Exfoliating is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin using a chemical, granular substance, or exfoliation tool.
Your skin naturally sheds dead skin cells to make room for new cells every 30 days or so.
Sometimes, dead cells don’t shed completely. This can result in dry, flaky patches and clogged pores. Exfoliating can help prevent this.
Unsure where to start? Read on to learn more about the benefits, differences between physical and chemical exfoliation, where your skin type comes in, and more.
Exfoliating can improve the appearance of your skin in several ways.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, exfoliation can leave your skin looking brighter and improve the effectiveness of topical skin care products by enhancing absorption.
Regular exfoliation can also help prevent clogged pores, resulting in fewer breakouts.
Long-term exfoliating can increase collagen production. Collagen is key to glowing, vibrant skin. The protein also promotes skin elasticity, minimizing the appearance of fine lines and related sagging.
Any exfoliating product or method that requires manual scrubbing or rubbing falls is known as a physical exfoliant.
You may already be using a physical exfoliant — cleansing scrubs, body brushes, and loofahs are all common methods.
The biggest advantage to physical exfoliation is the ease of access. You can do this at home with as little as a muslin washcloth or a do-it-yourself (DIY) scrub. It also offers immediate results.
If performed incorrectly, physical exfoliation can sometimes irritate your skin and may result in transepidermal water loss. Following up with a humectant oil or serum can help minimize irritation and lock in moisture.
There are a few abrasive materials to choose from for manual exfoliation, including:
- cleansing scrubs
- exfoliating mitts
- dry brushes
- pumice stones
- microneedling or micro derma rollers
You likely already have all the ingredients you need to make an effective DIY scrub in your kitchen.
Sugar and milk, for example, contain acids that can help exfoliate your skin. When used topically, coffee may offer protective antioxidant properties and promote collagen production. Research also shows that manuka honey can aid in wound healing.
Want to try it out? Here are two easy DIY scrub recipes for your face and body.
Café au lait facial scrub
What you’ll need:
- ½ cup coffee grounds
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp. milk or buttermilk
- 1 tsp. honey
What to do:
- Add all ingredients to an airtight container and stir well.
- Gently splash your face with water or wet your face using a spray mist.
- Spread scrub over your face and neck, avoiding your eyes.
- Wet your hands and begin gently rubbing the mixture into your skin in a circular motion. Continue for 3-4 minutes.
- Rinse off using lukewarm water and pat dry.
- Store any remaining scrub in the fridge.
Brown sugar body scrub
What you’ll need:
- ½ cup coconut oil
- ¼ cup honey
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 3 tbsp. ground oatmeal
What to do:
- Stir together coconut oil and honey.
- Add brown sugar and oatmeal. Stir until you’re left with a thick paste.
- After wetting your skin, gently rub the mixture on your body.
- Rinse and pat dry.
How to choose products
Your over-the-counter (OTC) options are endless. There are scrubs for your face, body, and feet. You can also find options for different skin types.
Here are some things to keep in mind when selecting a product:
- Check the scope. You should never use a scrub meant for your body on your face. Body scrubs are generally harsher and may tear delicate facial tissue.
- Use one product at a time. Although it may be tempting to buy a full set of a products, you shouldn’t use more than one exfoliant at a time. Using multiple exfoliating products on the same area of skin can damage the skin and result in unwanted side effects.
- Switch products out. You may need to cycle through different products as your skin care needs change. For example: If your skin has become oily, consider using a product with charcoal.
This method uses different chemicals, including hydroxy acids and retinol, with enzymes to renew your skin.
While DIY and OTC scrubs can help enhance your skin’s appearance, chemical exfoliation can offer more dramatic results.
As with physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation can irritate the skin if done incorrectly. If you’re unsure about how to incorporate a chemical product into your routine, see a dermatologist or other healthcare provider for guidance.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)
AHAs are a group of water-soluble acids typically derived from sugary fruits. Popular AHAs include:
- glycolic acid, which comes from sugar cane
- lactic acid, which is found in milk and pickled vegetables
- citric acid, found in citrus fruits
- tartaric acid, from grapes
- malic acid, found in apples
These acids help peel away the surface of your skin so that new, more evenly pigmented skin cells may generate and take their place.
Depending on the type, AHAs may also help with:
- mild hyperpigmentation like age spots, melasma, and scars
- enlarged pores
- fine lines and surface wrinkles
- uneven skin tone
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble. These acids go deep into your hair follicles to dry out excess oils and dead skin cells to unclog your pores.
Because of this, BHA products are primarily used to treat acne and sun damage.
Salicylic acid is the most common BHA. It’s well known as an acne treatment, but it can also help calm general redness and inflammation.
Retinoids are a class of medications derived from vitamin A. They’re used to soothe sun-damaged skin, minimize signs of aging, and treat acne.
They work by protecting your skin from free radicals and promoting collagen production.
There are several topical retinoids available, including:
Retinoids vary in concentration. If OTC options aren’t working, talk to a dermatologist. They may be able to prescribe a stronger formula.
Choosing the right exfoliating technique for your skin type will minimize your risk of irritation and help you achieve the best possible result.
If your skin generally stings or is otherwise irritated after using new products, it’s considered sensitive. BHAs are typically less irritating than other chemical or physical exfoliants.
In some cases, sensitive skin is a symptom of an underlying condition. You should always talk to a dermatologist or other healthcare provider before using new products if you have conditions such as eczema and rosacea.
Normal skin is clear and not easily irritated. Many people who have “normal” skin find that they can try any exfoliating technique or product without experiencing adverse effects. It ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Dry skin is flaky or rough. AHAs such as glycolic acid can break through the surface layer of your skin, allowing your moisturizer to hydrate your new skin cells more effectively.
Oily skin appears shiny and feels greasy. People with oily skin are often able to use stronger chemical and physical exfoliators, such as motorized brushes. Store bought and DIY scrubs may also be a good option.
Combination skin is characterized by a mix of oily and dry sections. You should focus on each area individually and alternate products as needed.
For example, you may be able to use a chemical exfoliator or scrub on oily areas one day and a low-level AHA on dry areas the next day.
If you’re prone to breakouts or have mild-to-moderate acne, look for products containing retinoids, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid.
Here are the answers to some common questions about exfoliating.
When should I exfoliate?
It all comes down to personal preference and your daily routine.
For example, if you find your skin looks dull in the morning, exfoliating before you start your day may be beneficial. On the other hand, exfoliating at night can help remove any lingering makeup or other debris.
If you use a medicated product for a skin condition, you should space out the time between that product and exfoliating.
Avoid exfoliating if you have cuts or open sores on your skin.
How often should I exfoliate?
If you have oily skin, you can exfoliate as often as needed. This may be daily, every other day, or less frequent.
For all other skin types, you should limit at-home exfoliating to once or twice a week.
What do I do if I have a bad reaction?
If possible, wash the offending product from your skin using room temperature water and mild cleanser.
You should avoid using makeup or other products on the area until the irritation clears.
Taking an OTC antihistamine may help relieve redness and itching.
Seek emergency medical attention if you begin to experience severe symptoms of allergic reaction. This includes:
- shortness of breath
- tongue, throat, or facial swelling
- tightness in your lungs
- chest pain
What’s the deal with microbeads?
Microbeads used to be a staple ingredient in exfoliating scrubs. After much debate, many states have banned the use of microbeads because they go down the drain and contaminate the water supply.
If you see a microbead product on the shelves, keep looking. There are other ways to effectively exfoliate your skin.
Can I use a body-specific product on my face and vice versa?
You shouldn’t. Scrubs and other exfoliating products designed for your body tend to be more aggressive than products designed for your face.
Your facial tissue is more delicate than, say, the skin on your arms and legs. Using such a product on your face can result in cuts and other irritation.
Using a facial exfoliator on your body probably won’t cause any harm, but the formula may not be strong enough to produce the results you’re looking for.
This depends on your individual skin care needs and what you’re hoping to get out of exfoliating. A certified dermatologist can help you choose the best method or product for your skin.
Professional exfoliation methods include:
- Body scrubs. Professional scrubs typically contain different materials than OTC versions.
- Chemical peels. The key difference between home and professional peels is the acid concentration. Professional peels are stronger and may be used alongside other prescription topicals for maximum effect.
- Dermaplaning. Your provider will use a scalpel blade to remove dead skin and baby hairs from you face and neck.
- Microdermabrasion. Your provider will use fine crystals or a special rough-tipped tool to exfoliate the skin and a vacuum to remove dead skin cells.
Whether you should stick to DIY scrubs, opt for OTC products, or seek out professional treatments ultimately depends on your individual skin care needs.
If you have an underlying skin care condition or are unsure about where to start, make an appointment with a dermatologist or other healthcare provider.
They can walk you through your options and help you develop a skin care routine suited for your individual goals and lifestyle.