In the hopes of attaining glowing, vibrant skin, sometimes we simply do too much. We try one too many trendy treatments, slather one too many masks, and add too many unnecessary steps. This isn't to say that experimenting with skin care or indulging in a longer routine is net negative—but it is to say you should know when you've gone too far.
This is especially true of exfoliation. Scrubbing, peeling, and sloughing off skin cells can be an incredibly satisfying thing—and often comes with impressive results. But going overboard is extremely harmful to skin and can have some pretty serious repercussions.
Here, we speak to derms about how often you should be exfoliating.
What is exfoliation?
"Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells," says board-certified dermatologist Raechele Cochran Gathers, M.D.. "Exfoliation can improve skin circulation, encourage skin turnover, and improve the absorption of certain skin care products. Exfoliation can help brighten dull skin and might even help in conditions like acne."
The top layer of epidermis called the stratum corneum is actually a thin layer of dead skin cells. Your skin barrier actually uses these dead cells as a layer of protection (read: we want those skin cells there!).
This top layer is in a constant cycle of shedding. In fact, your skin naturally exfoliates itself every single day—you shed between 30,000 and 40,000 dead skin cells every minute.
But it's important to note that on the flip side, additional problems arise when you remove too much of that layer, as that will inhibit skin barrier function. That's why finding an appropriate balance for your skin is key.
How often should you exfoliate?
The amount you should exfoliate weekly will depend on your skin type, but anywhere between 1-3 times a week is ideal according to Ife Rodney, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Eternal Dermatology.
"Most people with normal or combination skin can get away with twice or even thrice-weekly exfoliation," she says. "Those with more mature, dry, or sensitive skin, may only want to exfoliate weekly."
If you have very oily or acne-prone skin, you might be able to tolerate more than thrice weekly.
In addition, those with inflammatory skin conditions (like eczema) or very sensitive skin may want to exfoliate once or twice a month—if at all.
But please remember, "the most important tip is that 'less is more.' You want to exfoliate just enough to increase cell turnover and reveal fresh new skin," she says. "But be sure to not scratch or damage your skin by overusing these devices or products."
Pay attention to how your skin reacts to the exfoliation cadence. If you find your skin is irritated, tight, breaks out, or even burns, that's a clear indication that you're exfoliating too much for your skin. Take a break until your skin is fully healed, then reintroduce the exfoliation at a lesser cadence.
How often should you exfoliate?
Exfoliation for different skin types
For many people, regular exfoliation has some pretty major benefits. However, if you have oily skin, congested pores, dullness, or have aging concerns, you may benefit from exfoliation more than most. And on the flip side, if you have sensitive skin you should proceed with caution.
Here's what to know:
|Very sensitive||1-2 times a month||Mandelic acid or enzymes|
|Sensitive or dry||1 time a week||Lactic acid|
|Average||1-3 times a week||Any|
|Oily or combo||2-3 times a week||Glycolic or salicylic acid|
|Oily or acne prone||3+ times a week||salicylic acid|
There are two main types of exfoliation. The most popular now-a-days are chemical, as physical can be too abrasive. Here's what to know about both.
"Physical exfoliation uses something abrasive," says board-certified dermatologist Amy Ross, M.D. tells us. A physical exfoliant (aka manual exfoliant) typically uses some type of granules to help buff and lift away dead skin cells.
Here are some examples of physical exfoliants:
- Crushed grains and seeds
Chemical exfoliants use chemicals to break apart and remove dead skin cells or dissolve lipids. "The strength of the acid can be adjusted to create safe, mild, and effective exfoliation for all skin types," Ross says.
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
- Mandelic acid
- Salicylic acid
- Fruit acids
How to exfoliate in your routine:
Where many people trip up is where exfoliation fits into your routine.
Sure, swiping skin with a peel pad or grabbing an enzyme mask is pretty easy to identify as exfoliating your skin. But does one count a mud mask? Or what should you do about serums with acids? And how do face washes play into this?
It is true that exfoliation comes in a wide variety of forms, so in some cases you may be over-exfoliating without even realizing it.
Here, how you can fit exfoliation into your routine:
- Face washes: Many face washes contain chemical and physical exfoliators, be it salicylic acid, micro-particles, or gommages. While some will be able to tolerate these daily (or even twice daily), for most we recommend using these only a handful of times a week and using a more gentle cleanser the rest of the time.
- Serums: Serums are a highly concentrated, leave-on treatment steps that target specific concerns. These are to be applied on freshly cleaned skin and are meant to penetrate into the epidermis. These contain actives that range from retinol, antioxidants to acids. For exfoliating serums, look for actives such as lactic, glycolic, salicylic, and mandelic. You can use these serums as tolerated, but for potent exfoliators stick to 1-3 times a week.
- Masks: Masks are rinse-off products that can be uses a few times a week. There are many kinds of treatment masks, which can range from hydrating and plumping to exfoliating. Exfoliating masks might include AHAs, BHAs, enzymes, charcoals, and granular particles. These should be applied after cleansing, rinsed after the suggested time, then continue with your skin care routine as normal.
- Chemical peels: As these are usually the strongest of all exfoliating options, chemical peels should be used sporadically and with caution. Peels typically include high concentrations of glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acid. These should be applied on clean, dry skin as directed, then continue with hydrating, calming routines.
- Scrubs: Scrubs use physical exfoliators to buff away the top layer of dead skin cells. Always be sure to use gentle, mild particles (such as sugar or fine salt) as anything too sharp can damage the skin. While lots of folks love the sensorial appeal of scrubs, most skin care professionals suggest skipping scrubs and opting for more sophisticated exfoliators like masks.
Signs you shouldn't be exfoliating
OK, remember how we said everyone is different? Well, just in the same way some people can handle lots of exfoliation, some can't handle it at all. "Exfoliation isn't for everyone," says Cochran Gather.
"People with certain skin conditions, very sensitive skin, or those who use certain sensitizing skin care products may become more irritated with exfoliation, so before exfoliating, it's important to know your skin type and be aware of any sensitivities that you may have," she says.
Another issue is that you can exfoliate too much initially and then need to take a break to let your skin come back to baseline.
"Over-exfoliation can strip the skin of its natural oils, which can lead to more breakouts, irritation, redness, and inflammation of the skin," says Cochran Gather. If you are experiencing any of these after introducing a new treatment, product, or device, consider easing up for a while until you go are able to slowly reintroduce it.
Here's some signs you need to take a break or stop exfoliating altogether:
- Increased sensitivity
- increased sebum production (over exfoliation can trigger your skin to produce more oil)
- Burning or stinging after using a product
Exfoliating the body
As for the body, you can generally use similar guidelines. If you tend to have dry skin, stick to once a week; everyone else can manage two or three times a week.
The only thing to remember here is that you shouldn't conflate a body exfoliator and face exfoliator.
"Body exfoliators shouldn't be used on the face. They are often thicker in consistency and contain higher concentrations of acids and could be too irritating for delicate facial skin," says Cochran Gather. "Likewise, using a facial exfoliation on your body may not be strong enough to give you the results you're looking for."
How often should you exfoliate the body?
Should you exfoliate in the morning or at night?
Any time of day will work for exfoliation, and it largely just depends on what you’re using to exfoliate, how much time you have, and your personal preferences. For example masks and peels may be better suited in the evening when you have time to indulge in your nighttime routine. However, some folks like to exfoliate in the morning for a glowing skin boost.
Should you exfoliate if you have acne?
Yes, those with acne will benefit from exfoliating as it helps unclog pores, reduce sebum production, and increase cell turnover.
What ingredients should you look for in an exfoliant?
The best exfoliating ingredients are salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, and enzymes.
Your skin requires a delicate balance of exfoliation. When you overdo it, you run the risk of damaging your skin barrier, resulting in irritation and inflammation. Don't do it enough, and you may be met with dullness or clogged pores. It may take a little guess-and-test, but the average person can handle two to three times a week.
Want more expert-approved tips for brighter skin? Check out our guide to combating dullness.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.