Tempted to dip your toes in a tub full of hungry fish to get rid all of your dead skin cells? Don’t worry, you can leave the fish alone. Exfoliating at home is easy! From DIY sugar scrubs to special products, there are plenty of options to choose from. Here’s how and when to do it to get the best results.

Exfoliating involves removing the outer layer of dead skin cells from your bod. That might sound intense, but it’s something your skin does naturally. Your skin’s sloughing off dead skin cells all the time, but the turnover rate slows down as you age. An occasional gentle scrub can make you feel smooth and fresh again.

If you are a devoted (but gentle) exfoliator, your skin will repay you with a sublime glow. Exfoliation can help you:

  • improve skin texture
  • get a closer shave
  • prevent acne
  • fake a better tan

The way your skin reflects light depends on how smooth its surface is, and radiance is a sign of youth. (Have you ever seen a dull baby? Didn’t think so.) The layers of aging skin don’t renew as quickly, so dead skin cells start to build up. This can make the surface of your skin appear rough, dry, and less dewy.

Exfoliation removes skin cell buildup and exposes fresh skin cells. Sometimes that means physically scrubbing the dead skin cells away. Other times, you might use products with exfoliating acids (like salicylic acid) that prompt the skin to renew itself.

If exfoliation makes you look so fine, why not do it every day? Too much of a good thing can leave your skin red or discolored, dry, and irritated.

Instead, find the best schedule for your skin. If you’re using more harsh methods (like stronger chemicals or rough exfoliating tools) you should do it less often. If your skin is red, discolored, or irritated, cut back to less frequent scrub sessions.

Products with a very low concentration of chemical exfoliant may claim they’re OK for daily use, but don’t jump right into a daily regimen. In general, exfoliating one to two times a week is a good place to start. You can increase it to three times a week if your skin seems happy.

How often to exfoliate your body

Treat your exfoliation routine like a weekly ritual. Maybe some weeks it feels so nice you do it twice. The key is that exfoliation should not be punishing. You want to end up feeling bright and dewy, not discolored or irritated. Here are a few things to consider about exfoliating different zones of your body.

  • Hands. Whew, hands are getting a rough go lately with all the washing and sanitizing. You probably don’t need a special exfoliating routine on top of that. Your hands will get a light exfoliation whenever you scrub other parts. Concentrate on moisturizing them instead to protect from the drying effects of all that hygiene.
  • Feet. Notorious for developing calluses and rough spots, your skin is just trying to toughen up to protect your feet from all you put them through. A special foot scrub once or twice a week can slowly soften those rough spots. Beware of any treatment that claims it will dramatically remove tons of dead skin really fast. That can be a recipe for skin injury. For the toughest calluses, let a professional pare them down for you.
  • Legs. The most gentle whisper of exfoliation before shaving will get all the dead skin out of the way, so you can get smoother legs. Remember, shaving is kind of like exfoliation too, so you don’t want to overdo it. Yikes, razor burn!
  • Back. Exfoliation can help with bumps, but too much will make breakouts even worse. Use a gentle product targeted at acne a few times a week. You can slowly increase frequency if you don’t have a bad reaction.

How often to exfoliate your face

When considering skin treatments for your face, don’t forget about your neck and chest, too. All of that delicate skin needs an equally delicate touch.

There are plenty of products and tools for exfoliating your face, and they will come with instructions to use daily, weekly, or somewhere in between. The best approach is to start with once a week and only use an exfoliating product more often once you know you can tolerate it.

Should you just grab a handful of scrub and go to town? For the love of epidermis, no!

Keep these three points in mind for safe exfoliation.

  1. Test it first.
  2. Use a feather-light touch.
  3. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.

Steps to exfoliate your body

  1. If you are trying a new exfoliating product, give it a little patch test first. Wait a day to be sure you don’t have a reaction.
  2. Wet skin.
  3. Apply product or use your exfoliating tool in small circular motions for no longer than 30 seconds in one area.
  4. Be a lot more gentle than you think you should. Exfoliation shouldn’t leave your arms aching from effort.
  5. Rinse with lukewarm water.
  6. Don’t forget to moisturize! (Seriously, this step is essential because removing a layer of skin cells alters the moisture barrier of your skin.)

Steps to exfoliate your face

  1. Patch test to be sure you aren’t sensitive to the chemicals in your exfoliant.
  2. Apply product or tool according to package directions.
  3. Focus more on “caressing” your face, neck, and chest than “scrubbing.”
  4. Rinse gently with water that’s just a little warm, definitely not hot.
  5. Pat dry and moisturize.
  6. Watch your skin for 5 to 7 days for signs of irritation before exfoliating again.

There are two broad categories of exfoliants: chemical and mechanical. A chemical exfoliator uses acids to dissolve the dead skin layer, and mechanical exfoliators use friction to slough off skin. Here are some of your options.

Mechanical exfoliators

  • A brush, loofah, or sponge. A tool you rub over your skin to remove dead skin cells. (Even a washcloth counts as an exfoliation tool.)
  • Scrub. Products containing sugar, salt, or other rough particles. When you apply it to your skin, the hard bits smooth the top layer of your skin.

Chemical exfoliators

  • Alpha hydroxy acids. Look for ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, and malic acid.
  • Beta hydroxy acids. Usually in the form of salicylic acid, a relative of aspirin, derived from the bark of a willow tree. It may also be called salicylate, sodium salicylate, willow extract, beta hydroxybutanoic acid, tropic acid, or trethocanic acid.
  • Poly hydroxy acids. Newer exfoliating ingredients like lactobionic acid and gluconolactone are antioxidants and improve skin barrier function.

What type of exfoliation you choose depends on your skin type and what your skin goals are. For dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin, stick with a washcloth and a mild chemical exfoliator. Salicylic acid is commonly used to treat acne. Mandelic acid is gentle for sensitive skin.

Normal and oily skin can probably tolerate a stronger chemical exfoliator or a mechanical option. If you have darker skin or dark spots, only use mild chemical exfoliation. Stronger methods may cause dark spots. Your dermatologist can prescribe higher concentrations of active ingredients if needed.

Exfoliating is relatively easy and inexpensive to do at home, but it’s possible to overdo it. You could irritate or injure your skin.

Take it easy on exfoliating if you use products that make your skin more sensitive or prone to peeling, like retinoid creams, retinol, or benzoyl peroxide.

Don’t exfoliate if you have open wounds or a sunburn. Keep in mind that salicylic acid and glycolic acid (chemical exfoliants) can increase sun sensitivity. You should always use sunscreen if you’re using one of these products.

Talk with your doctor or dermatologist if you’re not sure.

Who doesn’t want to emerge from the shower with luminescent skin, a closer shave, and fewer bumps? You may see improvement by exfoliating one to two times a week with a scrubbing tool or a product containing exfoliating chemicals. Just remember to be gentle and moisturize every time.