Scrub It Away: A Guide To Facial Exfoliation

This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Equal Time Magazine

By Danielle Agugliaro –

Exfoliating can be your skin’s best friend or worst enemy. It also doesn’t help that there are so many added decisions to make. Do you do it once a week, or every night? Do you try a chemical exfoliant, physical exfoliant, or both? With warmer weather approaching, you probably have glowing skin and smooth legs on your mind, but should you still exfoliate once the cold disappears?

The basic idea of exfoliation is to remove dead skin cells from the top surface of the skin. There are two types of exfoliation: manual (also called physical) and chemical.

“Manual exfoliation is the process of using a gritty product to physically separate skin cells. In chemical exfoliation, a hydroxy acid is used to dissolve connections between skin cells so they can be shed,” says NYC dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner. The key is to find an exfoliant that works for your skin type or else you’ll quickly be stuck with a red, irritated face. Find out what’s most beneficial for your specific skin type, and you will be radiant all summer long.

Acne Prone Skin:

When dealing with acne prone skin, the last thing you want to do is irritate it further. This is where exfoliating can get tricky. The most effective method would be a gentle chemical exfoliant—hydroxy acids like BHA and AHA—that won’t interfere with the healing of any current acne. Try Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29). A chemical exfoliant, especially one containing BHAs, will help you generate new skin cells, brighten skin’s appearance, and even skin tone. The most commonly used BHA is Salicylic Acid, a champion acne-clearing ingredient. “If you have oily skin or acne prone skin, stick to salicylic acid,” Dr. Zeichner recommends. “It’s soluble in oil and can penetrate into the pores.” Make sure to use a soothing moisturizer afterward to ease any inflamed areas of skin. We suggest Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with SPF 15 ($12) for everyday use.

Oily Skin:

Oily skin definitely benefits from a physical exfoliant. Try out a tool like a rotating brush with an exfoliating gel to help break up the overactive oil in your skin. If you don’t want to shell out over $100 for a Clarisonic, the Shiseido Cleansing Massage Brush ($25) is a great alternative. Dr. Michele Farber of Schweiger Dermatology Group NYC adds, “Be careful with devices that you reuse, as this can have bacteria if not regularly cleaned or replaced.”

Meanwhile, you may be inclined to go heavier with exfoliating ingredients to combat oily skin, but larger granules actually cause micro-tears in the skin, leading to more space for oil to get trapped and clog pores. For a chemical exfoliant, try a product with BHA to reduce the oil or AHA to balance the oil with a physical tool. AHAs are common acids that are known to refine, smooth, hydrate, and firm skin. You might see them pop up on an ingredient list with Glycolic acid, Lactic acid, and Citric acid, like in the Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel ($14), which is a crowd favorite.

Sensitive Skin:

With sensitive skin, you might be uneasy about using exfoliants. They’re notoriously tough on skin, so your concern is definitely warranted. To cut down on extra irritation, stay away from any physical product, granule scrub, or chemical exfoliant. “Exfoliate less often: every other week or even once per month. Using a gentle, hydrating cleanser with ceramides and hyaluronic acid, and gently rubbing a warm washcloth is often best,” says Dr. Farber.

Opt for something light and natural without synthetic ingredients that can irritate your skin in the first place. Trying something like a foam exfoliator will still remove dead skin cells without wreaking havoc on your face, like Kate Somerville’s Exfoliating Daily Foaming Wash ($38). In the end, feel things out yourself. If gentle products also cause irritation, skipping exfoliation altogether might be the best move for you.

Dry Skin:

If you have dry skin, heavier scrubs can come in handy. Something with physical particles can help you clear off dead skin without irritation. “Dry skin should be treated similarly to sensitive skin, exfoliating less and using a manual, as opposed to chemical, exfoliator, and moisturizing afterwards,” says Dr. Farber. She even recommends trying a warm washcloth as a gentle physical exfoliator first. The Philosophy Microdelivery Exfoliating Facial Wash ($15) is a great choice for a physical scrub that won’t cause tears in your skin.

Dr. Zeichner also adds that you should remember to treat your dry skin first: “Listen to what your skin needs and give it hydration. After applying moisturizer, if you still see flakes, then exfoliate. If you try to exfoliate skin that’s parched, you can lead to irritation and inflammation, making matters worse.” Keep in mind that your skin should feel refreshed after exfoliation, not uncomfortable.

Combination Skin:

For combination skin, meaning your skin has more than one problem, you can use both physical and chemical exfoliants to treat different issues. The oily areas need exfoliants with acids like AHA and BHA that will also help aid the drier areas of your face. Glossier The Solution ($24) boasts AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs to brighten, clear, and smooth skin. “If you can tolerate it, glycolic acid would be your treatment of choice. Or, one of the newer poly hydroxy acids like gluconolactone or Mandelic acid may be best,” says Dr. Zeichner. A physical exfoliating brush might become your new favorite product because you can control the areas it covers and the pressure it applies to your skin, which can be helpful when targeting specific problem areas.

Most importantly, do what works best for your skin. “Listen to your skin. If you are irritated, then exfoliate less and load up on moisturizer, or if your regimen is working, then stick to what works,” Dr. Farber says. Exfoliation can do wonders for your skin, so follow the right steps and you can have beach ready, glowing skin in no time.