What To Know About Exfoliating Your Face

An expert weighs in on this very divisive topic.

Facial exfoliation is one of the most divisive topics in the skincare industry—some dermatologists are big fans of light exfoliation daily, while others prescribe very minimal amounts of exfoliation to their patients. Below, we've asked a dermatologist to let us know once and for all how often you should be exfoliating your face.

Face scrubs and creams
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What are the different types of facial exfoliation?

There are only two types of exfoliation, physical and chemical, but they differ greatly. "Physical exfoliators work by scrubbing away dead skin cells and debris, while chemical exfoliators use acids or enzymes to loosen cells," explains Sue Ellen Cox, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologic surgeon, founder and medical director of Aesthetic Solutions in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "Both are working to achieve the same goal of brighter, smoother skin."

How often should you be exfoliating your face?

Dr. Cox tells her patients that there is no magic number for anything, especially exfoliation. "Start small and increase usage as your skin allows—you have to listen to what your skin is telling you," she says. For physical exfoliants, Dr. Cox recommends using one time per week, and she never recommends scrubbing with a washcloth, as it's very irritating and damaging to the skin.

Chemical exfoliant usage really depends on the product. "For something like nighttime vitamin A, try starting with three times per week and increase usage as your skin allows," suggests Dr. Cox. "A cleanser with glycolic or salicylic acid will be much easier to adjust to, and you can likely start with daily use. Masks and scrubs are great to use once or twice a week."

Does it matter if you have a specific skin type?

Surprisingly, Dr. Cox says that you need to be more careful with exfoliants if you have oily skin, rather than dry skin. "Oily skin patients need to pay close attention to how their skin is responding to exfoliation, because over-exfoliating the skin can become very dry," she says. "For oily patients, this means the skin is tricked into producing more oil to combat dryness. This catch-22 is the same reason I don't recommend toners for oily patients." On the flip side, patients with dry skin will see more immediate satisfaction with exfoliation by removing all the dry, dead skin that's causing the dullness.

What might happen to your skin if you over exfoliate?

Over exfoliated skin will be dry, red, and irritated. "It's so easy to overdo it with exfoliators," explains Dr. Cox. "It can take a while for your skin to adjust to a new product, so be patient and don't try to overdo it."

Which types of exfoliators should you use?

Dr. Cox recommends her patients use a vitamin A product at night and a cleanser with glycolic or salicylic acid twice daily. "It's important to remember exfoliation doesn't always mean at-home products," she says. "In-office procedures like the HydraFacial or Diamond Glow do a nice job of exfoliating away dead skin cells while replenishing the skin with moisturizing ingredients. Dermaplaning and chemical peels are other ways we encourage patients to exfoliate their skin."

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