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Last updated: Jan 19, 2022
5 min read

How to exfoliate your face safely 

Exfoliation may improve the appearance of your face by removing old, dead skin cells. Mechanical exfoliation, which uses scrubs, brushes, or other physical means to remove cells, may be more appropriate for people with oily skin types. For people with sensitive or dry skin, gentle chemical exfoliants may be a better choice. If not done properly, exfoliation can irritate the skin and do more harm than good.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Many of us have a skincare routine. For some, it’s a quick splash of water to the face; for others, it’s a ten-step process filled with an array of products. If you’re in the former group, you may be wondering if there’s something you can add to your routine to give your face some extra TLC. One thing you can consider trying is exfoliation.

When done correctly, exfoliation may help give your skin a smoother, brighter, and healthier look, and more radiance. But not all skin types benefit from exfoliation. In some cases, it can irritate sensitive skin (Rodan, 2016; Guerra-Tapia, 2019). 

So, before you head to the store to pick up an exfoliant, let’s learn a little bit more about why people exfoliate, who should exfoliate, and, finally, how to exfoliate your face safely.

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What is exfoliation?

Your skin is constantly shedding old, dead cells and replacing them with new ones. But as you age, this skin-cell turnover slows down. As it slows, dead skin cells can accumulate on the top layer of your skin. This buildup, so the theory, can reduce your skin’s radiance, making it appear dull. 

Exfoliation is the term for any skin treatment or procedure that removes this outer-layer buildup of dead cells, debris, and other buildup that could end up clogging your pores and can make skin look dull, flaky, and patchy. Exfoliation not only sloughs off old cells but it can also stimulate the growth of new cells, potentially having cosmetic benefits (Edison, 2021). 

The different types of exfoliants

There are countless exfoliating products on the market. But nearly all of them can be broken down into two types: mechanical and chemical (Rodan, 2016). 

Mechanical exfoliants

These products clear away old skin cells by physically rubbing or knocking them off the skin. They’re sometimes also referred to as “physical” exfoliants. 

This group includes many different types of skin brushes, gloves, or rollers to help dislodge or remove old cells, and face scrubs that contain fine grains or granules. Even a washcloth can be considered a kind of mechanical exfoliant (Rodan, 2016). 

Mechanical exfoliants can be a bit harsher than chemical exfoliants. This may make them more effective for people with oily skin. However, people with dry sensitive skin may want to avoid them. If you have acne-prone skin, experts recommend you rather just use a soft washcloth and a mild chemical exfoliator (AAD, n.d.).

Chemical exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants remove old skin cells by breaking them down chemically. These types of exfoliants are separated into two groups: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs).

Commonly used AHAs include glycolic, lactic, and malic acids, and the most commonly used BHA is salicylic acid (Rodan, 2016; FDA, 2020).

Each of these chemicals works in slightly different ways. For example, salicylic acid not only removes dead cells—it can also reduce the production of sebum (skin oil), which can help reduce blemishes and breakouts in people with acne-prone skin (Arif, 2015). Meanwhile, mandelic acid is a gentle chemical exfoliant that may be better for people with very sensitive skin (Rodan, 2016).  

Some products contain a combination of these acids, and many contain small amounts of several chemicals, as well as other substances—such as ingredients that hydrate the skin.

It’s difficult to know how your skin will react to any treatment or skincare product. But dermatologists often recommend opting for something that contains as few ingredients as possible, which can reduce the risk of an unwanted skin reaction or irritation (Rodan, 2016). 

5 tips for how to exfoliate your face

It’s hard to predict how your skin will react to any new treatment. But if you’re going to exfoliate, these tips and best practices may help you get better results (AAD, n.d.).

1. Be careful with mechanical exfoliants

Brushes, rollers, or facial scrubs may be more likely to irritate sensitive skin. These sorts of physical exfoliants may also cause skin discolorations in people who have darker skin types, or in those who tend to get dark spots following a bug bite or acne blemish. 

2. Be gentle when applying exfoliants

Whether you’re using a scrub or a chemical exfoliant, apply it to your skin using gentle, circular motions. Never exfoliate if you have open cuts or other wounds on your face. 

3. Rinse your skin with lukewarm water, not hot water

Hot water can irritate your skin, causing redness and swelling. If you’re using an exfoliant, it’s better to rinse it off with lukewarm water (Masood, 2020).

4. Always moisturize after exfoliating

Exfoliation can temporarily dehydrate your skin. Following exfoliation with a moisturizer can help counteract this dryness (Rodan, 2016). 

5. Don’t exfoliate too often

Over-exfoliating can cause the skin to become red and irritated. It can also damage your skin, allowing fine lines and wrinkles to appear (Rodan, 2016). There’s no way to say exactly how often you should exfoliate; that will depend on your unique skin type and the products you’re using. You’ll have to experiment to see what works for you. 

The benefits of exfoliating your face

Some research has found that everything from mild do-it-yourself cleansers to microdermabrasion treatments performed at a dermatology office may provide skin benefits, including: 

  • Improving skin texture 
  • Reducing dry skin
  • Brightening and revitalizing skin (Edison, 2021)
  • Making skin look more polished and radiant (Rodan, 2016)
  • Reducing the appearance of mild sun damage 
  • Reducing the appearance of minor discolorations
  • Lightening acne spots or scars (Haney, 2020)
  • Reducing the severity of acne (Calvisi, 2021)

In most cases, over-the-counter (OTC) products provide milder effects or benefits compared to the exfoliating treatments offered by dermatologists (Rodan, 2016). But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that OTC products have no place in your skincare routine. Ultimately, which items and exfoliative processes you choose will depend on your skin type and how you react to the treatments. It’s also important to remember that cosmetic benefits, such as “brighter” or “healthier” skin are often self-reported and might be subjective (Edison, 2021). 

If you’re not getting the results you want or haven’t found a product that works for your skin, a board-certified dermatologist can help steer you in the right direction.

References

  1. American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). (n.d.) How to Safely Exfoliate at Home. American Academy of Dermatology. Retrieved on Jan. 12, 2022 from https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-secrets/routine/safely-exfoliate-at-home
  2. Arif, T. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 8, 455–461. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S84765. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4554394/
  3. Calvisi, L. (2021). Efficacy of a combined chemical peel and topical salicylic acid-based gel combination in the treatment of active acne. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 20 Suppl 2, 2–6. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14281. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdfdirect/10.1111/jocd.14281
  4. Edison, B. L., Smith, H. A., Green, B. A., & Tierney, N. K. (2021). Skin exfoliation with low concentrations of alpha hydroxy acids and poly hydroxy acids when incorporated into wash-off or leave-on products using a novel abbreviated model to measure cell turnover rate. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 85(3): AB165. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2021.06.67. Retrieved from https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(21)01779-5/fulltext#relatedArticles
  5. Guerra-Tapia, A., Serra-Baldrich, E., Prieto Cabezas, L., González-Guerra, E., & López-Estebaranz, J. L. (2019). Diagnosis and Treatment of Sensitive Skin Syndrome: An Algorithm for Clinical Practice. Diagnóstico y tratamiento del síndrome de piel sensible: un algoritmo para la práctica clínica habitual. Actas Dermo-Sifiliograficas, 110(10), 800–808. doi: 10.1016/j.ad.2018.10.021. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1578219019303075
  6. Haney, B. (2020). Microdermabrasion. Aesthetic Procedures: Nurse Practitioner’s Guide to Cosmetic Dermatology. Springer, Cham. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-19948-7_6. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-19948-7_6
  7. Lev-Tov, H. & Maibach, H. I. (2012). The sensitive skin syndrome. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 57(6), 419–423. doi: 10.4103/0019-5154.103059. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3519246/
  8. Masood, S., Tabassum, S., Naveed, S., & Jalil, P. (2020). COVID-19 Pandemic & Skin Care Guidelines for Health Care Professionals. Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, 36(COVID19-S4), S115–S117. doi: 10.12669/pjms.36.COVID19-S4.2748. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7306944/
  9. Rodan, K., Fields, K., Majewski, G., & Falla, T. (2016). Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Global Open, 4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp), e1152. doi: 10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5172479/
  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2020). Beta Hydroxy Acids. Retrieved Jan. 13, 2022 from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/beta-hydroxy-acids