How to Properly Exfoliate Your Skin

Exfoliating your skin can help to maintain an even and clear complexion.  There are  different ways to exfoliate, but it all depends on your skin type and concern.  Exfoliating should be done with caution and not something to abuse.

What Does Exfoliation do for your skin

The top layer of your skin is called the stratum corneum, which consists of dead skin cells.  These skin cells are stuck together by a “glue” made up of lipids.

When you exfoliate your skin, you are removing some of this layer and breaking up that glue.  By doing so, the skin appears less dull, more even and has a nice glow to it.

Using an exfoliating wash before using an active ingredient allows it to penetrate better.  For example, using a salicylic acid face wash then applying a vitamin c serum is great if tolerated.

Certain skin types don’t shed dead cells as quick as others, so using the proper exfoliant can help keep the skin regulated.

As you age, this shedding process becomes slower.  Exfoliants come in handy by helping aid in this turn over and keep the skin from looking dull.

Physical vS. Chemical exfoliants

Physical and chemical exfoliants are two ways to exfoliate the skin.

Physical exfoliants consist of scrubs, wash cloths and cleansing brushes/devices.  These manually remove dead surface skin cells.

Chemical exfoliants on the other hand consists of acids, primarily alpha hydroxy acids or AHAs and beta hydroxy acid or BHAs.  As well as PHAS which I will touch on further down.

These acids perform in different ways within the skin and should be picked according to your specific skin concern.

AHAs are water soluble and BHAs are oil soluble.

AHAs exfoliate dead skin cells while also retaining hydration in the skin.

The most popular AHA is glycolic acid derived from sugar cane.  Synthetic versions are used most because they’re more stable.

It receives its fame due to its smaller molecules that can penetrate the skin deeper.  Smaller molecule = deeper penetration.  Glycolic acid is a great pick for dryer skin types because of its ability to retain moisture!

Other AHAs include lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, and malic acid.  All of these have larger molecules than glycolic.  Lactic acid is right behind glycolic because of their similarities, although its molecule is a bit larger.

BHAs dissolve in oil, clearing out the pore of excess oil and build up. BHA salicylic acid is derived from willow bark. It’s great for people with oily or acne prone skin.

Salicylic acid is the only BHA.

Which One Is Better?

I would argue chemical exfoliants are superior than physical for a few reasons.

Chemical exfoliants target different skin issues, whereas physical exfoliants simply exfoliate the top layer.

If you are oily or acne prone, using a BHA salicylic acid over a physical exfoliant is going to benefit you much more, because you are addressing the oil and congestion in the pore. This will help to control excess oil and keep your pores from clogging up.

Important note: using any physical exfoliant on active acne, will make it much worse.

If you have dry skin and experience rough patches often using a glycolic acid will exfoliate and smooth out those rough areas, while also providing hydration.

Chemical exfoliants are a better targeted approach to exfoliation while also being gentle on the skin, which is always a plus.

When it comes to physical exfoliants, there is a risk of uneven application.  People also tend to scrub too hard, which can easily lead to over exfoliation. Bristle brush head devices are too abrasive and simply not needed.  Not only can they be unnecessarily harsh on the skin, they hoard bacteria.

An example of this is a Clarisonic or anything similar.  I believe Clarisonic is going out of business this month… anywhoo.

Cleansing devices are not a necessity, but if you like using one the Foreo silicone cleansing device is much better option.

These are way gentler and more appropriate for exfoliating the skin.  Silicone does not hoard bacteria. Always make sure to spray it with rubbing alcohol after each use.

Washcloths are harmless and can exfoliate the skin, unless you’re rubbing and tugging at the skin.  They should be washed after every use.  Although if you ask me this is a lame approach to facial exfoliation.

Scrubs are not the worse but not the best in my opinion.  Again, people tend to press too hard when using scrubs and over time this is not good for the skin.  It can lead to irritation, dryness and leave you with an impaired skin barrier.

The skin doesn’t require intense exfoliation for skin cells to be removed.  Simply washing your face is lightly exfoliating already, so keep that in mind.

If you would like to use a face scrub using one that contains bamboo or rice powders are better options.  Make sure to use gentle circular motions.

Face scrubs that contain walnut shells, coffee, or stone fruit pits are big no nos. These grounded up pieces have sharp edges under a microscope. With continued use, these create micro tears in the skin leading to uneven texture and irritation.

How often should you exfoliate?

This all depends on your skin type and skin conditions.  There is no set schedule.  It is very individualized, and all depends on how much your skin can tolerate. Typically 2-3 times a week is appropriate, however keep tabs on how your skin manages and adjust accordingly.

One thing you want to avoid is over exfoliating.  This will leave your skin sensitized making everything you put on it burn.  If this happens, use a basic spf during the day and a basic moisturizer at night until you feel like your skin can get back on its feet again.

There are multiple ways to exfoliate either with a face wash, treatment toner, serum, or moisturizer.  Whatever way you chose is personal preference and if your skin reacts well.

Typically, oily skin types can get away with the most exfoliation.  Due to an over production of sebum and build up in the pore, using a salicylic acid face wash like the CeraVe Renewing SA cleanser daily can help keep oil or acne controlled.

It can be used both morning and night, or, if you find it to be too drying, maybe just morning or vice versa.  You can be the judge!  If you rather a leave on product Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Exfoliant is a fabulous option and one I’ve recommended a bunch. Apply this after cleansing, this can be used am and pm.

If you have combination skin, using the face washes listed above are suitable and you might find them helpful to use every other day. 

If you are on the dry side, using a glycolic acid moisturizer is a great option for you.  You are getting exfoliation and hydration at the same time.  This will prevent you from drying out, while also keeping a nice balanced appearance.   NeoStrata Glycolic Renewal Smoothing Cream or Alpha Skin Care Enhanced Renewal Cream 12% Glycolic Acid.

Those moisturizers are great options for mature skin as well.  As we age, the cell turnover process becomes much slower.  Using a glycolic acid moisturizer can help smooth out the surface of the skin.

*Note* AHAs and BHAs can be drying at times, using a hyaluronic acid serum or essence before applying your acid can help combat dryness and irritation.

If you have sensitive skin Poly Hydroxy Acids aka PHAs are on your side. These gently exfoliate without the sensitivity while also adding hydration to the skin.  PHA have larger molecules, they don’t penetrate as deep and are fabulous for people who are sensitive or reactive.

NeoStrata Bionic Face Cream is a great moisturizer.  It is on the thicker side, but spreads out very thin so that a little goes a long way. Another option is The Inkey List PHA toner this can be applied after cleansing before moisturizer. 

The key to exfoliation is to not overdo it.  That can cause more harm than good.  Listen to your skin and keep track of how often you are exfoliating. Create a healthy balance so that you don’t run into any issues.

With Love,


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