Should You Exfoliate In Winter? 5 Gentle Methods That Won't Dry Out Your Face

Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor By Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.
collage of clean, natural, and green exfoliating skincare beauty products for winter

Image by mbg Creative

It's cold and windy, and you probably have more than a few flaky patches on your face. But while you'd love to slough them off and reveal those underlayers of smooth, polished skin, you might find yourself wondering, Is it actually OK to exfoliate in winter, or will I totally dry out?

You're not alone. I've always been hesitant to touch anything remotely abrasive to my face from November to March for fear of further exposing my already parched skin to the elements. But after years of wondering why my fancy face oils weren't doing much to give me the supple, flake-free skin they promised, I asked a skin care expert if exfoliation could be the missing element in my winter skin care routine. Turns out, it 100 percent was. 

Even in winter, you should be exfoliating "at a minimum once per week," says Britta Plug, holistic esthetician and skin care expert. Potentially more, depending on the product.

"Thanks to the cold and dry air, that top outer layer of skin constricts and dries up. So when we apply our beautiful hydrators and oils, they can't actually penetrate to where they need to be," says Plug. "Exfoliation is very important to improving the moisture levels in our skin."

For people with congested skin (think: bumpy skin, blackheads, and whiteheads), winter exfoliation is particularly beneficial. "People often don't understand how their skin is dry and congested at the same time," says Plug. "Our skin has all these layers, and the oils need to come up and out. But if your outer layer of skin is dry, that congestion gets locked under the surface."

That said, you don't want to overdo it in the exfoliation department either—just because some is good, more isn't better. "If it's a high-concentration acid-based exfoliator [containing AHAs and/or BHAs], a strong enzyme formulation, or a super-gritty physical exfoliant, you don't want to do it every day," warns Plug. "If it's a lower concentration, or something with a very fine grit or polish, that's suitable for more frequent use." When in doubt, she says, default to the directions.

Of course, not all exfoliants are created equal, and some are particularly well-suited for irritated winter skin. Below are five of the best smoothing, soothing, and hydrating exfoliant products on the market:

LEAHLANI Kalima Coconut Cream Cleansing Powder

If the skin on your face feels rough and thick, a physical or abrasive exfoliant can be very softening and balancing, says Plug—but you don't need an ultra-coarse, gritty texture to achieve these results. This cleanser contains ultra-fine brown rice powder for gentle exfoliation, plus softening clays, hydrating coconut milk, soothing oatmeal, and antioxidant-rich tropical fruits like guava. Bonus: It smells absolutely divine and is gentle enough for daily use. 

Kalima Coconut Cream Cleansing Powder by LEAHLANI ($52)

Laurel Honey Berry Enzyme Facial Mask

As opposed to using abrasive, physical exfoliants, this mask is an enzyme-based exfoliant—and it's ideal for people with very sensitive skin, says Plug. While the ingredient list looks more like that of an artisanal jam, we assure you, it works. Honey is hydrating, antimicrobial, and has a gentle enzymatic action that works to turn over cells; strawberries also contain exfoliating enzymes, along with a dose of skin-brightening vitamin C; antioxidant-rich blueberries help counter oxidative damage; and royal jelly hydrates and firms. Use once or twice a week for best results.

Honey Berry Enzyme Facial Mask by Laurel ($54)

Korres Wild Rose Exfoliating Cleanser

This physical exfoliant cleanser, which contains finely ground cherry stone powder, rice powder, and maple sugar, is gentle enough for all skin types. Thanks to the addition of vitamin-C-rich wild rose oil, it also helps brighten skin and improve texture and tone. Soothing ingredients like aloe vera give it a hydrating boost. This cleanser is gentle enough for daily use.

Wild Rose Exfoliating Cleanser by Korres ($28)

Marie Veronique Probiotic+ Exfoliation Mask

Another enzyme-based exfoliator (and one of Plug's favorites), this gentle mask contains lactic acid to loosen dead skin cells and lemon bioferment enzymes to dissolve them away. You also get a nice dose of hydration from shea butter, and the addition of live probiotic cultures helps rebalance the skin's microbiota and restore barrier function—which helps mitigate skin irritation. Use once or twice a week for best results.

Probiotic+ Exfoliation Mask by Marie Veronique ($50)

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Polish

This combo physical and natural chemical exfoliator contains shea nut shell powder, lactic acid, and willow bark extract to remove dead skin cells, along with soothing and hydrating shea butter. It may be a particularly smart pick for city dwellers, thanks to the addition of antioxidant-rich licorice root, feverfew, and white tea extracts that help counteract environmental pollutants.

Facial Radiance Polish by First Aid Beauty ($25)

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