Exfoliation is an essential step in any beauty routine, but if you're not doing it right, you can actually cause more damage than good.

By Lindsay Tigar
Updated August 14, 2019
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How to Exfoliate Properly, According to Derms
Credit: Getty Images

Busy lives can entice even the best of us to skimp on our daily routine. After all, there are only so many hours in the day to build your career, see your pals, foster your 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. However, when you exfoliate the right way and at the right frequency, you’ll find an improved glow and texture that merely washing doesn’t provide.

Here, how to exfoliate, straight from trusted dermatologists who know best.

What is exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the outermost layer of our skin’s surface, says Marisa Garshick, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at Cornell. 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.

Why should we exfoliate?

You know that sticky, thick feeling when you’ve spent the day laying in the sun or sweating outdoors? Or after you’ve taken a redeye flight and your pores feel heavy and stale? When we go too long without exfoliating, or don’t clean thoroughly enough, our skin suffers. There are multiple benefits of exfoliation, but one of the most convincing is simple: your skin will feel fresher. And this leads to a brighter, clearer complexion that enables products to seep into pores easier. It also preserves that fountain of youth we all chase. “Over time, stimulating the skin renewal process by getting rid of dead skin cells helps to promote collagen production, which is helpful for minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” Dr. Garshick says.

Though most skin types can 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 avoid harsh chemicals or any type of 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 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 a sunburn or an infection. Doris Day, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, 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

There are many ways to exfoliate, depending on what your skin can handle and what you prefer for your personal routine. Generally, dermatologists consider two avenues: physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation, says Dr. Day.

Physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation is the most common route, since it’s easy to execute in your shower. Using a mitt or a brush, and a product of your choice, Dr. Day says you can scrub away the dead skin cells. Depending on how coarse the bristles are and the size of the beads in an exfoliant, this can be a potentially damaging experience. The key is to start slow and gradually add pressure, applying small circles, without pushing too deeply into your skin. Though many people focus on their face, Dr. Day reminds us that the whole body needs attention.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation is achieved using ingredients like glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid. “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.”

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. 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.

If you are exfoliating too frequently, your skin may also become extremely dry and flake off. “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.

Exfoliating products to consider

No matter your skin type or your goals for exfoliation, there is a product made for you. Here, dermatologists recommend their favorite exfoliating products, along with some unique standouts to try.

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