I'll be honest. I'm an over-exfoliator. In my defense, it’s an easy thing to go overboard on. There’s something so satisfying about buffing your face like a shiny sports car, and the benefits—unclogged pores, diminished fine lines, a baby-soft complexion—are undeniable.
But you’re not just going at your face, legs, feet, lips etc, with a sandblaster—there’s art to this, people. So before your next scrub sesh, check out these dermatologist’s tips how exactly to exfoliate your face and body without harming your skin. Spoiler: It starts with a good exfoliating product.
So, what does it mean to exfoliate?
Simple answer: “Exfoliation is about removing those older, compact skin cells to reveal the fresher skin underneath,” explains dermatologist Kavita Mariwalla, M.D., of Mariwalla Dermatology is West Islip, New York.
And we all need a little extra help in this department as we get older: Skin’s natural shedding process begins to slow as we enter our thirties, adds dermatologist Rosemarie Ingleton, M.D., of Ingleton Dermatology in New York City. “That’s why our complexions may begin to look dull—those dead cells are taking longer to come off and your skin may not appear as radiant as it once did,” she says. Tell me about it.
How often should I exfoliate?
For all its benefits, scouring your face like a dirty pan or scrubbing too often (yup, guilty as charged) can possibly do more harm than good, leading to redness, sensitivity, and in some cases, breakouts. “Personally, I don’t recommend exfoliating your face or body more than once a week,” says Mariwalla. “Remember, your skin is designed to maintain some sort of balance—harsh exfoliants or exfoliating too often introduces an outside element to this balance, and your skin can easily become dry and irritated.”
Ingleton and Ife Rodney, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist at Eternal Dermatology in Fulton, Maryland, say that you can gently exfoliate your body 2-3 times a week, but that the sensitive skin of the face should generally can be buffed no more than twice weekly. There are some exceptions, see below.
There are two types of exfoliation.
Scrubs for the face and body fall under the category of manual or physical exfoliation; that is, using a gritty substance to literally buff away dead, scaly skin. Washcloths, loofahs, dry brushes, dermaplaning tools, the razor you use to shave your legs—those, too, would fall under the umbrella of manual exfoliants.
Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, harnesses the power of certain ingredients, typically alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic or lactic acid or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid, to dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells together. “Think of the top layer of your skin as a brick wall, with your actual skin cells being the bricks,” says Mariwalla. “Chemical exfoliants dissolve the mortar that holds those bricks together, removing surface cells.”
Both Ingleton and Mariwalla are fans of chemical exfoliants for the face—and Ingleton insists many of these products (you’ll see them as toners, pads, or leave-on gels or moisturizers) are gentle enough to be used several times per week, an especially effective game plan if you’ve got acne, which is characterized, in most cases, as pores that are clogged with…well, stuff. Physical exfoliators on the other hand, are best for body. “The skin on your arms or legs or feet is so much thicker—it can really tolerate more physical trauma,” says Ingleton.
When you're exfoliating your face, keep your skin type in mind.
If you’re going to use a chemical exfoliator on your face, you’ve got to choose the right one for your skin type. If it’s dryness and dullness you want to tackle, use one of the AHAs mentioned above (for the record, lactic acid tends to be gentler, so it might be a better bet if you’re a novice exfoliator). BHAs like salicylic acid are better able to penetrate oil glands to treat acne-prone complexions.
For the best results, you’ll want to stick to leave-on products like creams, masks, or toners. “After cleansing in the morning, apply your chemical exfoliant and layer a moisturizer with SPF on top,” suggests Rodney. Being vigilant with sunscreen is key; exfoliation can make your skin more sensitive to UV light.
And despite the fact that our derms generally prefer to save the manual exfoliators for the chin down, there are some benefits to the occasional face scrub: “You should see a glow immediately,” Rodney adds. Make sure your skin is clean and slightly damp. Then, apply a dollop of scrub with your fingertips, gently massaging it into your skin in circular motions. You should barely feel the granules against your face, so don’t press hard. You’re not Cinderella feverishly cleaning the kitchen so you can go to the ball.
To exfoliate your body, opt for a salt scrub and a mitt.
Now…just because I said you can be slightly more aggressive when exfoliating your body, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an art to this too. For thick, rough skin on the knees, elbows, and feet, a salt scrub is your best option, says Mariwalla. (Fun fact: before lasers were used to remove tattoos, people would get rid of bad bachelorette party decisions by scrubbing their skin with, you guessed it, salt.) In this case, apply the scrub to damp skin in shower and massage it in using circular motions and rinse.
Or, for a more gentle option, use sugar granules.
Sugar granules are generally smaller and more rounded, making them a great option for mild exfoliation on a more regular basis. Other gentle options for a good body buffing include body mitts, loofahs, and dry brushes, which are used on dry skin (proponents recommend it as a daily morning ritual to exfoliate and encourage lymphatic drainage).
Chemical exfoliators work for the body, too—especially feet.
And while less common than their facial counterparts, leave-on chemical exfoliators for the body are a growing category. You’ll find some of same key players—glycolic and salicylic acids—as well as urea, but formulated into thicker creams and lotions more appropriate for the body. “I love using these products on dry, cracked feet or even on sun damaged areas like the chest or shoulders,” says Ingleton.
There are some natural exfoliators you can try too.
For smooth, glowing skin you may not have to look any farther than your kitchen cupboard—plenty of effective exfoliators can be whipped up at home. Mariwalla loves using a mixture of baking soda and water to exfoliate her lips and mixes oatmeal and yogurt to create a face scrub.
Of course, a mix of granulated sugar and salt and olive oil is an easy way to replicate a store-bought body scrub, but you can give it a boost with some well-chosen plant extracts. “Lemon juice also helps to turn over skin cells and green papaya contains high levels of the enzyme papain, which dissolves the protein in keratin and skin cells,” says Rodney.
And there you have it, all there is to know about exfoliation. Glow get ‘em.
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