How to Exfoliate Your Face Correctly, According to Dermatologists

Yes, there's a right and wrong way.

Facial Scrub
Facial Scrub. Photo:

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Exfoliation can be the answer to clearer skin, smooth texture, a brighter complexion, and can help generate collagen synthesis, but make no mistake: using the wrong exfoliant can also lead to irritated, stinging, barrier-compromised skin.

You can think of an exfoliant like it’s a shoe — it’s never a one-size-fits-all and everyone has different needs to accommodate. What works for your friend with oily skin, might not work for your parched and sensitive face.

Ahead, we spoke with a few experts on exactly how you should be exfoliating, how to choose the best exfoliant for your skin type, and how to safely exfoliate at home.

What is exfoliation?

“Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin,” says Shereene Idriss, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology. “This can be via physical exfoliation, utilizing a type of abrasive substance or tool, or chemical exfoliation which are exfoliating acids.”

Chemical exfoliants (think lactic, mandelic, and glycolic acids) work by dissolving the bonds between skin cells and loosening surface cells. On the other hand, physical exfoliation (such as microdermabrasion) work by using firm substances to physically scrub away dead skin cells.

What are the benefits of exfoliation?

There are a number of benefits of exfoliation, according to Rachel Westbay, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical. “It reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation,” she says. “Pigment that lies superficially in the skin (like sun spots, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, and some forms of melasma) can be improved by exfoliating the upper layers of the skin that contain the pigment that is the source of discoloration.” Separating the bonds of the skin cells also has the benefit of unclogging pores, which reduces acne caused by congestion.

Amongst the more dramatic, long-term effects are the reduction of fine lines. Consistent exfoliation over time can make fine lines and wrinkles look less visible, as the regular exfoliation stimulates collagen synthesis, which is the protein in your skin that keeps your skin plump and bouncy. The improved collagen synthesis also improves the skin texture, tone, and integrity, and instead of being soaked by dead and damaged skin cells that are ready to shed at any moment, your skincare products will be hitting fresher, newer skin cells. This means that your products will be even more potent.

What's the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation?

One of the most important steps in finding the right method of exfoliation for you is deciding between chemical and physical exfoliation. Both of our experts strongly favor chemical exfoliation as it’s much less abrasive, more easily customizable by skin type, and can penetrate much deeper than physical exfoliation. “Chemical exfoliation is the way to go, in my opinion,” says Dr. Idriss. “However, the key to acid success is to incorporate them into your routines weekly, not daily as over exfoliation leads to a wrecked and inflamed skin barrier.”

Dr. Westbay notes that when done too aggressively, physical exfoliation can cause micro-tears in the skin (which makes you more susceptible to irritation, eczema, and infection) and requires lots of attention to ensure your exfoliating tools of choice are very clean and sanitized. That being said, physical exfoliation can cover a lot of ground and work best on areas with lots of stubborn, thickened skin on the body (like the elbows and knees).

“No matter what, it is important to choose an exfoliating particle that is smooth and uniform in size (i.e. jojoba seeds),” specifies Dr. Westbay. “Exfoliants that have sharp edges are abrasive, and risk damaging the skin barrier to a degree that can put the skin at risk for injury. This can result in a multitude of issues, from acne to infection.”

How to exfoliate based on your skin type:

Different skin types will need to exfoliate differently. Dr. Westbay points out that dry skinned folks also tend to be a little sensitive because the size of the oil gland is smaller, which means the skin is probably thinner, and more susceptible to irritation from physical exfoliation. So, if you have dry skin, chemical exfoliation is probably the way to go. Just make sure to start gently: Dr. Westbay recommends limiting use to once to twice per week and to look for products with moisturizing ingredients such as coconut oil, shea butter, or ceramides.

Combination skin tends to work best with salicylic acid. “Salicylic acid helps skin shed dead skin without abrasion, unclogs pores, lessens oily skin, and yet at the same time is capable of gently smoothing rough, dry, flaky skin,” says Dr. Westbay, making it suitable to treating an oily T-zone and a parched cheek. Like dry skinned folks, you should start once to twice per week and see how your skin responds.

Finally, for oily skinned friends, the world of exfoliation is actually your oyster: Dr. Westbay says that oily complexions tend to have thicker, hardier skin and can work with both physical and chemical exfoliation. So whichever way you choose, make sure to start off slowly so you don’t irritate your skin: you can start off once to twice a week, and slowly work your way up. She recommends using the MMSkincare AHA/BHA Clarifying Cleanser, because it contains both chemical and physical exfoliants. “It sounds like it would be a lot of exfoliation, but it is quite gentle, in part owing to it being a cleanser that is rinsed off (rather than a left on product),” she praises. “And because the bio-friendly exfoliating beads are of a small particle size.”

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