Have you ever over-exfoliated your skin? If so, you know how hard it is to find the right balance of exfoliation in your nightly routine.
“Exfoliation is an essential step in your routine, but it's important to make sure you're not over-exfoliating to avoid irritation.”
Fortunately, we’re here to help you find that balance. Read on to learn more about exfoliation and how you can make it a part of your skincare routine for the best results.
What Does Exfoliating Do?
The human body sheds about 50 million skin cells every day. That may seem like a lot, but it’s only a small fraction of your total skin cells.
Still, that’s a lot of dead skin cells. Most flake off throughout the day, but some stick around on your skin’s surface. This layer of dead skin cells can contribute to quite a few issues. They can even prevent your skin from properly absorbing products.
Exfoliating helps polish away this layer of dead skin cells, which provides a few specific benefits.
As dead skin cells build up, they can create a rough and flaky skin texture. A regular exfoliating routine can help keep dead skin cell buildup at bay, leading to smoother-feeling skin.
Exfoliation can also help smooth the texture of fine lines. Fine lines are smaller wrinkles that look like shallow lines. On their own, fine lines aren’t always noticeable — however, they can become wrinkles if left to their own devices.
Stronger exfoliators can not only polish away dead skin buildup on the surface of your skin, but can also safely slough away the top layer of skin where fine lines live. With regular use, these exfoliators can result in soft skin that looks and feels smoother.
Dead cell buildup can also cause the skin to look dull and lackluster. This is because dead skin cells can slowly start to cover up your vibrant skin underneath. Because this buildup prevents your skin from absorbing the product, your skin may not be getting all of the potential benefits of your current skincare routine.
By removing this buildup, exfoliants can help reveal the appearance of a brighter, glowing complexion. Some exfoliants, like lactic acid, can even help hydrate your skin for brighter results.
Although breakouts are mainly associated with oily skin, even dry skin types can get blemishes. This is because blemishes are often caused by sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria. This combination can build up in your pores, resulting in clogging and irritation.
By exfoliating regularly, you can help keep dead cells out of your pores and potentially help reduce the appearance of blackheads.
What Types of Exfoliants Are There?
There are two main types of exfoliants: chemical and physical. Both types of exfoliants have their own pros and cons, so it’s important to consider these when choosing your exfoliant.
Chemical exfoliants use exfoliating ingredients to chemically dissolve the glue that can hold dead skin cells together.
One class of chemical exfoliants is alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. AHAs are known for thorough exfoliation and are often used to address fine lines, dark spots, and skin cell buildup.
Another type of chemical exfoliant is beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid. These chemical exfoliants are similar to AHAs, except that they are oil-soluble. This means that BHAs can dig deeply into the skin to unclog pores. In fact, BHAs are a common ingredient in products formulated for acne-prone skin.
Finally, retinoids are also chemical exfoliants. Along with exfoliating, retinoids can stimulate collagen production and increase cell turnover, making your skin feel smoother and plumper.
Prescription-strength retinoid creams are only available through your dermatologist — however, many over-the-counter (OTC) anti-aging skincare products contain retinol, a milder but effective retinoid.
While chemical exfoliants can come in all shapes and sizes, one of their most potent over-the-counter forms are chemical peels. Our favorite at-home chemical peels are Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha-Beta Peel Pads. These chemical peels are a great way to get the appearance of radiant and brighter-looking skin from the comfort of your home.
Physical exfoliants, also known as mechanical exfoliants, are products that include a physical element to break up dead skin cells. These products include face scrubs, sponges, derma planers, devices, and gauze.
Physical exfoliants are effective exfoliants, but they can irritate most skin types. As a result, it’s important to customize your exfoliating routine to your skin type.
How Often Should You Exfoliate Based on Skin Type?
The perfect exfoliating routine varies from person to person. Here are our exfoliating suggestions for each skin type.
You likely have normal skin if your skin isn’t oily or flaky. This skin type is one of the easiest to work with because it typically isn’t as sensitive as other skin types.
For normal skin, start by exfoliating one to two times a week. If your skin shows signs of over-exfoliation, I recommend cutting back and experimenting until you find a frequency that works best for your skin.
You might have oily skin if your skin is oily even after you cleanse. Oily skin can be a blessing because it doesn’t shed as many dead skin cells. However, this skin type is also more prone to blemishes.
I recommend using a chemical exfoliator that is also designed to unclog pores, such as a BHA or retinol. If you have oily skin, I recommend starting by exfoliating one to two times a week and increasing according to what your skin needs.
My favorite exfoliant for oily skin or acne prone is Cosmedix Clarify Salicylic Acid Foaming Cleanser. This daily cleanser features salicylic acid to exfoliate and unclog pores, as well as aloe vera to soothe irritation. The result is a daily exfoliator that can potentially help keep your pores clear while also keeping your skin looking healthy.
If you have dry skin, you might notice redness or flakiness. Dry skin also tends to feel uneven in texture due to the buildup of dead skin cells.
Although dry skin produces dead cell buildup, it tends to be more sensitive. For this reason, we recommend exfoliating once or twice a week. This is often enough to reveal brighter-looking skin, but this frequency has a lower chance of causing over-exfoliation.
For dry skin, we recommend our Lactic Acid Serum. This serum features lactic acid, an AHA that gently exfoliates while also helping with hydration.
Oily patches and dry patches characterize combination skin. If you have combination skin, you’ll typically have an oily T-zone (eyebrow and nose area) and dryness on your cheeks.
While many products claim to be formulated for combination skin, the real solution is seldom that simple. Combination skin basically entails both oily and dry skin — so the best way to take care of this skin type is to use different exfoliating treatments for each patch of skin.
For combination skin, try alternating nights with my Lactic Acid Serum, Retinol Reform, and a chemical exfoliant with a BHA such as the Dr Dennis Gross Peel Pads. I recommend exfolianting 1-2 times a week.
Sensitive skin calls for a specific exfoliating regimen. While sensitivity often occurs with dry skin, it can occur with any skin type.
If you have sensitive skin, I recommend starting by exfoliating once a week. See how your skin adjusts, and if your skin is tolerating it, you may be able to increase the frequency. If your skin reacts, you may need to slow down to once every other week while your skin adjusts.
A good, gentle way to exfoliate is to use gauze to remove cleanser. The gauze will gently exfoliate the skin in the process, resulting in brighter skin. This is great for someone with really sensitive skin who can’t tolerate a chemical or physical exfoliant.
Additionally, the Nion Opus Luxe is also a great cleansing device with silicone bristles that can help with gentle exfoliation for dry, sensitive skin.
What Are Some Tips for Success?
The most important thing is to watch your skin for signs of irritation. Your skin knows what it needs, and it will communicate with you. However, I have some tips to help you get the most out of your chosen exfoliant.
Always Follow With Moisturizer
Exfoliants can leave your skin dry. Lactic Acid is the exception which can add some hydration back into the skin, but it’s still essential to follow up with a moisturizer. To combat any drying effects, I recommend always following your exfoliant with a deeply hydrating moisturizer that is formulated for your skin type.
SPF Is Your BFF
Many chemical exfoliants such as AHAs and retinoids can also increase your sun sensitivity. Whether you’re using these specific exfoliants or other types, I recommend investing in a daily sunscreen with at least 30 SPF to keep your skin looking healthy and happy.
Finally, make sure not to overdo it. Regular exfoliation can help improve the appearance of your skin tone, but over-exfoliating can damage your skin barrier. This will lead to signs of irritation like redness, dryness, and itchiness.
You want to work with your natural oils, not against them. The best way to do this is to start slow and pay attention to your skin.
Exfoliating is an important part of every skincare routine, especially if you’re looking for a smooth feeling or a reduction in the appearance of fine lines. However, your exfoliating routine shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.
It’s important to consider your skin type and use complementary products like moisturizers and sunscreens to get the best results.