Exfoliating regularly in the summer months can help clear those clogged pores and keep acne flareups at bay," explains Dr. Nussbaum. "That said, with the added humidity in the air, you may find that you don’t need to exfoliate with as much frequency as you did in the winter months."

How you exfoliate, though, couldn't be more important in this situation. First, you should never try to get rid of all the flakes at once — Dr. Schultz suggests working on it over a week. And another shocker, chemical exfoliants are actually the better choice for reducing the chance of irritation. (More on that below.)

Why Should You Use a Chemical Exfoliator?

"Chemical exfoliation gives much better, consistent, and predictable results than any form of physical exfoliation," says Dr. Schultz. "The outcome of physical exfoliation depends on three variables which are never the same — how much pressure or how hard you rub; how long you treat any given area; the lack of constancy of the physical exfoliating medium, i.e. granules or loofah."

There are many different types of acids that are used to slough off dead skin cells, but Dr. Schultz says glycolic acid is your best bet, because it gets rid of flakes while smoothing your skin's surface, revealing a brighter and even-toned complexion. And it can make your pores appear smaller, too.

"Glycolic exfoliation reveals your normal, smooth, even-toned skin below which is hidden by the damaged and/or dead cells that just didn’t fall off on schedule—because the 'glue' that holds them on didn’t dissolve on schedule—and make your skin dry and look tired, older, blotchy," he says.

When choosing a glycolic, Dr. Schultz urges it should be "balanced, buffered, and pH adjusted," as that's the gentler option, and the product should fall in-between the 8 to 15% range, depending on where on the body you're exfoliating.

Most chemical exfoliants come in liquid form, or are infused into a circular easy-to-swipe pad. We're fans of BeautyRx Skincare Advanced Exfoliating Therapy Pads, made with 10% glycolic, as well as Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 8 Percent AHA Gel Exfoliant, and SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser, which is also infused with the superstar ingredient.

How Do You Use a Chemical Exfoliator?

Dr. Schultz suggests only exfoliating once a day and to go easy on the rubbing. "With chemical exfoliants, if a little is good, then more is usually not better, because by overdoing it, that’s how you set yourself up for irritation," he warns. "So start with a lower strength, use a little (less is more) and not more than once a day."

Dr. Nussbaum adds a few more tips. "To ensure you're not overdoing it, start off by exfoliating once or twice a week and gradually increasing frequency depending on the product you're using or your skin type," she suggests. "Over exfoliation can lead to redness, inflammation, dryness, and tears in the skin."

Finally, follow up with a moisturizer now that your skin more adept to hold onto the hydration.

"I prefer moisturizers with both humectant ingredients that grab onto and attract moisture (hyaluronic acid absorbs up to 1000 times its weight in water!) and emollient ingredients that help seal in the moisture," Dr. Nussbaum suggests.

A few of our faves? Neutrogena Hydroboost Water Gel Moisturizer, an oil-free gel moisturizer with hyaluronic acid, and CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, a fragrance-free moisturizer with skin barrier-strengthening ceramides and hyaluronic acid.

If you're exfoliating in the morning, Dr. Nussbaum notes that it's important to apply moisturizer and sunscreen afterwards. She also recommends an antioxidant treatment like Skinceuticals Phloretin CF. "It is a favorite of mine as it contains a synergistic combination of vitamin C, phloretin and ferulic acid which combats environmental and UV damage," she says.

VIDEO: Double Cleansing Is the Foolproof Way to Really Get All of Your Makeup Off 

What If You Want to Use Physical Exfoliants?

If you prefer physical exfoliants like a scrub, go with a gentle formula that isn't too abrasive.

"Mechanical exfoliation usually involves physically removing the dead skin cells by either microdermabrasion, micro-bead scrubs, or other abrasive materials," Dr. Nussbaum explains. "However, I do not recommend large irregular-shaped granules or beaded scrubs as they may be too abrasive and can lead to microtears in the skin."

Instead, try physical exfoliants that contain jojoba beads instead of crushed nut shells or seeds. We love Pai Skincare Organic Kukui & Jojoba Bead Skin Brightening Exfoliator and Elemis Gentle Rose Exfoliator.

That being said, scrub with caution, especially if you have inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis, rosacea, or acne.

"As mentioned previously, improper mechanical exfoliation can cause microtears of the skin, which can lead to infection and inflammation," says Dr. Nussbaum. "Additionally, those who have psoriasis, acne, rosacea, or are suffering from a skin infection should consult with a dermatologist as exfoliation may exacerbate these skin conditions."