- Exfoliation removes dead skin cell buildup for a brighter complexion.
- Exfoliation falls within two types, physical and chemical.
- Overexfoliating can irritate and damage skin.
- Your skin type will determine how often you should exfoliate.
Exfoliation involves removing dead skin cells to reveal brighter, healthier skin on the face. Without regular exfoliation, your skin can appear dull and flaky, and is more prone to breakouts. However, doing so too often can damage the stratum corneum, the protective outer layer of skin, resulting in sensitivity and irritation. With these factors to consider, how often should you exfoliate your face? The answer depends on your skin type and the kind of exfoliator you use.
How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face?
Most people can exfoliate one to three times per week, and they can do so in two ways: chemically or physically. Your skin may benefit from a combination of these two types or may only tolerate one.
Exfoliating with physical exfoliants
Physical exfoliants manually buff away dead skin cells from the face. Common varieties include sugar, salt and crushed nutshells.
Not all physical exfoliants are created equal. Although they are widely found in facial skin care products, for most people, salt and crushed nutshells are too harsh and should only be used in body scrubs.
The frequency at which you can safely physically exfoliate skin is one to three times a week, depending on skin type and product. Use these products less often if you also include a chemical exfoliant in your skin care routine.
Exfoliating with chemical exfoliants
Chemical exfoliants loosen the bonds that hold skin cells together, allowing you to easily wash away dead cells. Alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) are popular active ingredients found in chemical exfoliants.
These products are usually applied to the face for 10–20 minutes and then rinsed off, although some are designed to be left on longer.
Because chemical exfoliants are not abrasive, they are gentler on the skin than their physical counterparts; start by applying them twice a week to determine your skin’s tolerance.
Is It Bad to Exfoliate Your Face Every Day?
Exfoliating every day is unnecessary and has a negative impact on your skin’s health because it can dry out and irritate skin.
Signs of overexfoliating include redness, dryness, inflammation, peeling, small pimples and increased sensitivity to other skin care products.
How Often to Exfoliate Your Skin Type
How often you should exfoliate is determined by whether your skin type is dry, oily, normal, acne-prone, combination or sensitive.
No matter which type of product or method you choose, keep in mind that freshly exfoliated skin is more prone to sun damage. Take extra care to protect your skin with a sunscreen containing an SPF of at least 30.
Exfoliating dry skin
Dry skin types should only use exfoliants once or twice a week, as dry skin has a compromised moisture barrier and is easily damaged. Even if your skin appears flaky, resist the urge to exfoliate often. Instead, apply an extra layer of moisturizer containing nourishing ingredients such as ceramides.
This skin type benefits from both physical and chemical exfoliants, but when used in moderation.
Dry skin contains less of the natural oils that help skin appear hydrated and plump. Therefore, it often shows the signs of aging earlier than oilier skin types. Look for products containing glycolic acid, an AHA that can deeply penetrate the pores of the skin. Glycolic acid has been proven to reduce certain signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots.
Lactic acid, another AHA, is a gentler alternative to glycolic acid. In addition to its exfoliating properties, it is moisturizing and does not damage the skin barrier.
Exfoliating oily and acne-prone skin
Oily skin can usually tolerate more frequent exfoliation than dry skin; the excess oil prevents dead skin cells from naturally flaking off on their own, which creates more buildup. Physical exfoliants can be used up to three times a week. For chemical products, some people may find they can use a mild exfoliating product almost every day.
Opt for products containing beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), which are oil-soluble and highly effective at dissolving clogged pores. Salicylic acid is a BHA that fights inflammation and helps dry up excess oil.
Azelaic acid is keratolytic, meaning it breaks down and dissolves keratin, a key protein in the outermost layer of skin. It can also help treat mild and moderate acne by killing Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria linked to acne.
If you have severe acne, you should avoid physical exfoliants. A gritty face scrub will further irritate skin that’s already inflamed and possibly cause deeper infection.
Exfoliating sensitive skin
Sensitive skin is usually an indication that the stratum corneum is damaged. A compromised skin barrier results in moisture loss and increased reactivity to skin care products, among other symptoms.
Most people with sensitive skin find they cannot tolerate physical exfoliation and can only use very mild chemical exfoliants. Opt for once a week, using a gentle chemical product containing lactic acid or mandelic acid—both mild AHAs—and increase or decrease your frequency of use based on your skin’s reaction.
If you find your skin reacts negatively to exfoliating products, consider consulting a dermatologist. They can help you develop a skin care routine to restore a damaged skin barrier and improve your skin’s health in the long term.
Exfoliate When Your Skin Needs It
A common sense rule to prevent inadvertently overexfoliating is to do so only when your skin needs it. Rather than always exfoliating on a specific day of the week, critically assess your skin’s needs to determine if this is necessary.
You may decide to exfoliate when you notice flakiness, oiliness or the feeling that your regular facial cleanser isn’t performing as usual.
Under certain circumstances, you may not need to exfoliate your skin at all. If your skin is irritated or sensitized, wait until it heals before doing so. If you use retinoids, your skin requires very little exfoliation. Even during the initial phase of retinol use, when the skin often flakes, avoid exfoliating products as they will only further irritate your skin.
Exfoliation involves removing dead cells from the face using either a physical or chemical product. While regular exfoliation is an important step in any good skin care routine, knowing how often to do so is crucial to avoid irritating and and damaging skin.
On average, people can safely tolerate exfoliating one to three times a week. Those with oily skin can and should do so more frequently. They will benefit most from BHAs such as salicylic or azelaic acid, both of which have additional acne-fighting properties.
Drier skin types should opt for AHAs such as glycolic acid and should exfoliate less often – only once or twice a week.
Those with severe acne or skin sensitivity should avoid physical exfoliants altogether, as skin is more vulnerable to further inflammation and irritation. Instead, choose a mild chemical exfoliator such as lactic or mandelic acid.
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