Everyone wants to have clear glowing skin, and exfoliation is a great way to get it.
But too much of a good thing can be bad for your skin. That also goes for using the wrong kind of exfoliator for your skin type.
In this article, we break down the different methods of exfoliation, how to exfoliate your face and body and when, and how to choose the right exfoliator.
What is Exfoliation?
Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin using a manual process or tool, chemical solution, or exfoliating scrub or lotion.
Your skin naturally does this, shedding dead skin cells every 30 days or so. However, the turnover slows down as we age and can take twice as long, or longer. And, the dead skin doesn’t always shed completely, which can leave you with dry, flaky areas, clogged pores, more noticeable fine lines, and overall dull-looking skin.
Benefits of Exfoliation
In addition to ridding your skin of dead skin cells, exfoliation allows for better absorption of moisturizers and skincare products, which makes them more effective.
Regular exfoliation also increases collagen production—the key to skin elasticity—and can minimize the appearance of fine lines.
How often you exfoliate will depend on your skin type and the method of exfoliation you use.
Those with oily skin may exfoliate as often as daily if they are not using an exfoliation method that is particularly abrasive. Those with other skin types should not exfoliate more often than once or twice a week, sometimes every other week.
Whether your skin is oily, dry, combination, mature, sensitive, prone to acne or redness, proper exfoliation will leave you with brighter, glowing skin, and a more youthful appearance.
You can exfoliate your body at home in the shower using exfoliating gloves, loofahs, brushes, and a variety of scrubs made for your body. You never want to exfoliate your face using a scrub meant for your body, because it will be too harsh. Also, remember to thoroughly clean your brush, gloves, and loofahs after each use to inhibit bacterial growth (make sure all those dead skin flakes go down the drain!).
Since your face is more delicate than the rest of your body, make sure you use a product specifically designed as a face exfoliator, or make a DIY one using common kitchen ingredients like coffee grounds, brown sugar, milk, and honey.
There are times when a professional exfoliation treatment may be needed.
Chemical exfoliation is the application of hydroxy acids to the skin, which dissolves the dead skin cells and unclogs pores to reveal fresh, glowing new skin. These acids fall into two categories, and are typically referred to by their initials: AHAs and BHAs. The main difference between the two is how deeply they can penetrate your skin.
If you have particularly sensitive skin, chemical exfoliation may be the way to go since it doesn’t involve harsh scrubbing and is less irritating to sensitive skin. Because chemical exfoliation also works at a deeper level than scrubs, some people opt to have this done by a skincare professional. However, there are plenty of at-home chemical exfoliators, but just be careful of how much you use and for how long.
While liquid/chemical exfoliators may be better for sensitive skin, using too much or keeping it on too long can lead to burning, peeling, and dryness.
AHAs vs BHAs
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) are water-soluble, so they only penetrate the top layer of skin. AHAs are great for treating surface skin issues like fine lines, enlarged pores, and uneven skin tone.
Some common AHAs are:
- Glycolic acid (derived from sugar cane and citrus)
- Lactic acid (good for sensitive skin, derived from milk)
- Citric acid (derived from citrus)
Beta hydroxy acids (BHA) are oil-based and can penetrate deep down into those oil-producing sebaceous glands to dry up excess oil and unclog pores. That makes them great for treating acne. But even those without acne can benefit from BHAs. If redness is your problem, BHAs might be your new best friend. Salicylic acid, the most common BHA, can help tame that redness.
You can use at-home products that contain these acids, although they are weaker than what you’ll find at your dermatologist’s office. Even still, it’s important to carefully test your skin’s tolerance of these acids, as even a small amount may still be too strong for the most sensitive skin.
The enzymes found in some fruits and berries can also improve your skin. When applied to your skin, the enzymes work to break down the keratin proteins attached to dead skin to reveal fresher, brighter skin.
Unlike hydroxy acids, enzymes only work on the surface level of your skin (not penetrating the first layer). They are also the gentlest, making them great for the most sensitive skin.
Fruits with natural exfoliation include:
- Pineapple. Bromelain helps heal bruises, brighten and even out skin tone. Antioxidants protect skin from pollution damage.
- Banana. Draws toxins to the skin's surface making it easier to exfoliate.
- Passionfruit. Antioxidants protect skin from free radicals and work to repair UV damage.
- Guava. Antioxidants slow aging, prevent wrinkles.
- Pumpkin. Alpha hydroxy acids speed up cell regeneration. Vitamin A and C, both antioxidants, destroy free radicals.
- Papaya. Vitamin A and C, and zinc calms redness.
- Mango. Vitamin C supports natural collagen production. High antioxidants help prevent sun damage and premature aging. Very hydrating.
Many skin care products contain a combination of ingredients that include AHAs, BHAs, and enzymes that work together to improve your skin.
One of our favorite fruit enzyme masks is Bliss' Pumpkin Powerhouse Resurfacing and Exfoliating Enzyme Face Mask (surprise: pumpkin is indeed a fruit!). Pumpkin is a natural source of AHA, and this mask is packed with essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. We love how soft it makes our skin feel!
Microdermabrasion is another type of manual exfoliation that involves using a tool to gently sand the skin with a diamond-tipped wand to remove dead skin. Another type of microdermabrasion uses a tool that lightly sandblasts your skin with a spray of tiny crystals that are then suctioned up along with the dead skin.
This method can reduce the appearance of scars, age spots, enlarged pores, and fine lines, and improve hyperpigmentation and sun damage to give you a refreshed, more youthful look.
Ultimately, the best face exfoliator is going to be the one that’s best for your skin type and the issues you want to treat.
Don't Forget the Rest of Your Body
Since skin covers your entire body, you should also exfoliate the rest of you, from your neck down to your toes.
Get silkier legs and smoother shaves when you exfoliate first. You’ll get a closer shave once you’ve sloughed off all those dead skin cells, and it will help prevent ingrown hairs, which can be painful and not pretty.
Our Favorite Scrubs for Body
You can mix up a batch of brown sugar and honey with coconut oil, or another DIY version using salt or sugar and coffee grounds. For whole-body exfoliation, coffee grounds are great, since the caffeine can help reduce the appearance of cellulite.
Store bought body scrubs I love include the Tree Hut line of sugar body scrubs. They are truly cruelty-free, meaning they don't test their ingredients or products on animals, don’t use suppliers that do, and don’t sell their products in places that require animal testing (like mainland China). They are environmentally friendly, meaning no microbeads, so they are not only good for your body, they are good for the environment.
And they come in lots of delicious scents like Tahitian vanilla bean, coconut lime, Moroccan rose, and tropical mango. They are also inexpensive—less than $10—and are widely available in many stores. It’s no wonder the Tree Hut scrubs have a five star rating on Amazon with nearly 100,000 reviews!
Dove also makes a line of exfoliating body polishes that I often have in my shower as well. Their exfoliating power ranges from gentle to moderate to deep, in heavenly skin-smoothing flavors like crushed almond and mango butter. Dove products also do not contain microbeads.
For full-body exfoliating, I also like this long, double-sided ergonomic body brush for wet or dry brushing, and for those hard-to-reach areas.
Our Favorite Scrubs for Face
Dermalogica's Daily Microfoliant is just about as perfect as an at-home face scrub can get. It pours out as a very fine micro-powder, and when mixed with water it turns to a gritty paste, giving you the ideal level of exfoliation for everyday use. Our content editor swears by this product, and often mixes it with her face wash to get deeper cleansing effects.
DERMA E's Microdermabrasion Scrub with Dead Sea Salt & Citrus Essential Oils uses sea salt to buff away dead skin. It's also packed with soothing essential oils to keep you from overdoing it and drying your face. Even though it uses sea salt, the texture is creamy and the salt is finely ground, so no worries about it being harsh. Plus, the smell is amazing and uplifting!
What to Watch For
Never use an exfoliating scrub with harsh ingredients like crushed fruit pits or nutshells, especially on your face. They can cause micro-tears in your skin.
You should also avoid using retinols or other strong-ingredient skincare products directly after exfoliating. This could lead to possible irritation.
Now that you know all the benefits of exfoliation, and what to look for when deciding, go out and explore your options and get your glow on!
Christine Steele is a writer for Be Vivid You