By now you know the benefits of exfoliation—a smoother, clearer, and brighter complexion. The technique is a must for healthy skin, as it helps slough off the dead skin cells that contribute to dullness, uneven texture, and clogged pores. Exfoliation also allows your other skincare products to penetrate more deeply into skin where they can really get to work.
The thing is, there are a number of ways to exfoliate and not all of them are created equal. There are two main types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants use granules, particulates or bristles to manually remove the dead skin cells by lifting them off, explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a Manhattan-based dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. Whereas, chemical exfoliants use ingredients such as alpha or beta hydroxy acids to dissolve the bonds holding skin cells together, thus causing them to shed.
While both are effective at improving the appearance of skin and expediting cell turnover, choosing the wrong technique for your skin’s needs could have an adverse affect. So, to help you find the best way to exfoliate for your skin type, including targeted product suggestions, we went straight to the pros. Here, dermatologists clear up any exfoliating confusion and share the techniques that will reveal your healthiest skin yet.
The Best Way to Exfoliate for Your Skin Type
If you’re lucky enough to have normal skin, which really just means it is well balanced and less problematic than other types, you can use either chemical or physical exfoliants. Still, it’s important not to overdo it, as this could have an adverse affect. Look for gentle scrubs, like Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub ($10; ulta.com), which uses microgranules to buff away dead skin cells while incorporating skin conditioners to nourish the fresh layer underneath. Dr. Garshick also likes Glo Skin Beauty Brightening Polish ($46; dermstore.com), with jojoba beads to gently polish off dead skin and vitamin E to soothe.
In addition to gently scrubbing away dead skin, dermatologists recommend using a chemical exfoliator two or three nights a week for a deeper clean. Look for serums or toners with ingredients like glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids to unclog pores and smooth the skin surface. Dr. Gardshick suggests Skinceuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, $80, which she says “improves radiance, tone, and texture.” Another good option for normal skin types: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($30; dermstore.com).
“Dry skin does not shed appropriately, so dead skin cells build up on the skin’s surface,” says Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, New York City dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology and Clinical Assistant Professor at NY Presbyterian Hospital – Weill Cornell Medical Center. “For this reason, it’s important to exfoliate thirsty skin regularly so that products penetrate better and work more effectively after exfoliation.” But contrary to popular belief, dry skin does not require aggressive scrubbing to reveal the glowing layer underneath.
The best exfoliators for dry skin will also incorporate hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, says Dr. Murphy-Rose. This will help protect the skin’s natural barrier and lock in hydration while sloughing away flakes. Once a week, apply a resurfacing treatment like Sobel Skin Rx 30% Glycolic Acid Peel Concentrate ($46; sephora.com); this uses AHAs to exfoliate and hyaluronic acid and larch tree extract to retain moisture. Dr. Murphy-Rose also likes Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum ($58; sephora.com.com), which can be applied nightly.
Oily and/or Acne-Prone Skin
While it’s very important to regularly exfoliate oily skin so that pores don’t become clogged, it’s best to avoid harsh scrubs or aggressive peels. Oily and acne-prone types will benefit most from chemical exfoliators since they work beyond just the skin’s surface, says Dr. Garshick. “Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, so it can penetrate deep into the pores, unclogging them of debris, oil, and dead skin cells, which will help improve and prevent breakouts,” she explains.
Start with a face wash with salicylic acid, Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne-Fighting Wash ($8; target.com), which can and should be used every day to clear pores. Every other day, incorporate an exfoliating solution, such as Humane Clarifying Toner BHA Salicylic Acid 2% Pore Minimizer & Facial Exfoliant ($18; amazon.com). If you are acne-prone, another ingredient to consider is retinol, since it works both on the skin’s surface to exfoliate and below to increase cell turnover. Dr. Murphy Rose recommends starting just 2-3 times weekly and increasing frequency as tolerated to daily use.
Moisturizing after exfoliating is also key for oily skin, as dryness can stimulate the secretion of sebum, leading to more oil on the skin.
When it comes to exfoliation, sensitive skin types should proceed with caution. Over-exfoliating can exacerbate redness, dryness, and irritation. The safest technique for sensitive types, according to Dr. Murphy-Rose, is using a warm, damp washcloth to gently massage the skin surface. (This mitt by Cela is made specifically for skin sloughing.) Do so right after the shower when your skin is softest and the outermost skin cells are “loose,” she adds. Steer clear of physical exfoliators like scrubs altogether.
If you really want to try a chemical exfoliator, Dr. Murphy Rose recommends one with a low concentration of polyhydroxy acids like gluconolactone or lactobionic acid. PHAs are less sensitizing and work slower and gentler than most AHA/BHAs, she explains. They will even hydrate the skin. Try Peter Thomas Roth PRO Strength 10% PHA Exfoliating Clarifying Liquid ($58; sephora.com) or First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads ($34; ulta.com). “Certainly don’t use harsh chemical or physical exfoliators on fragile and delicate skin,” Dr. Murphy-Rose reiterates.
Exfoliation is key for those focused on anti-aging, says Dr. Garshick. Natural cell turnover slows with age, which leads to pigmentary changes and dullness and exacerbates the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. But because mature skin tends to be a bit drier and thinner, it’s best to avoid aggressive mechanical exfoliators, which can cause micro-tears in the skin. Instead, the best way to exfoliate is with chemical ingredients like glycolic, lactic, and malic acid, which increases cell turnover.
Dr. Garshick recommends SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Peel Pads ($105; skinbetter.com), which contain a combination of powerful acids in addition to retinoid to improve the overall appearance of skin tone and texture. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel ($95; nordstrom.com) is another great option for aging skin; two-step formula contains pro-level concentrations of peeling agents—glycolic and lactic acids and bromelain—for fast results.
In general, if you’re targeting lines and dark spots, you should exfoliate a few times per week. Just be sure to avoid exfoliating at the same time you may be applying other active anti-aging ingredients, warns Dr. Garshick. Mature skin types may also want to consider monthly in-office treatments, such as a gentle superficial chemical peel.
While your skin type doesn’t necessarily change during pregnancy, you may notice more bumps, blemishes or dark patches, thanks to hormonal changes. Certain skincare ingredients, like high-does salicylic acid, retinoids, and hydroquinone, become off limits, too, as they could pose harm to your unborn baby. So Dr. Murphy-Rose suggests looking for products that contain lactic or azelaic acid, both of which are considered safe during pregnancy.
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment ($122; sephora.com) contains purified lactic acid to exfoliate, hydrate, and brighten the surface layer of skin, as well as prickly pear extract to soothe. For azelaic acid, try The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% ($8; sephora.com), a gentle leave-on exfoliant that helps unclog pores and refine skin’s surface.
It’s important to note that skin sensitivity can be heightened during pregnancy, so Dr. Murphy-Rose recommends starting any new product very gradually. “Try it once and wait a few days to assess how your skin responds before using it frequently,” she says.