Exfoliation 101: Everything You Need to Know About Scrubs, Peels, and More

Beautiful girl with cosmetic scrub on her face

Regardless of whether you are a beauty minimalist or have a 10-step skincare routine, you likely have the same goal at the end of your regimen: smooth, glowing, healthy skin. However, if you’re just focusing on cleansing, hydrating, and incorporating the occasional treatment serums, you’re missing out on a valuable step that will help you get the results you yearn for — exfoliation. 

Exfoliation doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, but it’s crucial. If you skip out on exfoliating, your products won’t penetrate as deeply, and skin may not appear as luminous as it could. Still, with all the exfoliation options out there, it can be overwhelming to pick the right formula. (Plus, it’s easy to over-exfoliate, something you definitely want to avoid.) That said, you shouldn’t let any confusion get in the way of glowing skin! We tapped two board-certified dermatologists, who gave us the 411 on exfoliation. Keep reading to discover what the different types are and how to properly incorporate this essential technique into your routine.

What is exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin, says Robert Anolik, MD, board-certified dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York®. This process gets rid of all those old, unnecessary dead skin cells. They create a rough texture, could clog pores, but worst of all, can render pricey skincare practically useless. By sitting on your complexion’s surface, they block the powerful ingredients in your skincare products from penetrating your complexion.

Once you slough away those dead cells, new, healthy cells can make their way through, helping to boost your skin’s cellular turnover. By smoothing the surface layer of skin, it allows for greater reflection of light, which leads to a more luminous and bright appearance, says Susan Bard, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Vive Dermatology℠ in New York. As a result, fine lines and wrinkles will be temporarily smoother and become less noticeable. Exfoliation can also improve the look of enlarged pores. If you have large pores, exfoliation can help unclog them and thus reduce their appearance, says Dr. Anolik. 

The different types of exfoliation

There are two main ways to exfoliate, both of which have the same purpose: to remove the top layer of dead skin. Yet how they actually do it is where they differ.

Mechanical exfoliation — also known as physical exfoliation — uses an instrument of some kind, like a scrub or brush to physically remove dead skin cells, says Anolik. Have you ever used one of those gritty cleansers? Bingo. Ole Henriksen® Transforming Walnut Scrub ($28) uses walnut powder as its exfoliant, while Fresh® Sugar Face Polish® Exfoliator ($62) features brown sugar and strawberries to help buff away dead cells. Cleansing tools, like a Clarisonic® Mia Prima® Brush ($99) or loofah, are another way to manually exfoliate. 

Chemical exfoliation — which sounds more nerve-wracking than it actually is — uses chemicals, like alpha and beta hydroxy acids, to dissolve the top layer of dead skin cells. (This is also known as a chemical peel.) These ingredients essentially break up the glue that holds dead skin cells together, making it easy for them to be swept away. Biologique Recherche® Lotion P50TM ($169) is an uber-popular one that includes a blend of salicylic and lactic acid, among other exfoliating ingredients to help resurface skin. We’re also fond of m-61 PowerGlow® Peel ($116), which contains glycolic acid, vitamin K, and soothing chamomile in an easy-to-use wipe.

There are also some products that do both! Kate Somerville® ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment ($85) and GoopGlowTM Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator ($125) are two beloved options that have both physical and chemical exfoliating properties. By using a formula that combines both forms, dead cells don’t stand a chance — and you’ll also be treating your skin to all the benefits that come with acid-infused skincare.

How to know which form of exfoliation is best for your skin

Hint: it’s all about your skin type. Those with dry skin, sensitive skin, or rosacea may be unable to tolerate strong chemical exfoliators. Instead, they should use physical exfoliators that are made specifically for sensitive skin, says Dr. Bard. Seek out softer brush heads on a cleansing brush, or a gentle scrub that says “sensitive skin” on the packaging, for example. La Roche-Posay® Ultra-Fine Face Scrub for Sensitive Skin ($18) is a top pick because it contains very finely-ground pumice to buff skin. If you have sensitive skin and want to try a chemical option, make sure it is a mild formula, adds Dr. Anolik. We’re fond of the Dr. Dennis Gross® Skincare Alpha Beta® Ultra Gentle Peel for Sensitive Skin ($88), which uses mild lactic acid to exfoliate.

 If you have oily skin and sensitivity is not an issue for you, then you can opt for stronger formulations within each exfoliator category. Very oily and acne-prone skin does well with beta-hydroxy acid exfoliation via salicylic acid, as this ingredient targets and removes oil deep within the pore. Try Glossier® SolutionTM Exfoliating Skin Perfector ($24), which contains a combination of salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acids to help clear up breakouts and shrink pores. Or, check out Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($30), which uses salicylic acid to decongest and clarify skin.

If your skin doesn’t fall into any of these specific categories, the world of exfoliation is your oyster. Pick a product, be it chemical or physical, and stick with it. Don’t “exfoliator hop” if you can avoid it — it’s best to try one new product and see how your skin reacts, rather than confusing your skin with multiple formulas.

How often and when to exfoliate

The rule of ‘”one size fits all” does not apply to how often and when you use an exfoliant, warns Dr. Anolik. The frequency of usage depends on the strength of the exfoliator and the sensitivity of your skin. When starting a new exfoliator, start slowly with one to two times per week. Many of Dr. Anolik’s patients work their way up to using a formula two or three times a week and have been successful with that routine. 

If, after exfoliating regularly, you notice your skin starting to feel tight, dry, or flaky, or you feel a burning or stinging sensation after applying mild skincare formulas, that’s how you know you’ve overdone it. Let your skin recover by pressing pause on your entire skincare routine, then start back at once a week with your exfoliator. (Learn more about over-exfoliation here.)

In terms of morning versus evening, do your exfoliation whenever is most convenient for you, says Dr. Bard. It can be helpful to keep track of when you are exfoliating to make sure you space your sessions out and not overdo it. Dr. Anolik agrees, adding not to exfoliate when you are also applying potentially irritating products. For example, if you’re a regular retinol user in the evenings, keep your exfoliation to the mornings. That said, keep in mind that exfoliation (especially chemical exfoliation) can leave your skin more susceptible to sun damage, so be sure to apply your favorite sunscreen in the morning, no matter what.

Editor's Note

Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.

And, just as you change your wardrobe with the season, you may want to tweak your exfoliation routine as the weather shifts. Dr. Anolik suggests switching to gentler forms of exfoliation in the winter when skin can be drier and wind-blown, and therefore more sensitive. Conversely, you can experiment with more aggressive products in the summer, when your skin is producing more oil.

Ultimately, “gentle” is the key word when it comes to exfoliating. We said it earlier, but we’ll say it again: you want to avoid over-exfoliating. Red, blotchy skin is not the goal here — you want to get rid of dead cells without harming your skin or its barrier. And, above all, don’t forget to moisturize! Exfoliation should be just one step of a thorough routine that ends with sealing in nutrients and moisture. Hydrating your skin can help calm irritation after you slough away dead cells, and allow for stronger exfoliation as your skin can tolerate it. Plus, moisturizer will nourish the fresh skin you’ve just revealed, helping it reflect light (read: enhance your new glow) even more.

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