- Exfoliation is the mechanical or chemical removal of dead skin cells present on the surface of the skin.
- The process of exfoliating works to reveal new skin cells and improve facial complexion.
- Including exfoliation in your regular skin care routine can boost the ability of your skin care products to penetrate, for overall healthier looking skin.
Every month or so, your skin cells go through a natural turnover. The outer layer of your skin sheds to reveal the new skin underneath.
It’s common, however, for some dead skin cells to stay stuck to the surface of the skin. This incomplete shedding can make your skin appear rough, dull, and dry, and your pores appear enlarged.
Exfoliating either mechanically with a scrub and/or a face brush, or chemically with a leave-on hydroxy acid can improve your skin’s overall tone and texture.
Why Exfoliate Your Face?
The process of cell renewal slows down with age, so your body sheds skin cells and generates new ones more slowly than it once did. Regular exfoliation can provide numerous skin care benefits for the face, including:
- Reduction of hyperpigmented skin cells that cause age spots or sun spots.
- Release of oil clogged in your pores.
- Minimization of acne scars.
- Improvement of fine lines and wrinkles.
- More efficient penetration of skin care products, including moisturizers, serums, and acne treatments.
A word about acne
Regular exfoliation is important, regardless of your age or skin type. For best results, however, it’s best to factor in your specific skin type and condition when selecting an exfoliant, particularly if you have acne.
Products containing both glycolic and salicylic acid are recommended for those with acne, as they treat the blemishes and exfoliate at the same time. Both ingredients fall into the category of hydroxy acids, which are among the most commonly used chemical exfoliants.
If you have acne, some areas of your face may be more sensitive. Always do a spot-test with your chosen exfoliant before you apply it to your entire face.
When Should You Exfoliate Your Face?
It is commonly believed that exfoliating your face in the evening before going to bed is ideal so you can follow up with a moisturizing night cream and let your skin replenish while you sleep.
It is best to exfoliate your face after cleansing. If you wear makeup daily, exfoliating at night can help to lift away any remaining particles from the skin and ensure your skin care products are absorbed more effectively.
However, if you have oily skin, or your face is dull when you wake up, exfoliating in the morning may be better-suited to your skin.
How often should you exfoliate your face?
Typically, exfoliating your face once or twice a week is sufficient to keep your pores clean and clear without causing any irritation. If applying a leave-on chemical exfoliant, opt for two to three times per week dependent on your skin type and the intensity of your chosen exfoliation product.
How to Choose a Facial Exfoliation Product
The two main exfoliation approaches to choose from are mechanical and chemical. It’s important to consider your skin’s unique needs and sensitivities before selecting an exfoliator that will work for you without causing irritation.
Mechanical vs chemical exfoliation
Mechanical exfoliation is the use of grainy scrubs and/or devices like face brushes or Konjac sponges that work by sloughing off dead cells. Although scrubs work well for some, they can be too harsh for others.
Chemical exfoliation is the use of chemicals such as cleansers, serums, toners, or peels to remove the dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliants work to facilitate quick cell turnover and separate off the dead skin cells stuck to the outer layer of your skin.
The most common type of chemical exfoliant is the leave-on hydroxy acid, found in the form of toner, liquid-soaked pads, face cream, and at-home chemical peels. There are two main types: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
AHAs are water soluble so they don’t penetrate the pores too deeply, making them appropriate for skin that is dry, sun damaged, uneven, or hyperpigmented. Glycolic acid is an AHA.
Oil-soluble BHAs have potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and are able to penetrate the skin more deeply. They are appropriate for oily, acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is a BHA.
Choosing an exfoliator based on skin type
If you have dry or sensitive skin, avoid mechanical exfoliation because the process is drying and can lead to microtears, redness, and irritation. Opt instead for a chemical exfoliator containing an AHA like glycolic acid to help remove dead cells and encourage healthy cell turnover.
Those with particularly sensitive skin should apply their AHA exfoliator with a gentle washcloth, and follow up with an SPF and moisturizer, as glycolic acid can make skin more sensitive to sun damage.
Oily skin can benefit from mechanical exfoliation and brushing, as there may be an extra layer of buildup on the skin’s surface which manual exfoliation can remove. Gently use an exfoliation device or scrub in circular motions to achieve best results. For acne, try a salicylic acid peel at a certified spa or clinic.
If you have a normal skin type without complications, mechanical and chemical exfoliation are both safe. Experiment to find out which method works best for you.
Combination skin may require a mix of mechanical and chemical exfoliation, however, to avoid irritation, do not use both on the same day.
Many exfoliators often contain harsh ingredients like alcohol, which can quickly dry out more sensitive skin types. There are a number of natural ingredients that have been shown to exfoliate effectively and safely.
Enzyme exfoliants tend to have larger granules that don’t penetrate too far into the skin, making them well-suited to sensitive skin. The most popular enzyme exfoliants are papain from papaya, pumpkin, bromelain from pineapple, and Bacillus bacterial enzymes. You can find these natural ingredients in a wide range of skin care products.
Coffee is a mildly abrasive yet powerful exfoliant. It will remove the top layer of skin without damaging the skin underneath. Caffeine works to decrease puffiness when used topically, so a coffee scrub, whether store bought or DIY, may tighten your skin and fight wrinkles.
Lemon contains citric acid, an AHA, so it is a powerful natural ingredient to use as an exfoliant, however pure lemon juice can be too harsh on the skin. Try this DIY recipe for a homemade lemon exfoliator:
Homemade Lemon Exfoliator
Lemons have antibacterial qualities which help exfoliate dead cells and aid in fighting flaky skin.
AHA is the active ingredient in lemon, a common household item with many scientifically-proven health benefits.
Lemon can be used in a scrub for topical application.
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 5 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp honey
- Mix together all ingredients in a jar until smooth.
- Wash your face and then gently rub mix into your skin in a circular motion.
- Rinse well with warm water.
- Follow up with your moisturizer of choice.
How to Exfoliate Safely at Home
When exfoliating at home, it’s important to do so safely so as to avoid causing any damage or irritation to your skin, or worsening existing acne.
In advance of exfoliation, be sure to use sunscreen with at least SPF 50 and ensure your skin is not sun-damaged. Immediately before exfoliating, cleanse your face, removing any other skin care products, make-up, etc. Once your face is washed, you’re ready to exfoliate:
Step 1: apply your exfoliator
Wet your face with warm water and apply your chosen facial exfoliator to your forehead, nose, and chin areas.
Step 2: begin at your forehead
Start scrubbing in a circular motion at the middle of your forehead and work your way outward to reach your temples.
Step 3: scrub your nose
Scrub your nose from bridge to tip gently increasing the intensity of your circular motions at the edges of your nose to promote circulation.
Step 4: work the scrub toward your cheeks
Move across your cheeks to your ears using gentle upward circular motions.
Step 5: move on to your jaw
Travel along your jaw bone to your chin, scrubbing both sides with gentle strokes.
Step 6: stop at your neck
From the sides of your chin down, finish off your scrub as it reaches your neck area.
Step 7: rinse your face
Rinse off your facial exfoliator with lukewarm water and gently pat your face dry.
What to do After Exfoliating Your Face
After exfoliating your face, it’s important to keep your skin hydrated, nourished, and protected. While your skin is still slightly damp, apply your chosen moisturizer to lock moisture in and prevent post exfoliation dryness.
If exfoliating before bed, liberally apply a night cream geared to your skin type, and if exfoliating in the morning, ensure your day cream has an SPF of at least 30 to protect your face from harmful UV light.
When to Stop Exfoliating
Some more sensitive skin types may have allergic reactions to exfoliating agents or methods. Over-exfoliating can cause skin irritation, redness, and even rashes. Scrubbing too much too fast can cause skin to become inflamed and dehydrated.
If you experience these sensitivities, stop all exfoliation until your skin goes back to normal. Then, wait another few days before slowly and carefully trying to exfoliate again.
You may also wish to try alternative exfoliation products and reduce your number of exfoliation treatments.
Quick Facial Exfoliation Tips
Whether using a mechanical exfoliation device like a face brush and/or a chemical exfoliant like a leave-on hydroxy acid, following a few quick facial exfoliation tips can help you get the best results from your exfoliation session:
- Apply your product gently using small, circular motions for about 30 seconds. If using a brush or sponge, use short light strokes.
- Rinse off with lukewarm rather than hot water.
- Do not exfoliate with open cuts, wounds, or sunburned skin.
- Apply moisturizer immediately after exfoliating to keep skin hydrated.
- Generally, the more aggressive the exfoliation, the less often it needs to be done. Find a schedule that works for you and your skin type.
When included in your regular skin care routine, proper facial exfoliation can improve your skin’s overall tone, texture, and appearance.
Always be sure to take your skin type and condition into account when selecting an exfoliation method, as over-exfoliation, or an exfoliant that is too abrasive, can lead to dry, irritated and inflamed skin.
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