Exfoliation is often confused with washing—really aggressive washing. But they’re actually two distinct processes. (And face-washing, because it’s worth repeating, should never be done aggressively. Use a non-abrasive cleanser and work it in gently.)
Washing your face—at least twice a day, ideally—will help promote clear, fresh-looking skin. What’s the point of exfoliating, then, you ask? It refers to the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin.
You’ve probably used an exfoliator before, some gritty formula you scrubbed around your face until it felt raw. And while I’m sure you thought that was the desired effect, it’s not. In fact, it may have damaged your skin. The right exfoliator for your skin type—that part’s key—will reduce redness, smooth rough patches, fade acne scarring and dark spots, and help your face look and feel fresher.
Do I need to exfoliate?
Before I go any further, let me address an obvious question: Do I even need to exfoliate? Washing your face every day isn’t up for debate. Exfoliation can be done on an as-needed basis, but, yes, you should be doing it.
When you’re young, you shed all of your dead skin cells every 28 days. But as you get older, some of those cells will cling to your face for up to 80 days. They’re too tiny for you to actually see, but they’ll still make your skin look dull. And they’ll cause breakouts by clogging your pores.
They can also block your skincare products from being fully absorbed into your skin, essentially rendering them useless. The same goes for your makeup. If you’ve been wondering why you can’t ever seem to get an even foundation, it’s because the surface of your skin is rough.
Which exfoliator is best for my skin type?
Back to what I said earlier about using the right exfoliator for your skin type. There are basically two types of exfoliators, physical and chemical. The gritty formula you’ve used before is a physical exfoliator, as is anything that requires a physical force to remove your dead skin cells, including an exfoliating brush.
While they’re popular, physical exfoliators should be used on your body, where the skin’s thicker than it is on your face. The abrasiveness can create microscopic tears on your face that destroy your skin barrier.
Chemical exfoliators, by contrast, use gentle acids to dissolve the “glue” that binds your dead skin cells. Not so fast. It’s not quite that simple because there are two types of chemical exfoliators, alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) and beta hydroxyl acid (BHA). And they perform differently, depending on your skin type.
AHAs come in a few forms. If you have sensitive skin or you’re exfoliating for the first time, start with a lactic acid AHA because it tends to be the gentlest kind. If you don’t have any sensitivity issues, try a glycolic acid AHA. It’s a bit stronger and faster-acting.
If your skin is very resilient, try using a BHA interchangeably with an AHA. The BHA—there’s only one kind—can treat acne. But it can also be irritating and drying in high concentrations, so stick with one chemical exfoliator at a time in the beginning.