There are a few skin care rules most of us have been programmed to follow since we were teenagers: Always wash your face before bed. Don’t forget sunscreen—and moisturizer. Pay attention to your freckles and moles, just in case they change color, shape or size. And of course: don’t keep your face like that, or it might stick forever! While the last one is questionable (thanks, mom!), there is another unspoken nugget of healthy pore wisdom that many overlook: exfoliation. As board-certified dermatologist Dr. Papri Sarkar explains, no matter your age or skin type, it’s important to exfoliate your skin regularly. “Exfoliating means you’re getting rid of surface skin cells. With most exfoliating products, that means you’re removing some of the surface skin cells that are already dead,” she explains. “If you don’t have enough turnover of these cells, skin can look duller, more blotchy and cause clogged pores leading to acne or cysts.”
However, much like you wouldn’t use an oil-based facial cleanser if you have zit-prone skin or a face mask that absorbs oil if you’re already dry, taking your unique chemical makeup into mind is essential for exfoliation. “You need to make sure that you’re not using an exfoliant that is too strong for you. If you have sensitive skin, are already on actives for acne or just don’t handle exfoliants well, you should pay attention to the ingredients you’re using on your face,” Dr. Sarkar explains. “Anyone can react poorly to exfoliants if used too often, too much or too frequently.”
For all skin types, Dr. Sarkar recommends starting with one exfoliating treatment every seven days for the first few weeks to see how your skin reacts. Then, you can add up to three times a week, depending on your needs. “Less is always better, especially with exfoliation. It’s very easy to tip skin into the red, irritated bucket, which can lead to lots of trouble,” she adds.
So what’s the best way to use ’em so they’re beneficial for your skin? Here, a guide:
Lucky, you—there’s not much you can’t handle when it comes to exfoliating products! “Normal skin has an intact skin barrier and is not too dry or too oily. This skin type can use pretty much any type of exfoliating ingredient but should tailor it to combine well with the rest of their regimen,” Dr. Sarkar says. If there’s a brand you use religiously and keeps your skin radiant, investigate if they also have an exfoliant. This way, you don’t run the risk of introducing something completely new that could throw off your balance.
Try: SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub
No matter the season, your pores always seem to be thirsty. Dr. Sarkar says to avoid any type of ingredient that could cause your already-dry skin to become even more parched. These might include certain retinoids or benzoyl peroxide. Instead, go with a more gentle approach, using a brown sugar paste or a very mild glycolic or lactic acid. “Just make sure you’re not using it too frequently or rinse it off after applying if you’re sensitive to it,” Dr. Sarkar reminds.
Try: Luzern Laboratories Micro-Exfoliant Deep Hydrating Scrub
Having oily skin has a double-edged sword: while it keeps you looking younger for longer, it can also cause frequent breakouts and clogged pores. Dr. Sarkar explains, generally speaking, that those with oily skin can handle stronger products but because you might have more acne, areas of your face with open pores might be more sensitive. That’s why doing the spot-test is important: apply a bit to a small section of your skin before lathering all over. This will give you time to see how your skin will react. Dr. Sarkar doesn’t say that any specific ingredients are off limits, but she explains that a combination of glycolic and salicylic acid products are recommended since they treat acne and exfoliate your skin at the same time. If they’re too intense, she says to try lactic acid as a milder option.
Try: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Universal Daily Peel
Sometimes you’re dry, other times you’re oily. Parts of your face tend to breakout, while others are A-OK. According to Dr. Sarkar, you may need different types of exfoliants on your forehead, nose and cheeks. “If your T-zone is oily and your cheeks and chin are dry, use a gentler exfoliant for the dry areas and a more powerful one for the T-zone,” she explains. Alternatively, you can just exfoliate your T-zone and skip the dry or sensitive areas,” she explains.
Try: Lancer Skincare The Method: Polish Normal-Combination Skin
Though we’d all love an expiration date on acne, for many, breakouts can happen at any age. Having acne-prone skin usually means you’re used to examining your pores and handling stronger ingredients. To get the most out of exfoliating—which could clear your skin—Dr. Sarkar recommends a combination of glycolic and salicylic acid, or lactic acid if the former is too strong for your acne-prone skin. The key for this specific skin type is to go slow, since you might find yourself easily irritated or suddenly red after using. Also, before introducing an exfoliant, Dr. Sarkar says to take a harder glance at your products to make sure you aren’t already using one. “Differin, tretinoin or retinols are all exfoliants. If you’re already on one of those agents you may not need to add anything else for exfoliation,” she adds.
Try: Paula’s Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
More likely than not, those who have sensitive or redness-prone skin are more likely to have a reaction to exfoliating products, so Dr. Sarkar recommends to tread lightly and speak to your dermatologist. Depending on how sensitive her patient is, she might prescribe an at-home remedy (like brown sugar), a very gentle retinoid or an exfoliant with a low percentage of glycolic acid that doesn’t tend to irritate. What should you avoid, though? Any high dose of glycolic acid, according to Dr. Sarkar.
Try: Eminence Organic Skin Care Pear and Poppy Seed Microderm Polisher
Because your skin is a tad more dry than younger patients, Dr. Sarkar says that retinols and retinoids actually work the best for more mature pores. As a bonus, using this type of ingredient will reduce signs of aging, like fine lines and dark spots. “I like gentle retinoids or retinols in these patients because retinoids help to build collagen, even out skin tone and target fine lines and wrinkles,” she explains. Because these products can be drying, she recommends applying a moisturizer first or washing off the retinoid in about 30 minutes, then moisturizing afterward. Remember to go slow, too: “Going full throttle on retinoids causes redness and irritation, and makes skin generally more angry than how they started in the first place,” she shares. She says to start with a twice-a-week routine for two weeks and then three times per week for two weeks, and then every other night. Make sure to avoid high-dose glycolic-acid products as well.
Try: Dermalogica AGE Smart Multivitamin Thermafoliant
If you’ve recently had any type of treatment—a deep facial, lasers, you name it—Dr. Sarkar warns against exfoliating for at least two weeks, or as advised by your dermatologist. How come? Your skin is already exfoliated, so adding in another product could irritate your pores. “For many patients, dermatologists recommend that they discontinue their exfoliating products before the procedure. Overdoing an exfoliant can cause redness, stinging, blotchy pigmentation, dryness and flaking, as well as a compromised skin barrier,” she explains. Once you get the go-ahead from your doctor, it’s best to start with a mild exfoliant that’s gentle and moisturizing. If you need a deeper clean, consider upping your cleansing routine with a cleansing device instead.
Try: FOREO LUNA™ mini 2