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Understanding exfoliation

Your skin undergoes a natural turnover cycle every 30 days or so. When this happens, the upper layer of your skin (epidermis) sheds, revealing new skin from the middle layer of your skin (dermis).

However, the cell turnover cycle isn’t always so clear-cut. Sometimes, dead skin cells don’t fully shed, leading to flaky skin, dry patches, and clogged pores. You can help your body shed these cells through exfoliation.

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells with a substance or tool known as an exfoliator. Exfoliators come in many forms, from chemical treatments to brushes.

Read on to learn more about how to choose the best exfoliator for your skin.

Before choosing an exfoliator, it’s important to know what type of skin you have. Keep in mind that your skin type can change with age, weather changes, and lifestyle factors, such as smoking.

There are five major skin types:

  • Dry. This skin type is more likely to have dry patches and requires more moisture. You probably notice that your skin gets even dryer in cold, dry weather.
  • Combination. This skin type isn’t dry, but it isn’t all-out oily, either. You may have an oily T-zone (nose, forehead, and chin) and dryness around your cheeks and jawline. Combination skin is the most common skin type.
  • Oily. This skin type is characterized by excess sebum, the natural oils produced by the sebaceous glands underneath your pores. This often leads to clogged pores and acne.
  • Sensitive. This type of skin is easily irritated by fragrances, chemicals, and other synthetic materials. You can have sensitive skin that’s also dry, oily, or combination.
  • Normal. This type of skin doesn’t have any dryness, oiliness, or sensitivity. It’s pretty rare, as most people’s skin has at least some oiliness or dryness.

You can see a dermatologist or esthetician to help you determine your skin type. You can also do it at home by following these steps:

  1. Wash your face, making sure to remove any makeup well.
  2. Dry your face, but don’t apply any toner or moisturizer.
  3. Wait one hour and then gently dab a tissue over different parts of your face.

Here’s what you’re looking for:

  • If the tissue absorbs oil over your entire face, then you have oily skin.
  • If the tissue only absorbs oil in certain areas, you have combination skin.
  • If the tissue doesn’t have any oil, you have either normal or dry skin.
  • If you have any scaly or flaky areas, you have dry skin.

While it might seem like dry skin is the only type that would have flakes of dead skin cells, this can happen with any skin type. So even if you find some flakes, you’ll want to use an exfoliator that’s best suited for your skin type.

While it sounds harsh, chemical exfoliation is actually the gentlest exfoliation method. Still, make sure you follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions because you can easily overdo it.

Alpha hydroxy acids

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are plant-based ingredients that help to dissolve dead skin cells on the surface of your face. They work best for dry to normal skin types.

Common AHAs include:

You can find a variety of AHA exfoliators on Amazon. You can find products that contain one or a combination of AHAs. However, if you’ve never used AHAs, consider starting with a product that just contains one AHA so you can track how your skin reacts to specific ones.

Learn about all the different types of face acids for exfoliation, including how they can help with issues besides dead skin.

Beta hydroxy acids

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) remove dead skin cells from deep in your pores, which can help to reduce break outs. They’re a good option for oily and combination skin as well as skin that has acne scars or sun spots.

One of the best-known BHAs is salicylic acid, which you can find in many exfoliators on Amazon.

Learn more about the differences between AHAs and BHAs and how to choose the right product for your skin.


Enzyme peels contain enzymes, usually from fruits, that remove dead skin cells on your face. Unlike AHAs or BHAs, enzyme peels won’t increase cellular turnover, meaning it won’t expose a fresh layer of skin. This makes them an especially good option for people with sensitive skin.

Mechanical exfoliation works by physically removing dead skin rather than dissolving it. It’s less gentle than chemical exfoliation and works best for normal to oily skin. Avoid using mechanical exfoliation on sensitive or dry skin.


Exfoliating powders, like this one, use fine particles to both absorb oil and remove dead skin. To use it, mix the powder with some water until it forms a paste that you can spread on your face. For stronger results, use less water to create a thicker paste.

Dry brushing

Dry brushing involves using soft bristles to brush dead skin cells away. Use a small brush with natural bristles, like this one, and gently brush damp skin in small circles for up to 30 seconds. You should only use this method on skin that’s free of any small cuts or irritation.


If you’re one of the lucky few with normal skin, you may be able to exfoliate just by drying your face with a washcloth. After washing your face, gently move a soft washcloth in small circles to remove dead skin cells and dry your face.

Regardless of your skin type, avoid exfoliators that contain irritating or coarse particles, which can injure your skin. When it comes to exfoliation, not all products are created equal. Many scrubs that have exfoliants in them are too harsh for your skin.

Stay away from exfoliators that contain:

Exfoliation usually leaves you with smoother, softer skin. To maintain these results, make sure you follow up with a good moisturizer that’s best for your skin type.

If you have dry skin, opt for a cream moisturizer, which is richer than a lotion one. If you have combination or oily skin, look for a light, oil-free lotion or gel-based moisturizer.

While you probably already know about the importance of wearing sunscreen, it’s even more important if you’ve been exfoliating.

Acids and mechanical exfoliation remove a full layer of skin from your face. The newly exposed skin is very sensitive to sunlight and much more likely to burn. Find out which SPF you should be using on your face.

In addition, you should be extra cautious with exfoliation if you have:

Finally, before trying any new product on your skin, do a small patch test first. Apply a little bit of the new product to a small area of your body, like the inside of your arm. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and removal.

If you don’t notice any signs of irritation after 24 hours, you can try using it on your face.

Exfoliation is effective in removing dead skin from your face. This will leave you with smoother, softer skin. If you wear makeup, also notice that exfoliation helps it to go on more evenly.

Just make sure you start slow to determine which products and types of exfoliants your skin can handle, and always follow up with moisturizer and sunscreen.