Back in the day, St. Ives Apricot scrub was probably the poster child for exfoliation. Even today, most people probably associate exfoliation with those amber scrubby beads. But! Since then, the entire exfoliation category has gotten a glow-up. Now you can choose from a wide range of exfoliating cleansers, serums, masks, sticks, pads, etc all with different strengths and efficacy levels to boot. So let’s take a closer look at why you should exfoliate, how to shop for the right exfoliant, what skin types can benefit from exfoliation (preview: all skin types), and how often you should exfoliate to give you that perfect balance of efficacy without the irritation.
Benefits and Downsides of Exfoliation
Your skin is a living organism with many layers constantly turning over. Skin cells at the innermost layer of your skin go through a process called cornification where it slowly turns into the protective outer layer of dead skin cells. This outer layer of cells eventually shed in a process called desquamation as these are then replaced by the cells underneath. As we age, desquamation slows down, leading to a build-up of excessive dead cells that have overstayed their welcome. This slowdown can lead to dullness, dryness, and unwanted skin texture.
Def. Exfoliation is the process of removing that outermost layer of dead cells of your skin to nudge desquamation along.
This can be done with chemical or physical exfoliants (aka. mechanical exfoliants). It can feel like exfoliation is simply a nice thing you can do for your skin, but there’s actually a decent amount of clinical data behind the benefits of exfoliation. When done right, exfoliation can smooth out skin texture, target acne, and even combat hyperpigmentation.
All skin types can benefit from regular exfoliation. But! There are definitely things to look out for when exfoliating. THE number 1 rule to exfoliation is to never over-exfoliate. Over-exfoliated skin can be red, raw, flaky, irritated, and sensitized. This state of skin is definitely counterintuitive to the goal of improving overall skin health! The key to effectively exfoliating without getting to that “too much of a good thing” state is choosing the right product, ingredients, and routine for your skin type, so let’s explore!
Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation?
There are two main types of exfoliating products: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants are typically your classic bead scrubs that can be made from crushed seeds (think apricot seed), crushed rocks (e.g. perlite), and the now-banned plastic beads. We would also consider certain devices such as cleansing brushes, konjac sponges, and dermablades as forms of physical exfoliants.
Chemical exfoliants are ingredients that help weaken the bond between the dead cells to dislodge and loosen them. These are your good ol’ alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid, mandelic acid, and salicylic acid. The efficacy of these acid-based exfoliants is determined by concentration of acid, pH of the formula, and how you use the product.
There isn’t an absolute BEST type of exfoliation between these two categories. In our experience, we’ve seen that the best routine typically uses a combination of the two to get the best results. Like anything else in skincare, what works for your skin type might be different than the conventional AHA recommendation. Read on to learn more about shopping for this category based on your skin-ario!
How to Exfoliate Based on Skin Type
Exfoliating Tips for Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin individuals probably feel the most dread when it comes to exfoliants for fear of triggering skin irritation. Fear not! There are always gentle alternatives that can help you keep skin texture and congestion in check without the fuss.
For physical exfoliants, you want to reach for something that’s almost on the cusp of not being marketed as an exfoliant. Think gentle cleansing brushes or konjac sponges. If a scrub advertises as a “microdermabrasion” or “once a week use”, it’s highly likely that it’ll be too much for your skin type.
For chemical exfoliants, you want to start with a gentle acid like lactic acid instead of the gold standard glycolic acid. If you want to be extra cautious, consider dialing down to a polyhydroxy acid (PHA) like gluconolactone. Don’t jump into any concentration higher than 10% starting out, but slowly work your way up this concentration.
Exfoliating Tips for Dry Skin
Many don’t realize that slow cell turnover exacerbates skin dryness. This is why you’ll see a lot of body lotions marketed towards seniors that come with a decent amount of lactic acid. This is why a robust exfoliation routine is essential here! We would follow the same general guidelines as sensitive skin to start. Lactic acid is great because at 20% concentration and higher, it can effectively act as a peel, but at lower levels, it functions as a hydrator. If you have dry skin but not sensitive, you can consider dialing up to a glycolic acid for stubborn skin texture concerns.
Products that combine multiple acids are generally okay - but keep an eye out for products that contain salicylic acid. Salicylic acid one even at lower concentrations than the typical 2% level can actually be drying for some.
Exfoliating Tips for Oily, Acne-prone Skin
Probably on of the main goals for using exfoliants is to keep skin congestion-free. Physical exfoliants can be a great support product here, but we wouldn’t expect these types of exfoliants to tackle the issue completely on its own. Ingredients like salicylic acid and mandelic acid that are partially oil-soluble are great here. They have a unique property that allows them to penetrate deeper into your pores and help keep blackheads, whiteheads, and general skin congestion at bay.
Purging is a common side effect for this skin type when first starting out with chemical exfoliators. This typically comes in the form of minor initial breakouts and very minimal flaking. However, this shouldn’t be at the same level of your retinoid purge. The initial “purge” is incredibly common since you’re speeding up cell turnover, but we recommend to monitor as purging shouldn’t persist for longer than 2 weeks and shouldn’t get worse as you use exfoliators. If it does, it’s likely the product isn’t right for your skin type and it’s best to try something else.
Chemists’ pro tip! With oily skin, it’s even more important that chemical exfoliators are applied to a clean face since acids actually have a harder time penetrating skin if there’s excess sebum (read: less effective exfoliating experience).
Exfoliants Tips for Tackling Hyperpigmentation
You might hear that exfoliating can actually deliver heavy-hitting skin benefits like evening skin tone and diminishing hyperpigmentation. While there is data behind this, you would need to use a much higher dose of AHAs. These are typically your home peel products that typically come with 25-30% AHAs (with a low pH of ~3.5-4.0). They are not for the faint of heart! It’s best to build your way up to using a 25%+ acid rinse-off mask, once a week, to really see the benefits.
Alternatively, you can also leave this to the professionals and consider getting an in-office peel. The AHA strength is even higher and typically would require 4-6 peels to see results.
We should also mention that because of the stubborn nature of hyperpigmentation, exfoliation is really only one aspect to building an effective hyperpigmentation strategy. Head to our Hyperpigmentation guide to learn more.
Chemists’ Personal AHA Anecdotes
I have dry but very acid tolerant skin. Once a week rinse-off mask with our Gold Standard 30% glycolic acid is a staple in my routine. My skin also responds well to other acids - but nothing quite gets me the glow like glycolic acid. I am blackhead prone, so sometimes I do use the Specialist as a leave on spot treat to really clear out my pores. That said, if I over do it on salicylic acid, my skin can definitely get flaky. I love using gentle cleansing brushes and scrubbies once in awhile to physically exfoliate. But definitely not as diligent with those.
With oily acne-prone skin, people probably expect me to be a salicylic acid junkie. But, because of my love for retinoids (I use retinoids 6 days a week), I’ve found that those classic 2% salicylic acid topicals end up being too much for my skin. Instead, my skin has been pretty happy using Baby Steps (our most gentle AHA product) which uses 30% gluconolactone, 15% lactic acid once a week on my retinoid off days.
Can you use both a chemical and physical exfoliator in your routine?
Yes! However, the frequency of using both can really depend on your skin type. We recommend starting with a chemical exfoliator. Once skin is comfortable with consistent use, physical exfoliators can be added to buff and loosen stubborn skin concerns like blackheads and texture. Trial using a physical exfoliator once every 1-2 weeks to start. You can bump that frequency up to ~twice a week.
Does using exfoliants cause purging?
Purging can occur when you use ingredients like salicylic or glycolic acids. This is normal for some skin types. Typical purging includes minor flaking and minimal breakouts in the first couple of weeks of use. If purging continues or these symptoms worsen, it’s possible the product is not a good fit for your skin.
What’s the difference between exfoliating serums and home peels?
You can typically distinguish these products based on concentration of chemical exfoliators. Exfoliating serums typically range anywhere between 5-15%, while home peels can have AHA concentrations of 25% and upwards. We also want to emphasize reading product instructions with this category!
How often should you exfoliate?
This isn’t a great answer, but it depends! If you’re using an exfoliating serum with ~5-15% of AHAs, use it nightly. For home peel concentrations of 25-30%, these are typically used as once-a-week wash-off masks. You can use gentle mechanical exfoliants two a week along with your chemical exfoliants