Exfoliation is touted as a quick and easy way to give your skin a radiant glow. And it is. We lose around 500 million skin cells every day, so dead skin can build up pretty quickly. A quick exfoliating session can instantly reduce dullness for a fresh dewy face. But over-exfoliation is a bad thing. And it’s a skincare mistake that’s easily made. By incessantly scrubbing off dry, flaky patches of skin (in an effort to rid yourself of it!) you can accidentally exfoliate too much. Or use an ingredient that's too harsh for your skin. We’re diving deeper into exfoliation and breaking down how often you should exfoliate and the best ingredients to use for your skin type.
Why exfoliate your skin in the first place?
We’ve talked about how to exfoliate your skin before. Now let’s talk about the why. Everyone can benefit from exfoliating their skin. No matter what your skin type, exfoliation gives you an instant glow by clearing away the dead skin cells that cause dullness. It also allows your other skin products to be absorbed more easily, making them more effective. Exfoliation is especially important if you’re prone to blemishes and clogged pores. And for those with mature skin, the exfoliation process tricks the skin into acting young again.
Why is exfoliating every day bad for your skin?
Exfoliating every day strips the skin of its natural oils, leading to breakouts. Too much exfoliating can cause skin irritation and inflammation, as you're removing the top layer of your skin before it has time to heal. This can lead to accelerated aging. And over-time, it can actually slow your body’s natural cell turnover.
Physical Exfoliation vs. Chemical Exfoliation
There are two main types of exfoliants, physical exfoliants like scrubs, and chemical exfoliants like serums and peels. The difference is that chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to dissolve and loosen the skin cells, while physical exfoliants—products containing small particles, or any sort of textured surface—work by scrubbing away the dead skin and debris. There are also products that incorporate both, like exfoliating cleansers that start out as physical but turn chemical when you add water.
What is physical exfoliation?
Physical exfoliation is exfoliating with the use of small grains or a brush. But not all physical exfoliants are created equally. Check your ingredient list to make sure that none of the exfoliating agents are too large. Scrubs need to be handled gently. If you’re looking for physical exfoliation opt for gentle ingredients that won't damage the skin, like sugar, pumice, poppy seeds, and jojoba beads.
What is chemical exfoliation?
Chemical exfoliants remove dead skin cells with the use of enzymes and chemicals to aid in cell turnover. So what chemicals should you look out for when it comes to exfoliating your skin? Here’s a quick rundown on the different types of skin acids.
AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids, a class of chemical compounds derived from natural substances. Many are derived from organic sugars, with Glycolic Acid (from sugar) and Lactic Acid (from milk) being the most common. AHAs work by dissolving the bonds between skin cells to allow the removal of dead cells. But because they are water-soluble, they can’t penetrate the skin as deeply as BHAs and are better for those with dry or sensitive skin.
BHAs, or beta hydroxy acids, are oil-soluble molecules, meaning they can reach deeper into the skin and pores. BHAs also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties—a more in-depth exfoliation in general. BHAs exfoliate the top layer of skin but also penetrate deep into pores, dissolving the mixture of sebum and dead skin that can lead to spots. BHAs work best for oily skin that’s prone to breakouts. The most popular BHA in skincare is Salicylic Acid. Salicylic Acid exfoliates and unclogs pores without affecting oil production and can prevent and treat breakouts.
How often should you exfoliate if you have dry or sensitive skin?
People with dry or sensitive skin should stay away from harsh exfoliants, which can irritate, leading to further dryness or sensitivity. These skin types should only exfoliate once or twice weekly. An enzyme is best if you’re sensitive, a glycolic acid if you’re dry. Or use a very gentle physical one with ingredients like bamboo or rice powder.
How often should you exfoliate if you have oily or acne-prone skin?
Oily skin types prone to blackheads and breakouts can exfoliate two or three times a week if their skin can tolerate it. A tea tree oil face serum or salicylic acid are your preferred ingredients here. If you have oily skin, you may want to incorporate physical exfoliation to deep clean your pores and remove any extra buildup.
How often should you exfoliate if you have combination skin?
If you have combination skin, you can go either way or switch it up depending on your mood.
Try scrubs, acids, and enzymes, but stick to exfoliating two to three times per week. Look for ingredients like mandelic acid, which is harsh on excess oil but mild enough for drier areas.
What about exfoliating your body?
Just like the skin on your face, the benefit of exfoliating your body is to break down and remove dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin and unclog pores to reveal fresh, new skin cells for a smoother appearance. But you don’t follow the same rules when you’re exfoliating your body. The skin on your body is thicker and drier and requires heavier tools. Stick to physical exfoliants like sugar, salt, and coffee grinds. Try to exfoliate your body at least once every 10 days, but we recommend one to two times a week if you have sensitive skin, and three to four if your chest and back are on the oily side.
Follow these tips for glowing skin without the damage caused by over-exfoliation.
The absolute maximum you should be exfoliating is your skin is three times a week. Over-exfoliate and you're likely to create tiny cracks in the skin barrier that lead to more loss of hydration and inflammation, as well as breakouts.
Over-exfoliating includes using too many actives or getting too many targeted treatments at once. Try not to use retinol, salicylic and glycolic acids all at once. And avoid getting exfoliating treatments like facials or microdermabrasion too close together. Each of those things on their own is fine, but when you add everything together, you’re doing your skin more harm than good.
An exfoliant or peel with alpha-hydroxy acids removes that dead layer of skin cells and stimulates collagen production to soften fine lines and wrinkles. Look for something with Ascorbic Acid, like a vitamin c booster. It’s important to remember that AHAs can leave your skin sensitive to sunlight, so don’t forget an anti-aging sunscreen when you leave the house. If you're using retinol, skip acid-based exfoliants altogether. The combination is way too harsh on skin.
While you can't exfoliate every day, you can use a salicylic acid-based cleanser, daily. Salicylic acid doesn't traumatize the skin like a physical exfoliant.
If your skin is very dry and flaky, the fastest way to get rid of that dead cell buildup is with a cleansing brush or an at-home microdermabrasion kit, which uses a tiny spinning disc of aluminum oxide crystals to slough away dead skin.
The most important rule when it comes to how often you should exfoliate your skin is to let your skin be your guide. Having a set routine isn’t always the best guidance. Some days your skin may feel rougher to the touch than others, and some days your skin may be more irritated. Leave it up to your face. Listen, look, feel, and adapt your exfoliation schedule as needed.
So how often should you exfoliate your skin?
The general answer to this is two to three times a week. Ideally, an acid serum two to three nights a week, plus a weekly exfoliating mask or peel is the exfoliation routine to shoot for. Encouraging the top layer of dead skin cells to turnover is the secret to glowing, smooth skin. Check with a dermatologist before exfoliating if you have chronic acne, as irritating already inflamed skin can leave behind dark spots. You should also hold off on exfoliation if you have any kind of cut or cold sore on your face (it can spread), or if you're sunburned. Otherwise, exfoliating your skin is one of the most important things you can do for the overall health and appearance of your complexion. And for more on how to get glowing skin, see our previous post for expert tips.
By Jaclyn Labadia, feature contributor