Exfoliation Is the Secret to Glowing Skin—But Only If You're Doing It Right

What exactly is the difference between chemical and physical, anyway?

Busy lives can entice even the most committed beauty lovers to skimp on their daily routine. After all, there are only so many hours in the day to build your career, see your friends, foster your romantic relationship, and you know, shower. Even so, your skin deserves TLC, especially if you want to fight against aging and keep your skin healthy and happy.

Though most of us know how important it is to wash our face, exfoliation is one of those steps that many people skip, misunderstand, or worse, overuse. It can be confusing, considering there are different ways to exfoliate and so many products that you can use. However, once you figure it out and learn to exfoliate the right way, you'll find an improved glow and texture that washing alone doesn't provide. Ahead, here's how to exfoliate, straight from trusted dermatologists.

What is exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the outermost layer of our skin's surface, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. Though it's important to note that skin naturally sheds on its own, this cycle can vary greatly depending on your skin type and age.

For most people, implementing an exfoliation routine can create a brighter, smoother complexion and decrease the likelihood of build-up of grime, bacteria, sweat, and leftover skincare products. By using different ingredients and various methods, exfoliation digs deeper into our skin, revealing healthier layers with each scrub. When exfoliating, there are two methods that you can consider—chemical and physical, which brings us to the next question.

What is the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation?

Physical (also referred to as mechanical) exfoliation involves physically scrubbing dead surface skin cells with a tool or scrub, explains Dr. King. Examples can include face brushes, loofahs, sponges, microfiber cloths, and any scrubs with particles of sugar, salt, or micro-beads. When physically exfoliating the face, it's important to be gentle to avoid any irritation or injury. "I recommend formulas with small, fine particles rather than large more abrasive particles, which can leave many tiny micro-tears and cause too much irritation," says Hadley King, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. And though many people focus on their face, Doris Day, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, reminds us that the whole body needs attention too. Here are some physical exfoliators you can try:

Chemical exfoliation uses ingredients like glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid to get rid of dead surface skin cells. "They work by loosening the substance between skin cells, helping them slough off," Dr. Day says. "The degree of efficacy depends on the concentration of the acid and, in the case of glycolic acid, how long it's left on the skin. Too strong an acid will go deeper, and that can also strip the skin and leave it exposed." Some chemical exfoliators you can try are:

What are the benefits of exfoliating?

There are multiple benefits of exfoliation, but one of the most convincing is simple: your skin will feel and look refreshed. "This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, keeps skin clean, and helps reduce acne breakouts," says Dr. King. She explains that this new clean and fresh layer of skin also allows for better product absorption into the skin.

Exfoliating also helps with aging. "Over time, stimulating the skin renewal process by getting rid of dead skin cells helps to promote collagen production, which helps minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles," Dr. Garshick says.

Though most skin types can and should exfoliate, it's important to be mindful of intensity and frequency if you suffer from any skin issues, says Dr. Garshick. Those with sensitive skin should be wary of harsh chemicals or any scrub that could cause micro-injuries to the surface of their pores. And while Dr. Garshick says folks with oily skin will benefit from decreased breakouts and tamed inflammation when they exfoliate, it's important to not overdo it, which can cause the skin to dry out and lead to other issues. "The key is finding the best exfoliant for your skin type and finding the right frequency for your skin. If a product seems to be irritating, it's recommended to decrease the frequency. It is also important to know that with exfoliating, a little goes a long way and it's often advised to incorporate a few times per week," she says.

The only exception to the exfoliation rule are those who have psoriasis, rosacea, or are suffering from sunburn or infection. Dr. Day says these types of conditions can be further irritated when you exfoliate, and it's better to allow them to heal first. When in doubt, always speak to a professional who knows your unique skin and can advise the best course of treatment or regimen.

How to exfoliate based on your skin type?

There are many ways to exfoliate, depending on what your skin can handle and what you prefer for your routine. Generally, here's what dermatologists say works best for each skin type.

Oily skin

Oily skin types can usually get away with exfoliating more than other skin types along with using either a physical or chemical exfoliant. It's all about preference. However, according to Lucy Chen, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology, physical exfoliators tend to work best for oily skin. "If you have oily skin, you should choose scrubs that are not too abrasive, such as light granules like jojoba beads, to avoid damage to the skin," says Dr. Chen. Additionally, Dr. King says to start by exfoliating two times per week and increasing the frequency as tolerated, if necessary.

Dry skin

When exfoliating dry skin, it's all about choosing a formula that offers both exfoliating and hydrating benefits. "Look for an exfoliant with moisturizing oils and a creamy texture," says Dr. Chen. Typically, less is more when it comes to how often you should exfoliate.

Combination skin

"Those with combination skin can use any exfoliator of their choice since combination skin (normal-to-dry) is less sensitive to exfoliation," says Dr. Chen. Additionally, a chemical exfoliator or a physical exfoliator is good for combination skin that is normal to oily. "A cleanser with AHAs or alpha hydroxy acid is good for targeting oiliness and will prevent pores from getting clogged with oil while gently exfoliating," says Dr. Chen.

Acne-prone skin

"Avoid abrasive physical exfoliators with sugar, salt, or harsh grains, as acne lesions need extra care to minimize further irritation," says Dr. Chen. "A chemical exfoliator fights acne and oil from a deeper level of the skin, so BHA acids and AHA will be the most effective." These ingredients help repair acne scars, improve the skin's texture, and remove pore-clogging dead skin, she explains. Additionally, because acne-prone skin types are more tolerant to exfoliation, Dr. Chen says you may be able to exfoliate three to four times a week.

Sensitive skin

Similar to dry skin types, exfoliating sensitive skin requires you to be very gentle and at a low frequency. "If you have sensitive skin that easily becomes inflamed and irritated, then sticking to chemical exfoliation may be the right answer for you," says Dr. Hadley.

When you're considering implementing an exfoliation step into your routine two to three times a week, give both of these methods a try. They can stand on their own or be combined, and both produce effective results. However, if you take this practice to the extreme, your skin will fight against you and may also become extremely dry and flake off. As Dr. Garshick says, skin that is extremely red and sensitive has been exfoliated too much. The red tint is a sign of inflammation and irritation and could potentially cause a burning sensation.

How to follow up after exfoliating:

"It's always important to remember to moisturize the skin when incorporating an exfoliator. The reason for many of these signs is that when you over-exfoliate, you are disrupting the natural skin barrier, which makes the skin more sensitive and reactive," Dr. Garshick says. So, after either chemical or physical exfoliation, layer on hydration with a hydrating serum and moisturizer. Also, if you're using a chemical exfoliant during the day, Dr. Chen says to follow up with SPF because BHAs and AHAs can make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles