The tricky thing about exfoliation is it can either work wonders for your skin, or it can destroy your skin barrier. Let me guess: You've used an exfoliator before-probably some gritty, grainy formula that you scrubbed around your face until it felt slightly raw and tingly. If it hurts, it must work, right? Not quite. In reality, your favorite little exfoliator might actually be damaging your skin...or at the very least, not doing anything you want it to be doing.
You see, when you use the right product, exfoliation can smooth rough patches and fade acne scars and dark spots-but that's not all! It can also reduce redness and brighten your overall complexion. And if that sounds too good to be true and kinda like an infomercial, well, then, you probably haven't been using the right formula. And that's why I'm here.
Figuring out how to exfoliate is a little complicated (especially since I just told you everything you know is probably wrong-oops), so I chatted with NYC-based dermatologist Neal Schultz, MD, to break down exactly what you should look for and avoid in your exfoliator and how to use it.
What do you do when you exfoliate?
Exfoliation is a buzzy word in beauty right now (and for good reason), but if you're feeling a little lost in all the talk about it, allow me to break it down. "When you're young, all of your dead skin cells fall off in a pre-programmed fashion every 28 days," says Dr. Schultz. "But when you're older, some of those cells hang on for 40, 60, even 80 days-and although they're too tiny to actually see, they can make your skin look dull, discolored, and broken out from clogged pores."
And, what's worse, those dead skin cells can actually block your skincare products from properly absorbing into your skin, rendering them kinda useless (and that's straight money down the drain). Oh, and same goes for makeup: A smooth, even foundation application is never gonna happen if the surface of your skin is rough from microscopic dead cells.
When you exfoliate, what you're doing is removing those dead skin cells that your body isn't shedding to make way for newer, happier, and healthier skin cells. The results? Glowing, even, smooth skin.
How do you exfoliate your skin?
Alright, let's take a step back here. When it comes to exfoliation, there are two main methods: physical and chemical. Although they basically share the same goal (to get rid of dead skin), the two types of exfoliation are totally different, so before you jump to how to use them, you first gotta figure out what they are and how they work.
Physical (aka Mechanical) Exfoliators: The classic method you probably envision when you think of exfoliating. This technique requires the use of grainy scrubs and exfoliating brushes-anything that requires a physical force to remove your dead skin cells. Even though they're super popular and beloved, physical facial exfoliators almost always cause more damage than they're worth (the abrasiveness can create micro-tears on your face that slowly destroy your skin barrier).
Although they can be used relatively safely on thicker skin, like on your back or your body to smooth rough patches, physical exfoliators are absolutely never a good idea for those with sensitive skin or rosacea. Or, honestly, on your face in general.
Chemical Exfoliators: Even though the terms "exfoliating acids" or "chemical exfoliators," don't sound all that gentle, they actually are, and that's why they're the golden child of exfoliators. Instead of relying on a mechanical force to tear the cells off your face, chemical exfoliators use gentle acids to dissolve the "glue" that binds your dead cells to slowly reveal brighter, smoother, more even-looking skin.
Chemical exfoliators are not only gentler and more effective than physical formulas, but they also come in two different forms, depending on what your skin needs, which brings us to...
What's the best way to exfoliate?
Now that we know the chemical method is far superior, let's dive deeper into all the different kinds of chemical exfoliators so you can decide which is best for you. Essentially, there are two types of chemical exfoliants: alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA), both of which do different things depending on your skin type. Let's break them down:
AHA Best for normal, dry, sensitive, or redness-prone skin: Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are water soluble, meaning they exfoliate the surface of your skin, drawing in moisture while they work to keep your face hydrated. They're superheroes at "ungluing" dead cells to make skin brighter and smoother with consistent use.
AHAs come in a few forms, like lactic, mandelic, glycolic, and tarteric acid. If you have sensitive skin or are new to chemical exfoliants, start with lactic acid, which tends to be the gentlest of the AHAs. Apply it every three nights on clean, dry skin, waiting 10 full minutes before applying the rest of your skincare.
If your skin is pretty "normal" with no real sensitivity issues, try glycolic acid, Dr. Schultz's favorite, since they're a bit stronger and faster-acting. BHA is Best for oily or acne-prone skin: Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are oil soluble, meaning they break down oil-clogged pores to treat blackheads, whiteheads, and zits.
They're also anti-inflammatory, meaning they'll help mitigate some of the irritating effects BHAs can cause. And to make it all easier, there's really only one common BHA: salicylic acid, a longtime favorite acne spot treatment.
If your skin is super tough, you can use your BHA interchangeably with AHAs, but, says Dr. Schultz, they tend to be irritating and drying if used in high concentrations over the entire face. So stick with only one chemical exfoliant at a time at first, and use your BHA every three nights on clean, dry skin, waiting at least 10 minutes before applying the rest of your skincare.
What's the best skin exfoliator?
The most amazing thing about chemical exfoliators is how customizable they are. Now that you know what kind of chemical exfoliator your skin needs (an AHA or BHA), you can finally figure out the best product for you. Not only are the ingredients important when choosing an exfoliator, but so is the format or vehicle (the formula that the chemical is used in).
Although there are tons of face washes on the market with chemical exfoliants, Dr. Schultz says the only way the acids are effective is when they're left on the skin for a prolonged period of time.
So while face washes can be effective at removing makeup and debris, they don't have enough contact time to be effective at exfoliating the skin. Instead, stick to peels, pads, serums, toners, and moisturizers-basically, anything that stays on your skin longer than a few minutes to allow the active ingredients to really penetrate.
And as always, keep your skin type in mind: "For oily skin, you want to use a very thin vehicle, like a liquid or solution," says Dr. Schultz. "For dry skin, you want a cream, and for combination skin, you want something in between, like a serum."
How often should I exfoliate?
Unfortunately, your dead cells re-accumulate every day, so this isn't a one-time kinda thing, says Dr. Schultz. If you have super-sensitive skin, start off with a mild exfoliant (lactic acid), and use it just once a week for a few weeks, slowly working your way up to 3 to 4 times per week (don't worry-you'll still see results from once-a-week applications, he says).
If your skin doesn't seem to be changing after two months of lactic-acid use, try switching to glycolic acid or salicylic acid, applying it every three nights before working your way up to every other night, making sure to always apply a moisturizer afterwards.
Can you exfoliate every day?
Not so fast! Despite how excited you probably are to transform your skin, you need to be careful of using a too-intense exfoliant too quickly and also avoid jumping from one kind of exfoliant to another. "Don't use one active exfoliant one night and a different active the next night," says Dr. Schultz. "The level of gentleness or level of irritation is different depending on different product formulations."
The writer is a freelancer
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