How To Exfoliate Your Face: Benefits For Every Skin Type

Contributing writer By Andrea Jordan
Contributing writer
Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor's in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag.
Young Woman Exfoliating Her Face

Exfoliation is one of those steps in a skin care routine that you're either super cognizant of or you tend to overlook until you start to see a dull or flaky complexion. But the truth is, exfoliation is key to having healthy, plump, and youthful-looking skin, and keeping up with it even helps your favorite skin care ingredients to better penetrate the skin. Well, as long as you never overdo it.

We tapped two board-certified dermatologists to get the scoop on exfoliation and how to properly exfoliate for your skin type. 

Why should you exfoliate? 

According to board-certified dermatologist Rachel Maiman, M.D., of Marmur Medical, exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin. This is essential for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of those reasons: 

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1. Reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Whether it's acne scars or just plain ol' blemishes, hyperpigmentation is never welcome. If you're not familiar with hyperpigmentation, it's essentially a fancy, scientific word for dark spots. This can be caused by unprotected sun exposure, acne scarring, or forms of melasma. "The pesky dark marks can be improved by exfoliating the upper layers of the skin that contain the pigment that is the source of discoloration," Maiman says.

While this is no miracle fix and certainly won't scrub away your dark spots after one use, over time you may notice these marks become lighter in color thanks to sloughing away that dead skin. 

2. Keeps pores clean and clog-free.

Clogged pores can work a number on our complexions. From acne to blackheads, leaving pores clogged with bacteria and gunk never ends in a positive manner. Thankfully, exfoliation can help with this, too. Maiman says exfoliating helps to sweep away dry skin and other debris, which can even remain on your skin after cleansing and prevents these matters from clogging your pores. So, you don't have to worry about unclogging your pores if you never leave room for them to be clogged in the first place.  

3. Can help reduce acne.

Remember how we mentioned clogged pores can give birth to acne and blackheads? Well, a little scrubbing action can help alleviate that. "Acne is, in part, the result of skin cells becoming stuck together and clogging pores," Maiman says. "By reducing the burden of skin cells sitting on the surface of the skin, the likelihood of this happening is effectively reduced." 

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4. Reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

While exfoliation won't necessarily take away signs of aging, the process of revealing fresh, youthful skin can certainly make the appearance of these signs diminish. Maiman explains that exfoliation produces a luminosity to the skin, you know, that lit-from-within-glow we've all been dreaming up for years. When the layers of dead skin are removed, a newly exposed layer of skin appears and helps to reflect light better. The result? Luminous, glowing skin that has a more youthful appearance. 

5. Stimulates collagen synthesis.

"Regular exfoliation also helps to stimulate collagen synthesis," Maiman says. This is the key to improving all texture and tone concerns within your complexion. The more collagen your skin produces, the quicker your skin cells are able to turn over, keeping lines, wrinkles, loss of firmness, and even dark spots at bay. 

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6. Improves the absorption of skin care products.

If you skip exfoliation, layers of dead skin cells collect on your complexion, causing your skin to look dull, dry, and, well, lifeless. Not to mention, when you apply that $100 serum, it won't really be doing much of anything thanks to the barrier of dead skin cells that has built up. When the top layer of dead and damaged cells is removed, all of your favorite skin actives can penetrate and actually produce results. Because, let's be honest, no one wants to waste a single drop of these potent potions. 

7. Helps your makeup apply better.

Have you ever applied a concealer or foundation only to realize it doesn't quite look smooth and flawless like a second skin but instead bumpy, gritty, and even patchy? Dead skin could be the reason for this. When you regularly exfoliate, your cosmetics have a clean and smooth surface to be placed on. Because makeup should look like real skin, not caked-on cosmetics. 

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Types of exfoliation.

Now that we know exactly why you should never, ever skip exfoliation, let's discuss the two types of exfoliators out there. First, let's talk about the more popular and commonly known physical or manual exfoliant. A physical exfoliant typically uses some type of granules like salt, sugar, or crushed grains and seeds to help lift and scrub away dead skin cells.

"Physical exfoliation uses something abrasive," says board-certified dermatologist Amy Ross, M.D. Often, these types of exfoliators can get a bad rep for being too harsh and causing the skin to become stripped and dry when used on the face. 

On the other hand, chemical exfoliants use chemicals to break apart and remove dead skin cells. "These are commonly alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)," Ross says. "The strength of the acid can be adjusted to create safe, mild, and effective exfoliation for all skin types." Like all skin care products, it's important to know exactly what type of skin you have and any sensitivities that you should be mindful of before choosing which exfoliant to use. Keep reading to learn exactly how to exfoliate based on your skin type. 

Exfoliation for dry skin.

Both Ross and Maiman agree that chemical exfoliators are best suited for dry skin types. "Dry skin tends to be a bit sensitive and has smaller oil glands, which make the skin thinner and more susceptible to irritation from physical exfoliants," Maiman says. She recommends choosing an alpha-hydroxy acid like glycolic or lactic acid or a beta-hydroxy acid like salicylic to slough away dead skin, though she warns that users should be careful when incorporating either of these acids into their skin care routine. "I recommend limiting use to once or twice a week," she suggests. She also suggests steering clear of products with high amounts of alcohol and reaching for more hydrating ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, or ceramides. And as always, don't skip moisturizing after you cleanse and exfoliate. This step is especially important for those with naturally dry skin. 

Exfoliation for sensitive skin.

Sensitive skin is probably the most challenging when it comes to exfoliation. Maiman suggests choosing one of the newer generation hydroxy acids known as polyhydroxy acids like gluconolactone. "PHAs offer similar exfoliating benefits to the more well-known and potentially irritating AHAs but work more slowly and are overall more tolerable for those with sensitive skin." 

Ross suggests choosing a physical exfoliant that's mild and gentle and blended with hydrating ingredients like oils, butters, or waxes to smooth and protect the skin. But what's most important is taking note of how your skin feels after exfoliating. If your complexion is red, irritated, or inflamed, you'll want to choose a gentler formula. For best results, stick to exfoliating once a week until your skin is able to tolerate it without irritation.  

Exfoliation for combo skin.

Maiman says her go-to for combination skin is a BHA like salicylic acid. "Salicylic acid helps skin shed dead skin without abrasion, unclogs pores, lessens oily skin, and yet at the same time is capable of gently smoothing rough, dry flaky skin." Like dry skin types, those with combination skin should follow up exfoliating with a good moisturizer that is applied heavier in dry areas throughout the face and sparser in the oilier areas like the T-zone. 

Exfoliation for oily and acne-prone skin.

Since oily skin is thicker and able to tolerate exfoliation best of all the skin types, Maiman suggests opting for a physical exfoliator for this skin type. Just be sure that the scrub you choose isn't too abrasive. Look for scrubs with small, smooth granules to avoid microtears in the skin. But she does say if users prefer chemical exfoliants, using one at a frequency of up to five times a week is also a great option. 

The final takeaway.

Exfoliation is a must no matter what your skin type. There are a variety of skin benefits to regular exfoliation, but the key to success lies in finding the best exfoliant for your skin type. As with adding any new product to your skin care routine, it's best to test any new physical or chemical exfoliant on a small area of skin before slathering it all over your complexion. And if you're still in doubt, talk with your dermatologist to see which exfoliation options are best for you and your skin concerns. But no matter what you do, make sure proper exfoliation is a mainstay in your weekly skin care routine. 

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