You can get smoother and brighter skin in one step. How? Exfoliating! The key to a vibrant complexion at any age, exfoliation is crucial for speeding up skin cell turnover, which slows over time.
The process removes skin’s outer layer of dead cells so its surface is smoother and clearer and reflects light, which makes it appear luminous. Any skin type, from oily and acne-prone to dry and sensitive can (and should) exfoliate, yet a GH survey revealed that nearly half of women skip it in their skincare routine.
What exactly is exfoliating?
Exfoliation is any technique that removes dead skin cells. The method can be either mechanical or chemical: It can be as simple as using a washcloth to cleanse your face (mechanical), or using face scrubs, microdermabrasion, face peels and anti-aging products that include ingredients like acids or enzymes (chemical).
You can exfoliate your skin at home using pre-made skincare products or tools or visit a skincare professional like a dermatologist or aesthetician for more intensive exfoliating treatments. “Professional exfoliating treatments like peels and microdermabrasion are generally stronger,” says Roberta Del Campo, M.D., a dermatologist in Miami, so they can produce more noticeable results faster.
What are the different types of exfoliation?
There are three key types of exfoliation, each with different functions that work best for different skin types, concerns and needs. The quick breakdown:
- What they are: Also known as mechanical exfoliators, these include products and treatments like face scrubs, polishes, cleansing brushes, microdermabrasion and dermaplaning that lift and remove dead cells and dirt with friction.
- Key ingredients: Abrasive particles or granules such as fine sugar or salt, ground nut shells, cornmeal or beads made from a natural ingredient like silica or jojoba.
- What they are: Treatments such as face peels and cleansers, toners, masks and leave-on skincare products (serums, moisturizers) containing acids or enzymes that loosen the bonds between dead skin cells so they can be dislodged.
- Key ingredients: Alpha hydroxy acids (or AHAs, like glycolic, lactic, citric and mandelic acids), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs, e.g., salicylic acid) or gentle enzymes such as those derived from fruits like papaya.
- What they are: Rinse-off exfoliators that contain both physical and chemical exfoliating ingredients in one product in balanced concentrations.
- Key ingredients: A mix of one or more physical and chemical exfoliant ingredients (see above).
How can I exfoliate my face at home?
You can exfoliate your skin using three types of methods, which involve different mechanisms, frequency of use and application and work best for specific skin types. Here’s how to choose the right method for you:
- If you have dry skin or sensitive skin, opt for a physical exfoliant. “I recommend physical exfoliators for dry or sensitive skin, to improve roughness and texture without inflaming,” Dr. Del Campo says.
- If you have oily skin, opt for a chemical exfoliant with BHAs or a combination exfoliant. Chemical exfoliators with BHAs can help minimize breakouts in acne-prone skin and clogged pores, and due to the dual exfoliating effects from physical and chemical ingredients, “I reserve [combination exfoliators] for oily skin, which is more tolerant,” Dr. Del Campo says.
- If you have combination skin, both physical and chemical exfoliants can work for you; just apply sparingly to start as you gauge your skin’s level of tolerance.
- For mature skin, choose a chemical exfoliant with AHAs, which target anti-aging by boosting radiance, evening tone and smoothing wrinkles.
How often can I exfoliate my face?
There is such a thing as too much exfoliation! Here are usage tips for each type of exfoliation:
- Physical exfoliants can be applied two to three times per week in the morning or evening after cleansing.
- Chemical exfoliants can be applied once a week, morning or evening after cleansing for sensitive or dry skin and three times maximum for other skin types, according to package instructions, suggests Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab Senior Chemist Sabina Wizemann.
- Combination exfoliants can be applied from once a week to daily, depending on the product’s usage instructions; follow them closely for the best results.
When using any exfoliator (at any time of year), sun protection is a must, since removing the top layer of dead skin cells makes the skin underneath more prone to sun damage, Wizemann says. Apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher face sunscreen every morning.
Can you exfoliate your face using home remedies?
Yes, you can. Some may be interested in exfoliating their skin naturally using homemade DIY treatments made with ingredients many have on hand in their homes, such as sugar and baking soda. These are generally safe to use on skin, but when trying home remedies, GH Beauty Lab experts recommend first doing a patch test of the formula on a small, hidden area of the face (such as along your jawline) to check for any adverse reaction before using it on the rest of the face and applying it using a light touch and for a short period of time to start.
Exactly how to exfoliate your face
Here’s what to know before you glow to avoid angry (and damaged) skin when exfoliating:
- When using a physical exfoliant like a face scrub, first thoroughly cleanse skin using a face wash.
- Sweep a small amount of the the exfoliant onto damp skin in circular motions using very light pressure to prevent irritation and micro-tears in skin, the GH Beauty Lab suggests. When applying, avoid the eye area.
- Rinse the exfoliant off of your face, then pat skin dry with a towel.
- Start by cleansing your complexion with a face wash, then fully dry skin using a towel.
- Apply the chemical exfoliant per the package instructions, avoiding the eye area; leave on for as long as directed.
- Remove the exfoliant or leave on skin according to the product instructions.
When should you skip or stop exfoliating?
Skip exfoliating at home after professional treatments like chemical peels or microdermabrasion, when skin is sunburned and during eczema or rosacea flareups. On days you exfoliate, skip skincare products made with ingredients that can sensitize skin, such as retinol, vitamin C and other products containing acids (like cleansers, toners, masks, serums and moisturizers), Dr. Del Campo advises.
It’s also generally best to incorporate one type of exfoliator at a time into your routine to avoid skin irritation and damage, the GH Beauty Lab recommends, so if you’re trying a face peel one week, don’t also use a face scrub or a cleansing brush. Stop exfoliating when you notice any kind of irritation, including redness or a rash.
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