Simply put: Exfoliating is when you get rid of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin.
On its own, your skin likes to slither out of its dead cells (kind of like a snake). In what is roughly a 30-day cycle, your skin sheds those dead cells to make room for new, cuter skin cells.
But sometimes your skin does a half-ass job, leaving some dead skin cells behind. This can leave your skin looking and feeling flakey and dry while also clogging those precious pores of yours. When you exfoliate, you hurry up and finish the job while also preventing this issue in the first place.
There are different methods and tools to exfoliate skin. Facial scrubs and brushes are forms of mechanical, or physical, exfoliation. Acids and skin peels are forms of chemical exfoliation.
- Exfoliating brush. This is usually a bristle brush used on the face or body to remove layers of dead skin cells. Some are designed for dry brushing. Others can be used with your facial cleanser or body wash.
- Exfoliation sponge. These are a gentler way to exfoliate skin. You can lather an exfoliating sponge with warm water, soap, or body wash in the shower.
- Exfoliating glove. If you find brushes or sponges difficult to grip, you can use a glove. Lather it with soap or body wash in the shower. They can be effective for large areas such as legs or arms.
- Exfoliating scrub. This can be applied directly to the skin using a gentle, circular motion. You can wash your skin with warm water after applying the scrub.
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Examples of AHAs include glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids. These work by breaking apart bonds holding dull and dead skin cells on your skin’s surface. This will cause your skin to naturally shed dead particles.
- Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). Examples of BHAs include beta hydroxy and salicylic acid. These may be better for acne-prone skin.
Benefits of ditching those dead cells
The American Academy of Dermatology reports that exfoliation can leave your skin looking brighter and even enhance how well your topical skin care products work by improving absorption. OK, we see you!
Becoming a lifelong exfoliator has even better benefits; over time, exfoliating can help turn up your skin’s collagen production, which is likely the ticket to the aforementioned J.Lo glow, tighter skin elasticity, and a lessened look of fine lines or sagginess.
Plus, since exfoliating prevents clogged pores, this means fewer breakouts in your future. We can cheers to that.
How to exfoliate your skin by skin type
When mechanically exfoliating, it’s important to be gentle on your skin. You can make small, circular motions using your finger to apply a scrub or use your exfoliating tool of choice.
If you use a brush, make short, light strokes. Exfoliate for about 30 seconds and then rinse off with lukewarm — not hot — water. Avoid exfoliating if your skin has cuts, open wounds, or is sunburned. Apply a moisturizer with SPF after exfoliating.
Exfoliation is important for dry or flaky skin. Avoid mechanical exfoliation on dry skin, because the process is drying and it can lead to microtears. AHAs are effective for dry skin.
Glycolic acid will help remove dead cells sitting on the surface of the skin and encourage healthy skin turnover. Follow up with an SPF and moisturizer after using glycolic acid. It can make the skin more prone to sun damage.
Avoid scrubbing or using mechanical methods of exfoliation. These will irritate your skin further and can lead to redness.
Use a mild chemical exfoliator and apply with a gentle washcloth. For acne, you can also try a salicylic acid peel at your dermatologist’s office.
Oily or thicker skin can benefit from manual exfoliation and brushing. Oily skin may have an extra layer of buildup on the surface that manual exfoliation can remove. Gently use an exfoliator or scrub in circular motions for best results.
If your skin doesn’t have any complications, you can choose any method of exfoliation. Manual and chemical exfoliation are both safe for this skin type. You may need to experiment to find out which method works best for your skin.
Combination skin may require a mix of mechanical and chemical exfoliation. Never use both on the same day as it can irritate skin. If your skin feels dry after exfoliation, use a moisturizer immediately after.
Exfoliation by body part
Take care when exfoliating sensitive areas of the body, including the face. Exfoliating these areas too often can lead to dryness, redness, and itchiness.
The type of exfoliant to use on your face depends on your skin type. To exfoliate your face mechanically with a scrub, apply gently to the skin with a finger. Rub in small, circular motions. Rinse with lukewarm water.
For a chemical exfoliant that’s a liquid, apply with a cotton pad or washcloth. Work with a dermatologist to determine which type of exfoliation is safe for your skin.
Arms and legs
The easiest way to exfoliate your arms and legs is with a brush, sponge, or glove. This can help get rid of dead skin cells and stimulate circulation. Look for a body scrub at your local pharmacy or online and lather with it in the shower. You can also try dry brushing.
Feet and hands
There are scrubs and peels available to exfoliate feet and hands. You can also use a pumice stone to exfoliate feet.
You can use a loofah or body brush to exfoliate your bikini line and pubic area. Always do this in a warm shower to soften skin first. Apply scrub gently and wash thoroughly afterward.
How often should you exfoliate
How often to exfoliate depends on your skin type and the type of exfoliation you’re using. Some chemical exfoliants can be strong, for example. In general, exfoliating skin one to two times a week is enough to be effective for dry skin.
Oily skin may require more frequent exfoliation. Avoid over-exfoliating as it can lead to redness and irritation. Talk to your dermatologist if you need help figuring out how often it’s safe for you to exfoliate.
This method uses different chemicals, including hydroxy acids and retinol, with enzymes to renew your skin.
While DIY and OTC scrubs can help enhance your skin’s appearance, chemical exfoliation can offer more dramatic results.
As with physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation can irritate the skin if done incorrectly. If you’re unsure about how to incorporate a chemical product into your routine, see a dermatologist or other healthcare provider for guidance.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
AHAs are a group of water-soluble acids typically derived from sugary fruits. Popular AHAs include:
- glycolic acid, which comes from sugar cane
- lactic acid, which is found in milk and pickled vegetables
- citric acid, found in citrus fruits
- tartaric acid, from grapes
- malic acid, found in apples
These acids help peel away the surface of your skin so that new, more evenly pigmented skin cells may generate and take their place.
Depending on the type, AHAs may also help with:
- mild hyperpigmentation like age spots, melasma, and scars
- enlarged pores
- fine lines and surface wrinkles
- uneven skin tone
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble. These acids go deep into your hair follicles to dry out excess oils and dead skin cells to unclog your pores.
Because of this, BHA products are primarily used to treat acne and sun damage.
Salicylic acid is the most common BHA. It’s well known as an acne treatment, but it can also help calm general redness and inflammation.
Retinoids are a class of medications derived from vitamin A. They’re used to soothe sun-damaged skin, minimize signs of aging, and treat acne.
They work by protecting your skin from free radicals and promoting collagen production.
There are several topical retinoids available, including:
Retinoids vary in concentration. If OTC options aren’t working, talk to a dermatologist. They may be able to prescribe a stronger formula.
Physical exfoliation is any process that involves scrubbing or rubbing using a product — think grainy scrubs, dry brushes, netted bath mitts, and loofahs.
Pros: It’s easy, inexpensive, and accessible. You can do this at home with a homemade scrub (recipe below) or muslin cloth.
Cons: If you’re too zealous about ditching the dead skin, it’s easy to overscrub. Done incorrectly, physical exfoliation can irritate your skin, causing redness, dryness, or worsening breakouts. Following up with an oil or serum can help minimize irritation and lock in moisture.
- Exfoliation mitts: Essentially a rough mini mitt for your arms, legs, belly, and other body bits. Great to use in your morning shower to keep dead skin at bay.
- Dry brushes: As the name implies, these are intended to be used on dry skin and are sort of like a coarse hairbrush for your bod. Great for exfoliating arms and legs.
- Loofahs: There are two types. The first is a natural sponge. The second is a gentle, fluffy mesh ball. Intended for your body (not usually your face).
- Pumice stones. The sworn enemy of gnarly feet everywhere, pumice is a natural stone usually used to battle dry, cracked heels and buff up tired toes.
- Micro needling or micro derma rollers. These devices became uber-popular over the last few years, but if you’re a beginner, it’s probably best not to try these at home since there’s more to the rolling technique than meets the eye and a big difference between treating your skin and tugging on it. When done professionally at your dermatologist office, this process — which involves a tool that creates tiny needle pricks to the facial skin — targets a number of skin issues by boosting the body’s natural healing responses, and of course, buzzes dead skin cells right off.
You can whip up an exfoliating cocktail in your kitchen using sugar, milk, coffee, and honey. It sounds strange, but these delicious ingredients that we usually throw in our cup of joe can help us exfoliate.
Sugar and milk have acids that can be helpful in exfoliating skin and when coffee is used topically, it may boast protective antioxidant properties and even encourage collagen production. One study also suggests that manuka honey can help with wound healing.
Sample the recipe below if you’re curious!
Café au lait facial scrub
- 1/2 cup coffee grounds
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 teaspoon milk or buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon honey
Make it happen:
- Add all ingredients together in an airtight container, stirring well.
- Softly splash your face with water or mist your face using a spray bottle.
- Spread this luscious scrub over your face and neck (keep clear of your eyes though).
- Get your hands wet and lightly rub the blend into your skin in a circular motion for 2–3 minutes.
- Rinse your skin using lukewarm water and towel off using a pat dry method.
- Toss any remaining scrub in the fridge for next time.
Not up for DIY? One stroll down the skin care aisle and you’ll be drowning in an intimidating sea of over-the-counter (OTC) options. Keep calm and (gently) scrub on with these tips.
- Determine your skin needs first. It’s easier to pick up the right product for your skin when you know its strengths and weaknesses. Evaluate your skin needs (is your skin dry, oily, combo, sensitive?) then hit the shopping cart.
- Check labels carefully. You should never (and we mean never ever) use a scrub meant for your body on your face. The skin on your body is much tougher than the delicate skin on your face. Your bod may be able to handle harsher scrubs but your face may tear from a rough product. Yikes.
- Use one device at a time, babe. You may want to enter the world of exfoliation guns blazing, but your skin won’t take that kindly. Going ham on your skin with more than one product at a time can damage it, giving you the result you were *not* dreaming of.
- Switch it up when needed. Our skin needs can change over time. If you started out oily but are now as a dry as the Sahara Desert, you may need to switch out your product. So, don’t get married to one routine if things change.
What do I do if I have a bad reaction?
If possible, wash the offending product from your skin using room temperature water and mild cleanser.
You should avoid using makeup or other products on the area until the irritation clears.
Taking an OTC antihistamine may help relieve redness and itching.
Seek emergency medical attention if you begin to experience severe symptoms of allergic reaction. This includes:
- shortness of breath
- tongue, throat, or facial swelling
- tightness in your lungs
- chest pain
Can I use a body-specific product on my face and vice versa?
You shouldn’t. Scrubs and other exfoliating products designed for your body tend to be more aggressive than products designed for your face.
Your facial tissue is more delicate than, say, the skin on your arms and legs. Using such a product on your face can result in cuts and other irritation.
Using a facial exfoliator on your body probably won’t cause any harm, but the formula may not be strong enough to produce the results you’re looking for.
This depends on your individual skin care needs and what you’re hoping to get out of exfoliating. A certified dermatologist can help you choose the best method or product for your skin.
Professional exfoliation methods include:
- Body scrubs. Professional scrubs typically contain different materials than OTC versions.
- Chemical peels. The key difference between home and professional peels is the acid concentration. Professional peels are stronger and may be used alongside other prescription topicals for maximum effect.
- Dermaplaning. Your provider will use a scalpel blade to remove dead skin and baby hairs from you face and neck.
- Microdermabrasion. Your provider will use fine crystals or a special rough-tipped tool to exfoliate the skin and a vacuum to remove dead skin cells.
Whether you should stick to DIY scrubs, opt for OTC products, or seek out professional treatments ultimately depends on your individual skin care needs.
If you have an underlying skin care condition or are unsure about where to start, make an appointment with a dermatologist or other healthcare provider.
They can walk you through your options and help you develop a skin care routine suited for your individual goals and lifestyle.
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