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How to Properly Exfoliate Your Skin

Writer and expert2 years ago
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woman exfoliating her face 2

From loading up on antioxidants to investing in laser skin resurfacing, there are many ways to get the smooth, glowing, healthy skin we all want. Exfoliation remains among the best ways to improve your skin’s texture and tone, and it’s something all of us can do right at home. However, it’s also easy to overdo it by exfoliating too often or using the wrong method for your skin type.

In this ultimate guide, discover why it’s so important, as well as how to properly exfoliate your skin with expert tips from Dr. Magovern (board-certified dermatologist and owner of Manhattan Dermatology).

What is Exfoliation?

“Exfoliation is basically removing the dead surface cells from your skin,” says Dr. Magovern. “I hate to call them ‘dead’ because we now know they’re very much alive, but at any rate, it’s the removal of the topmost skin layer.” You can either use a chemical or physical exfoliant. A chemical exfoliation utilizes alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) or enzymes to loosen the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells together. A physical exfoliant (also referred to as a ‘manual exfoliant’) uses a tool, liquid, gel or scrub.

Why You Should Exfoliate Your Skin

Your skin is constantly repairing and replacing itself. Because of this, you can be left with layers upon layers of dead skin all over your body. Here are 5 key benefits of exfoliation, which helps to make way for brighter, smoother skin:

  1. It fades age spots
  2. It makes fine lines and wrinkles look less visible
  3. It allows for better absorption of moisturizers, antioxidants and collagen-boosting serums
  4. It unclogs your pores
  5. It minimizes pore size and superficial scars

“It’s important because it helps to break down some of the top surface cells that contribute to skin dullness, dryness and that ‘aged skin’ appearance,” explains Dr. Magovern. “Brown spots also improve because some of those ‘dead’ surface cells are what harbor some of the pigment.”

While brighter skin is certainly a perk, exfoliation can actually help improve the health of your skin as well. If your skin is riddled with dead cells, your skin care products may not be able to penetrate and do their work. In essence, “It also allows your products to work more effectively,” says Dr. Magovern. By removing the top-most layer of skin, you’re making it easier for your topical treatments to sink deep below the surface where they could make a real difference.

Finally, if you have acne-prone skin, exfoliation can help clear clogged pores, which often lead to breakouts, and minimize their size. It can also help fade acne scars faster by accelerating skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen production.

What Type of Exfoliant Should You Use?

So, you now know how important it is to exfoliate—but there are a few things to consider when it comes to how you do this. In fact, there are two ways to exfoliate your skin: chemical exfoliation and manual exfoliation. Here we’ll explain what each one is in more detail, as well as help you decide which one will work best for you.

What is Chemical Exfoliation?

“Chemical exfoliation uses ‘chemicals’ to break down the surface skin cells,” says Magovern. As a general rule of thumb, highly sensitive and acne-prone skin responds very well to chemical exfoliants, as they are less likely to cause irritation. “I prefer chemical exfoliation with glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid or even using products that contain fruit enzymes, such as papaya, pineapple or pumpkin (as they tend to be gentler),” Dr. Magovern tells us. “Additionally, chemical exfoliators are nice because you usually don’t need to scrub, plus you get the benefit of something like glycolic acid, which can stimulate collagen production and trigger other anti-aging pathways. Salicylic acid targets oil glands, which can improve acne. I’m sure there are products out there with a combination of both (such as glowMD perfect scrub).”

If you prefer a chemical exfoliant, among the most common types are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). Both AHAs and BHAs work by combining with the structural lipids in your stratum corneum (the outermost layer of your skin) and dissolving them so that the dead skin cells break away.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) AHAs are among the most common types of light chemical peels. The AHA family of acids is derived from natural sources, such as fruit, milk or sugar. Two of the most widely used in skin care products today are glycolic acid (made from sugar) and lactic acid (made from milk). AHA-based facial exfoliators are an excellent choice for people with oily skin.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) Like AHAs, BHAs offer a light chemical peel. In general, BHAs (the most common type being salicylic acid)  are a more effective treatment for acne-prone skin. They are a synthetic derivative that comes from the same source as aspirin.

Enzymes If you have very sensitive skin, it is often recommended to look for facial exfoliants that are enzyme-based. These enzymes come from a natural source, like fruits, and work in the same way as acid-based exfoliators but at a much slower pace, so it allows for an extremely safe and gentle exfoliating process.

The Best Products for Chemical Exfoliation

  1. REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic: AHAs are a popular choice in the exfoliating world, and REN’s best-selling powerhouse is the perfect contender. Formulated with lactic and azelaic acid, it carefully alleviates fine lines, acne, visible pores and dehydrated skin for a balanced and brighter skin tone. Press down on the pump till your cotton pad is saturated, then wipe over your face and neck (avoiding the eye area).
  2. Paula's Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2 BHA Liquid Exfoliant: This light chemical peel is especially effective for those with acne-prone skin. It’s packed with salicylic acid that exfoliates and promotes faster cell regeneration to minimize blemishes, redness, large pores and wrinkles. Dispense a dime-sized amount and apply to the face with your fingers, a cotton ball or pad.
  3. SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser: This AHA/BHA combination is a treat to all skin types. With a blend of lactic, glycolic, citric, malic and salicylic acid, as well as jojoba oil, it gently exfoliates with minimum irritation. And it helps improve the appearance of skin texture, tone and smoothness. Moisten skin with warm water, then take a small amount of product on your fingertips and gently exfoliate. Cleanse the face using small circular motions before rinsing with warm water.

What is Physical Exfoliation?

Physical (or manual) exfoliation utilizes a hard substance to manually remove dead skin cells. One method involves using a liquid, gel or scrub with granules like microbeads or sugars. Another uses a skin care tool such as a sponge, towel or brush. “Manual exfoliation is basically exfoliation by “scrubbing”—and is usually [done] with beaded cleansers,” Magovern explains.

Despite its various benefits, some may find scrubbing skin doesn’t suit them. “The problem with manual exfoliation is that people can scrub too hard or too much, and the combined action of scrubbing and the beads can lead to skin irritation and a breakdown of the precious skin barrier,” says Magovern. Once this happens, you may find yourself with sore skin or experiencing breakouts and rashes. We all love the feeling of scrubs, and they can work well when done right, but it’s really important not to overdo it.

If you’re opting for a physical exfoliant, the best product for you depends a great deal upon the thickness and sensitivity of your skin. It’s important to remember that many kinds of particles can be used for exfoliation, with mainstream products encompassing a wide and varied selection.

Larger Granules

People with oilier complexions have larger sebaceous glands, which makes their skin thicker and better able to tolerate larger, more abrasive particles, such as pumice or magnesium oxide crystals.

Smaller Granules

Those with drier, sensitive skin should generally use products with smaller granules, such as ruby crystals and jojoba beads. Jojoba beads, derived from the seeds of the jojoba plant, are small and uniform in size and shape, so they are less likely to irritate, cut or abrade your skin. This decreases the risk of small skin tears.

Seeds and Crushed Nutshells

It’s important to realize that certain ingredients, although natural, may not be appropriate for your skin type. Some natural products, such as crushed nutshells, seashells, ground fruit pits and seeds, have uneven edges and irregular shapes that can damage sensitive skin. The best exfoliating scrub is the one that effectively removes the outermost layer of skin but, at the same time, is gentle.

The Best Products for Physical Exfoliation

  1. Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant: This microfoliant is a unique rice-based enzyme that micro-exfoliates to leave your skin feeling smoother, shinier and brighter. The clever potion is activated with a splash of H2O, releasing papain, salicylic acid and rice actives to accelerate cell renewal. Dispense half a teaspoon of powder into wet hands to create a creamy paste, and apply to the face in circular motions for one minute. Be sure to rinse off thoroughly!
  2. SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub: If you’re looking for an exfoliating scrub that clarifies, cleanses and smooths skin through intense exfoliation without harming delicate skin, SkinCeuticals has you covered. Using hydrated silica (a naturally-occurring mineral) and glycerin, alongside the refreshing properties of aloe leaf extract, it mechanically exfoliates and polishes dead skin cells while delivering hydration. Apply a small amount of cleanser to your damp face and gently massage for a full minute before rinsing off.

The Best Tools for Manual Exfoliation

  1. PMD Personal Microderm Classic (1 kit): Enjoy spa-like treatments at home with this hand-held microdermabrasion device. This mini machine gently exfoliates to get rid of dull, dead skin cells and make way to a smoother complexion. To use, cleanse and wash your skin, then pull it taut to create the smoothest surface possible. Move the unit constantly over your skin without stopping for too long in one place and maintain even contact.
  2. Fur Fur Mitt Trio (3 piece): This essential beauty tool is ideal for skin exfoliation, especially when preparing for other body treatments like shaving. Buff away dirt and debris with its dual-sided design; one side is soft for polishing sensitive skin, and the other offers texture for rougher spots like elbows and knees. Simply dampen the mitt with water or body wash, and you’re ready to exfoliate!

How to Exfoliate Your Face

The right way to exfoliate will depend on whether you’re using a chemical or physical exfoliant. Once you’ve determined this, simply follow the appropriate steps below.

If you’re using a chemical exfoliant:
  1. Wash your face with a regular cleanser.
  2. If your chemical exfoliant comes in the form of a pre-moistened cloth or pad, or a gel or serum formula, apply this all over your entire face, neck, décolleté and even the tops of your hands.
  3. Allow a few minutes for your chemical exfoliant to be completely absorbed into the skin before moving on to the next step in your regimen, which may be a treatment serum or cream.

Please note, there are some chemical exfoliants that are often referred to as “peels”. These are used similarly to a mask and are required to be rinsed off after a few minutes. Always check your product label to make sure you’re using the exfoliant correctly.

If you’re using a physical exfoliant:
  1. Start by washing your face with your regular cleanser.
  2. Then, take a quarter-size amount of your face scrub and apply it to your face in circular motions, avoiding the eye area.
  3. Gently massage the scrub onto the skin for as long as your specific product recommends, usually from 30 seconds to a full minute.
  4. Then, rinse off with warm water and gently pat your skin with a clean towel.
  5. Follow with a hydrating mask, serum or cream.

Need a step-by-step guide on how to exfoliate your face? Watch our video tutorial below.

How to Exfoliate Your Body

Once you’ve exfoliated your face, you’re likely going to want to move on to the rest of your body. Here are our tips for covering your bikini area, legs and feet.

Bikini - It’ll come as no surprise that the bikini area can be thought of as sensitive skin, and as such, you don’t want to do anything that can aggravate it. If you want to use a manual exfoliant like a scrub, we’d recommend taking a sensitive-skin product, and gently scrubbing along your bikini line before letting it sit for a few minutes. Next, rinse off with warm water. If you’re using a chemical exfoliant, simply massage into the skin. Follow up with a fragrance-free moisturizer.

Legs - While your skin cells replenish monthly, a gentle exfoliation of your legs can offer smoother skin, better circulation, and even improve cellulite. Start by using a dry brush with gentle pressure, then move on to your exfoliator. If you’re using a chemical exfoliant, simply massage into your skin. For a physical exfoliant, like a scrub, rub it into your legs in a circular motion while in the shower, then gently rinse off with warm water.

Feet - The bottoms of your feet tend to be home to the roughest spots of skin on your body, so they require a little more TLC when it comes to exfoliating. If you’ve gotten a pedicure before, you know that physical exfoliation—scrubs, stones and files—can be an effective way to smooth rough heels. Your feet can also benefit from chemical exfoliation, which is what powers the cult-favorite exfoliating socks from Baby Foot. All you have to do is soak your feet in warm water for an hour, while your feet absorb the glycolic, malic and lactic acids. Then, within a few days, your feet will start to shed a layer of skin, revealing baby-soft feet.

How Often Should You Exfoliate?

“I usually recommend exfoliating once or twice a week,” explains Dr. Magovern. This is because exfoliating too often or too hard may cause micro-tears on your skin’s surface and strip your skin’s protective layer. If you are using something too often, “Your skin will let you know,” says Dr. Magovern. She goes on to say that it may show in the form of redness, small bumps, increased breakouts, stinging and burning. If you have inflammatory acne, rosacea or hypersensitive skin, we recommend asking your dermatologist what exfoliant to use and how often to use it. How to Exfoliate Different Skin Types

“All skin types can and should exfoliate,” explains Dr. Magovern—but there may be some differences in how. “If you have dry or sensitive skin, I would start with a fruit enzyme product or lactic or mandelic acid, rather than glycolic acid. If you’re acne prone, salicylic and mandelic acid are my favorites. Darker skin types should be wary of scrubbing too much or using a product that is too strong for them. [Overexfoliating] can lead to inflammation and this can trigger your pigment-making cells and lead to hyperpigmentation.”

Precautions to Take When Exfoliating Skin

Exfoliating has essentially endless benefits for the skin, but as you’ll have now discovered, there are some precautions we should all take. We asked Dr. Magovern to summarize some key pointers for exfoliating:

  1. Don’t scrub too hard or too often if you’re using a beaded scrub.
  2. Be careful when using a loofah or other tools—you don’t need to do it all!
  3. Don’t use a chemical exfoliator too frequently if your skin is getting dry and irritated.
  4. Try to use warm water, as hot water can be too harsh and lead to dry and irritated skin.
  5. Moisturize your skin after you exfoliate.
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