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How (And Why) to Exfoliate Your Face

Woman with hands on skin, preparing to exfoliate

 Smoother, more radiant skin. Increased elasticity. Strengthened skin barrier. There are many reasons to exfoliate your face; however, choosing the right method and ingredients is critical to skin health. Here’s how and why you should incorporate this step into your skincare routine now.

Why You Need to Exfoliate

As we age, the rate of skin cell turnover slows, meaning the body takes longer to shed old skin cells and generate new ones. Studies show it takes 40-60 days for skin cells to be completely regenerated in older adults, while it takes only 28 days for younger individuals (and half that for babies!). And to make matters more drastic, the production of collagen—a protein crucial to skin’s firmness and elasticity—also decreases with age, resulting in progressively-thinning, structurally-weakened skin.

So, what can you do to slow this process? Exfoliate. Sloughing away dirt and dead skin cells helps eliminate dullness, roughness and dryness—conditions that amplify the appearance of lines, wrinkles and uneven pigmentation—and leaves you with a smooth, radiant complexion. And according to skincare researchers, “the key attribute of a youthful, healthy-looking complexion is radiance.”

How Exfoliation Ups Glow

Radiance is achieved when skin is smooth enough to reflect light. However as we age, radiance diminishes as skin shows signs of aging. That’s because, over time, cell turnover rate slows down and dead skin cells build up, which creates the appearance of rough, dry skin and enlarged pores.

Thankfully, exfoliation can help reverse these conditions, as it stimulates cell turnover, resulting in a more polished and smooth skin surface—all the better to reflect the light. Sloughing away dead cells, dirt and leftover makeup evens out skin tone and improves its texture, rendering skin softer, brighter and fresher looking. So, in short: exfoliation is a must for revealing and preserving radiance.

And while cosmetic improvement alone is great, it gets even better. Removing old skin cells helps your skincare products work better. How? Your cleansers, moisturizers and hydrating serums are able to penetrate more deeply and do their jobs more effectively when skin is freshly exfoliated. And in the case of acne-prone skin, removing cell buildup on the skin’s outermost layer helps clear clogged pores that can otherwise lead to breakouts on the face, neck, chest and back.

All the Ways to Exfoliate

Exfoliants today are either physical or chemical. And although they do pretty much the same thing, they operate in vastly different ways and offer different end results.

Physical exfoliation uses a tool—most commonly a brush or a scrub that contains abrasive particles—to physically remove dead skin cells. Other forms of manual exfoliation include microdermbrasion and dermaplaning, both of which are generally conducted in a doctor’s or licensed esthetician’s office. Microdermabrasion utilizes fine crystals, which are sprayed on the skin and then suctioned away, taking with them a layer of dead skin cells. Dermaplaning relies on a scalpel-like device, which scrapes away the top layer of skin, along with peach-fuzz-like hair.

Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, uses chemicals such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) to dissolve the “glue” that binds old skin cells together on your skin’s surface, all without any scrubbing or scraping. The words “chemical” and “acids” sound daunting, but in truth, chemical exfoliation with AHAs and BHAs can be a surprisingly gentle way to exfoliate on a deeper level. In fact, research shows that regular use of glycolic and lactic acid(both AHAs) leads to significant skin improvement and rejuvenation.

The Benefits of Lactic Acid Exfoliation

A medical report in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology lauds the benefits of lactic acid and other alpha hydroxy acids, noting that skincare systems pairing AHAs with vitamins significantly improve skin texture, elasticity, and the prevention of wrinkles—all without adverse effects.

Note the mention of improved elasticity, which is a big reason to seek out exfoliating products that contain lactic acid in particular. Studies show that in addition to helping dissolve old skin cells, lactic acid also stimulates the production of collagen. Additionally, studies show this particular AHA has been shown to significantly improve the skin’s barrier functionand decrease the appearance of dry skin, as lactic acid stimulates levels of ceramides—the molecules that keep skin hydrated and smooth.

Fans of lactic acid note that it is less irritating than glycolic acid, another AHA commonly found in skincare. Less irritating, however, doesn’t mean less effective. According to researchers, glycolic and lactic acids work comparably in terms of increased skin cell renewal, as well as their ability to improve moisture content and reduce lines and wrinkles; the only thing missing in the former is the greater possibility of irritation.

Clearly Cleopatra was on to something with her insistence on regularly bathing in sour donkey milk, which is rich in lactic acid. While her habit is said to have required the milking of some 700 donkeys daily, yours necessitates little more than a visit to your bathroom cabinet.

The Most Important Lesson: Don’t Over-Exfoliate

As with most things in life, moderation is key when it comes to exfoliation. Whatever form of exfoliation you use—physical, chemical or both—don’t fall into the “if it’s hurting, it must be working” trap.

Too-vigorous, frequent or harsh scrubbing, scraping or peeling can irritate the skin; in fact, dermatologists warn that overzealous exfoliation is likely to damage the protective skin barrier, which can lead to more damage. “Convincing people that they’re exfoliating too much is one of my great challenges,” Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine, told Allure magazine.

In fact, any assault on the protective skin barrier, such as excessive scrubbing or a sunburn, can lead to sensitized and dehydrated skin that is susceptible to redness, breakouts, flakiness, roughness, and wrinkles and other markers of aging.

Worse yet, aggressive chemical or mechanical exfoliation treatments can aggravate underlying skin conditions and make it worse. Excessive exfoliation is “ ‘probably the single most significant cause of breakouts,’ ” said Dr. Hirsch. If you’re suffering from acne or rosacea, exfoliate gently and avoid harsh treatments to keep redness at bay.

3 Things to Keep in Mind When You Exfoliate

As you work to perfect your exfoliation routine, consider these tips to ensure you do so safely and effectively.

  • Less is more. Exfoliating once or twice a week is sufficient.
  • Avoid fruit pits and nut shell in scrubs. Jagged particles can cause micro-tears in the skin, damaging the skin’s barrier. If you prefer a scrub, look for one with smooth, round granules.
  • The more aggressive the method, the less it needs to be done. Aggressive methods aren’t our preferred way to exfoliate, but if you go for it, space treatments out to avoid harming your barrier.