Exfoliating is a skin-care step that might not be high on your to-do list, but we're here to tell you it absolutely should be. It's an essential move that everyone should be doing, no matter your age or skin type.
The reason? Because your skin needs the help. In an ideal world, skin should be shedding dead cells in a regular monthly cycle, getting rid of the old to reveal the fresh, healthy cells below. But, like that annoying party guest that doesn't get the hint that you're ready to wrap it up and go to bed, sometimes those dead cells just don't leave when they're supposed to. They get stuck on the surface and make your complexion look dull and exacerbate the look of wrinkles, as well as leading to clogged pores, blackheads, and even breakouts.
Exfoliating picks up where biology lets off, forcibly removing those cells that should have left. Operative word there being should — people start getting into trouble when they get too aggressive with exfoliation and scratch and damage their skin barrier.
So how do you know the right level of exfoliation for you? That's where our skin experts come in: We've got the skinny on all things scrubby for you, including how often you should be exfoliating, which types are best for your skin, and our favorite products to add to your routine. Keep reading for the full scoop.
What Are The Different Types Of Exfoliators?
There are two main types of exfoliators: scrubs and acids. Scrubs are sometimes referred to as mechanical or physical exfoliation, while acids are called chemical exfoliants. Scrubs works by manually removing the dead skin from the surface with abrasive particles like crystals, beads, and charcoal. Chemical exfoliators dissolve the bonds that hold the dead skin to the surface, allowing them to wash away.
Should I Use Acids Or Scrubs?
This depends on your skin type and personal preference. In general, those with acneic skin or with an already damaged skin barrier should avoid scrubs because they run the risk of scratching the skin or bursting acne lesions (yuck and ow). That said, sensitive skin can benefit from gentler scrubs that use jojoba beads because they lack the rough edges that can scratch and have some moisturizing benefits. Those dealing with oil and blackheads will love scrubs with charcoal because they can help dislodge the plugs that are clogging up your pores.
Acids, on the other hand, are generally well-tolerated by most skin types, provided you pick the appropriate one for you. That's because not all acids are created equal — a glycolic acid and a salicylic acid don't have the same effects and so aren't right for the same skin types. On top of that, the strength of the acid matters, as those with sensitive skin can't tolerate the same high percentages as those with so-called normal skin types.
Think of it this way: Alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic, lactic, and malic are all fantastic at removing those top level skin cells, resulting in a decrease of hyperpigmentation, roughness, dullness, and fine lines and wrinkles. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, is an oil-soluble acid that penetrates into the pore to dislodge the dirt, oil, and dead skin that are plugging them up.
How Often Should I Exfoliate?
Conventional wisdom says two or three times a week is best, but again, this can fluctuate depending on your skin situation and the product you use. If you're naturally sensitive or using a powerful product, you might want to start out at once a week and see how your skin reacts before you try an every other day routine. If you start getting red and flaky, you're going overboard and your skin barrier is getting damaged — stop exfoliating and switch to calming products to repair your skin before you try again. Maybe this time, try something a little less intense or do it less often.
Another interesting tidbit: Your skin doesn't turn over at the same rate, so if you find one area is reacting while the rest of your face is doing fine, consider applying your exfoliator only on certain areas of the face. For example, the area around your mouth and nose turns over faster than the rest of your face, so it's more likely to get red and irritated — skip that spot and focus on the your cheeks, neck, and forehead instead.
What Are The Best Exfoliators For My Skin?
Now on to our favorite part — product recommendations. Here's what we like for different skin types.
When your skin is balanced and you don't have any glaring issues or concerns to deal with (lucky), you pretty much have your pick of exfoliating options. For you we suggest the GoopGlow Overnight Peel, a professional-strength treatment that uses a whopping 15 percent glycolic acid, plus potent fruit extracts and hyaluronic acid, to retexturize skin while you sleep. Use it once a week for the softest, smoothest, glassiest complexion you've ever glimpsed in the mirror.
If you are prone to excess oil, a traditional scrub exfoliator is going to be your best choice because it will help dislodge the built up dead skin and oil that can cause blackheads. Lernberger Stafsing's Volcanic Rock Scrub has everything your skin needs to stay smooth, clear, and grease-free thanks to a blend of bamboo charcoal, salicylic acid, and volcanic rock sand. The salicylic acid will dislodge those pore plugs, while charcoal will help soak up excess oil as the volcanic rock sand and jojoba beads go to work on the built-up dead skin cells. The result? A super smooth, clear, practically poreless visage.
While your first instinct might me to scrub your acne into oblivion, that's the exact opposite of what you should be doing to blemishes. You want to treat breakouts gently, because aggressively rubbing and drying out your pimples will only lead to even worse breakouts and damage to your already sensitive skin barrier. Instead, look for kinder, gentler options that help draw out impurities and remove the surface skin cells that are contributing to the clogged pores. We like Pai's Dinner Out AHA Mask, which combines gentle fruit acids with kaolin clay to rebalance and purify congested skin without drying it out.
For those with moisture-challenged skin, you need to focus on products that will help get rid of dead skin while simultaneously hydrating your parched complexion. The easiest way to do that is to choose a physical exfoliator that combines an exfoliating grain with a nourishing base, like Irene Forte's Almond Face Scrub. It has apricot seed powder, plus almond and hazelnut granules to gently remove built-up dead skin, while hyaluronic acid and aloe hydrate and soothe skin. All of that is suspended in a moisturizing olive oil, shea, and avocado base, which is rich in omega fatty acids to help strengthen your skin's barrier and boost your natural moisture levels, allowing your skin to better hydrate itself over time.
Wrinkles and hyperpigmentation tend to be the biggest concerns for mature skin, which also has to contend with a thinner barrier — a natural side effect to the aging process. Your skin turnover also slows down as you age, meaning you will need a bit more help now than you did in your younger years. Because of this, steer clear of any abrasive scrubs and work primarily with alpha-hydroxy acids to help resurface the dead skin, smooth out wrinkles, and minimize hyperpigmentation. Bynacht's Über Glow Gel Peeling AHA has a mix of four highly effective fruit and lactic acids to gently polish and exfoliate, plus malachite and green tea leaf extract to calm and soothe.
Gentle is the name of the game with sensitive types, which is why Tammy Fender's bestselling Epi-Peel is our top choice (and a Jess top pick she uses on the regular). It uses an all-natural blend of spearmint, rosemary, and kaolin clay to work as an exfoliator, mask, and peel all in one. It resurfaces skin and refines pores without irritating and gives you multiple ways to use it. Apply it as a mask-peel combo on freshly washed skin, leave on for five minutes, and wipe off with a moist cloth for an instant glow. Or, if you're ultra-reactive, mix a dollop with your favorite cleanser and gently massage into skin, then rinse off for a super-soft scrub.
Yes, your body needs some scrub love, too. Since it's thicker than your facial skin, you can bring out the big guns here and use products that are a but more abrasive. We love Nécessaire's The Body Exfoliator because it features both chemical and physical exfoliators — glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, plus pumice and bamboo charcoal. Together they work synergistically to exfoliate, soften, and renew the skin below your neck. Choose from fragrance-free or sandalwood, eucalyptus, or new bergamot scents.
Now that you know how to exfoliate, make sure you add this crucial step to your weekly skin regimen. You'll be amazed at how much smoother, brighter, and all around renewed your skin looks.