The Dos and Don'ts of Exfoliation

Exfoliation can help to keep your skin fresh and reduce breakouts, but it can also dry and irritate skin. Here are some common answers to questions about if, why, and how you should exfoliate your skin.  

What does exfoliation do?

The principle of exfoliation is simple: dead skin cells are removed from skin's outer surface to make room for newer, fresher cells. Exfoliation is a natural process, but as we age our skin self-exfoliates less regularly, leaving an uneven pile-up of dead skin cells on your face and body. Exfoliating can help to improve skin tone and enable moisturizers and anti-aging products to be more effective.

What are the types of exfoliation?

Exfoliation can be mechanical or chemical and can be performed at different levels of intensity:

Routine exfoliation includes:

  • Mechanical: Dead skin cells are rubbed off with a scrub or abrasive like a loofah sponge.
  • Chemical: Acids or enzymes help break up dead skin cells that hang on skin. Ingredients like hydroxy, glycolic, and salicylic acids are often added to cleansers and moisturizers to help stimulate exfoliation.

In-depth exfoliation (best performed infrequently and by professionals) includes:

  • Mechanical: Treatments like microdermabrasion blast skin with micro-crystals that buff away dead skin cells.
  • Chemical: Peels performed with lasers or varying strengths of chemicals are applied to skin to "injure" it and stimulate its natural healing process.

Who should exfoliate...and how often?

Your exfoliation routine should be based on your age and skin type:

  • People in their 20s or younger won't see much benefit since their skin is likely rejuvenating itself all the time. If you're over 30, you will see a difference.
  • If you have oily skin, routine exfoliation may help clear your pores. Chemical exfoliants may be particularly beneficial for their antibiotic properties.
  • Dryer skin should be exfoliated infrequently and gently.
  • Most people will benefit from exfoliating their face once a week.
  • You can use a body scrub once or twice a week and/or dry brush your body daily.
  • Deep treatments like peels or microdermabrasion should not be performed more than twice a year, unless recommended by a medical professional.

Who should NOT exfoliate?

If you suffer from dry or very sensitive skin, exfoliating may cause irritation. Younger people likely have no need for exfoliating, since their natural process should still be working effectively.

Exfoliation Rules to Remember

  • Let your skin tell you how to exfoliate. If it's dry or irritated, don't do it.
  • Go as gentle as you can, especially on your face.
  • Keep scrubs to your body, not your face. The bigger the granule, the rougher the scrub.
  • Waxing will exfoliate skin. Don't combine them and NEVER wax after a deep exfoliation.
  • When it comes to deep treatments, a little goes a long way. Overly frequent microdermabrasion treatments can thin skin and too many peels can strip away more layers than is healthy.
  • During the summer, take care not to go out into the sun (even with sunscreen) right after exfoliating because your skin can be more susceptible to UV rays.
  • Treat exfoliation products the same way you would any other skin care product - patch test them for allergic reactions before applying to your face or body.


American Academy of Dermatology