So what exactly does exfoliation do for your skin? In a nutshell, it removes dead cells, promotes cellular turnover, and increases the penetration of your toners, serums, and moisturizers. There is some controversy as to how often you should exfoliate. Some say once a day, others say 1-2 times a day, and still, others say twice a day is great. It’s really a matter of personal preference and what your skin can tolerate. But let’s break that down a bit more, incorporating different factors.
Your skin type plays a major role in how often you should be exfoliating. Normal skin can usually exfoliate 3-4 times a week, and possibly everyday, dry skin once or twice a week, oily skin probably everyday to minimize breakouts, and sensitive skin maybe once a week.
The natural skin-shedding process occurs about every 28 days or so, but as skin ages natural exfoliation slows down, leading to build up of dead skin and a dull complexion more often. Exfoliation helps speed up cell turnover, which in turn softens fine lines & wrinkles and diminishes pigmentation. So if you’re older and your skin can tolerate it, regular exfoliation is a very effective way to maintain a more youthful, brighter appearance.
Weather & environmental conditions
Weather and environmental conditions are also major factors in determining how often you may want to exfoliate. For instance, if you live in a hot, humid climate or have a job where you sweat or perspire, that is going to cause pores to open up and gather impurities & debris. In cooler, drier climates, fewer impurities penetrate the skin as pores do not expand as much. Heat expands & cold contracts. Regardless of the weather, your skin still picks up impurities every day, and dead skin forms daily. Pores get covered and oils & debris get trapped. It may not be much but the longer it stays in there, the duller skin becomes. At the end of the day, if your skin looks dull & listless exfoliation will revitalize your cells.
There are 3 types of exfoliation
This involves using a granular scrub, that when applied to the skin, physically buffs or abrades the skin’s surface to remove dead cells and buildup. Some exfoliants are extremely gritty and I don’t recommend them because even just gently scrubbing with a grittier exfoliant can do damage. If you prefer a physical exfoliant, choose one with soft grit or a beadlike texture that also contains ingredients that will moisturize & nourish your skin. Physical exfoliants effectively remove dead skin cells, but you don't want to, nor do you need to scrub hard. If you scrub too hard, it can lead to micro-tears in the skin, make acne worse, and lead to hyperpigmentation. Gentle massage for about 10-15 seconds will shed those dead cells.
Chemical exfoliation uses acids, generally alpha or beta-hydroxy acids, which break down the bonds between skin cells to eliminate the dead skin and decongest the pores. Don’t let the words “chemical” or “acid” scare you, as this exfoliation process is a very safe way to renew your skin. Chemical exfoliants are in fact gentler on skin than physical exfoliants, and you can totally use beta-hydroxy acid exfoliators every day because they are water-soluble acids made from sugary fruits and extremely gentle on skin.
Mechanical exfoliation is using a tool, such as a body brush, to physically remove dead cells from your skin’s surface and it’s a great tool for a quick sweep across your legs & arms before getting into the tub or shower.
Can you use both a chemical and physical exfoliant?
The answer is yes, you can! You can use one in the morning and the other at night if your skin can tolerate it. However, it’s important that you don’t use any retinol products after exfoliating. Retinol (vitamin A) itself works to renew the skin so you would be performing double exfoliation, which can cause irritation, redness, burning, and itchy skin, especially if you use a chemical exfoliant beforehand. If you want to put a retinol product on at night, just use a mild, non-exfoliant cleanser first.
How often should you be exfoliating?
Normal skin types - exfoliate 2-3 times a week or more often if your skin can tolerate it
Oily skin types - exfoliating daily may be your key to a smoother, clearer complexion
Dry skin - Limit exfoliation to once or twice a week and avoid physical exfoliation
Sensitive skin - Once a week at most
The best exfoliants for your skin type
Normal to dry skin
Alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic & lactic) are a great choice because your skin can typically tolerate the higher strength. Plus, AHAs are humectants that draw moisture into the skin while also targeting pigmentation and aging. Glycolic acid penetrates deep into the skin and stimulates collagen production, creating a suppler, brighter appearance. AHAs do make skin more photo-sensitive so exfoliation should be done at night and sunscreen is a must during the day. Drier skin types should avoid physical exfoliation because it can strip natural oils.
Acne or oily skin does best with a benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid (beta-hydroxy acid) chemical exfoliant to remove dead cells, clean out congested pores of debris & excess oil, and prevent blackheads & whiteheads. However, using BHA’s in conjunction AHA’s with is a great way to keep skin supple & youthful-looking. Salicylic acid does not make your skin more sensitive to the sun, however, the sun is not your skin’s friend and sunscreen should still be worn during the day. Gentle physical exfoliants also work well on acne or oily skin, just remember, gentle exfoliation is key.
Alpha-hydroxy & beta-hydroxy acids can both be used on sensitive skin as they are gentle. However, if your skin is overly sensitive, using a combination of AHAs, fruit extracts & skin-soothing botanicals or a peptide/amino acid complex would probably be better. Sensitive skin might also do better with a physical exfoliant that utilizes gentle beads and incorporates soothing ingredients. Unfortunately, some very sensitive skin just cannot tolerate any exfoliation, in which case the process should be skipped altogether.
To sum things up, exfoliation is a wonderful skincare routine and you should do what feels right for you. In other words, listen to your skin. If you want to try exfoliating every day, either once or twice, do it. If you find it to be too irritating, cut back. Sometimes skin needs to acclimate to the ingredients, especially if exfoliation is new to you. Start with 1-2 times a week and build up from there. Additionally, with the chemical exfoliants, do a test patch on your skin to see if any irritation occurs.
Have a listen to Dr. Whitney Bowe. She is a board-certified dermatologist and presents an informative lesson on exfoliation. She is a fan of chemical exfoliation as she feels it is best for the skin. She is not incorrect. As stated above, chemical exfoliants are gentler, but physical exfoliants can be just as productive as long as the cleanser and you are gentle on your skin.