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It’s a skin care fundamental, it’s probably how J.Lo keeps that glow glowin’, and we’re constantly told it’s E V E R Y T H I N G. But WTF actually *is* exfoliation?
What does it mean? How do we get it right? Most importantly, how do we make sure we don’t get it wrong?
Let’s take it back to basics and break down the science behind this skin care enigma — because the last thing you want to do is scrub your face clear off in the name of a sacred skin care ritual.
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.
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.
So now that you’re on board with the what and why, how do you actually do it? There are plenty of options from potions to prescriptions, mitts to microneedling. Some of us use gritty, goopy soaps, and others reach for heavy-duty tools and office visits that spin and buff that ‘ish right off.
The two basic types of exfoliation to know about are physical and chemical. We broke down the options for each along with pros and cons. Time to kick those dead skin cells to the curb!
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.
- Microneedling or micro dermarollers. 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.
Chemical peels are another popular exfoliating method that involves layering face acids onto the skin for a short period of time and letting it dissolve away dead skin.
If you’re looking for a product that you don’t have to whip up yourself or heavily research in the soap aisle, talk with your dermatologist about choosing an exfoliant that uses chemicals like Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), retinol, and enzymes to help renew your skin and shed dead cells.
Pros: The results from an at-home chemical peel can be more significant and therefore more noticeable. Stronger chemical peels, done by a professional, reveal smoother, brighter skin while being safe, convenient, with generally low downtime.
Cons: Professional chemical peels cost significantly more than the physical versions listed above. While more visible results happen, a light professional peel will typically run you between $80 to $100 and up, depending on whether it’s performed by an aesthetician or a dermatologist.
Obviously we’ve all got different skin and picking the exfoliant for yours is key. Start with these tips to avoid irritation and get the glowy results you’re after.
So-called “normal skin” peeps (#jealous) can generally try almost any exfoliating technique without negative effects. Lucky you! Just find one you like based on budget and personal preference.
If your skin tends to be very outspoken about what it likes and doesn’t, try BHAs which are less irritating than other chemical or physical exfoliants.
If you’ve got a constant case of the greasies — hello, oily skin — you can probably get away with stronger exfoliators like store-bought and DIY scrubs, or exfoliating electric brushes (think: Clarisonic) that help clear the oil and the dead skin.
So long, flaky skin. Bring in the AHAs (like glycolic acid) which can break through your skin’s surface layer, allowing moisturizer or hydrating serums to sink on in.
If your skin has a little of this and a little of that, invest in exfoliating products for each — and alternate which area you treat instead of trying to do it all. Try a scrub or chemical exfoliator on oily areas one day and a low-level AHA on dry areas the next.
If you’re prone to breakouts, it’s retinoids to the rescue. Look for exfoliants containing retinoids, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid.
When should I exfoliate?
This one’s on you, boo. What is your routine like? This will come down to convenience and your skin’s habits. Does it look extra dull in the morning? Maybe exfoliating first thing is best for you.
But then again, after a long day, it may feel so freaking good to exfoliate and strip away the day’s sweat, makeup, grime, you name it.
Remember: If you use any meds on your skin, it’s best to space out the time before applying the meds and exfoliating, to avoid irritation or even pain. And, obv, don’t exfoliate any open sores or cuts.
How often should you exfoliate?
Oily skin: You can exfoliate more often, including daily, every other day, or less often if you prefer.
All other skin types: Keep it to once or twice a week.
Is exfoliating safe?
As long as you’ve determined what your skin needs (preferably with your dermatologist) and you’re using the right tools carefully in the right places, you should be good to go. Although, if you experience certain skin conditions like rosacea, exfoliation isn’t usually suggested.
If you notice severe irritation, you may be having an allergic reaction. Get to the doc immediately if you notice these signs of an allergic reaction:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- swelling of the tongue, throat or face
- tightness in your lungs
Your skin naturally sheds dead skin cells every month or so but leaves many behind. This can leave your skin looking dry, dull, or flakey.
Exfoliating with scrubs, OTC cleansers, or chemically-enhanced products along with medical-grade peels and procedures like microneedling can help get rid of dead skin cells and reveal brighter skin.
Be careful about choosing products, research carefully, and pay attention to your skin needs. And chat with a trusted professional if you’re interested in chemical peels or microneedling.
We all crave The Glow, but don’t overdo exfoliation, especially if you notice irritation. Sometimes a little scrub-a-dub goes a long way.