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Exactly How To Exfoliate Your Face—Without Ruining Your Skin

Are you guilty of over-exfoliating?

indonesian woman washing her face using beauty cleanser soap
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POV: You’re scrolling through Instagram, and you come across a pic of your favorite celeb/an influencer you love/your beauty-obsessed BFF. Their skin is absolutely glowing, so you’re suddenly inspired to whip out your favorite scrub or exfoliating brush. But the results aren’t exactly what you’d hoped for. In fact, you wind up with a raw face that’s def not IG story worthy.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it's not a fun place to be. And New Jersey dermatologist Avnee Shah, MD, says *a lot* of us are honorary members of the over-scrubbers club. “You can tell you’re over-exfoliating if your skin becomes red and starts to peel or flake,” she says. It’s kind of ironic, actually—peeling skin might make you think that you're seeing results, or need to exfoliate even more. But in fact, it's a sign that you need to slow your roll.

So, this one goes out to anyone who’s ever turned beet-red after layering an exfoliating toner under a salicylic acid gel under a glycolic acid moisturizer. Below, Dr. Shah dishes on everything you need to know:, from the tools you can use to possible routines for different skin types. Read on for all the details, and get ready to refine your regimen. (Just remember to check in with your derm if you’re planning on incorporating new products.)

What is exfoliation?

For the folks in the back: Exfoliation is a skin-care technique whereby you remove dead cells from the top layer of your skin. By removing this layer of clutter off of your skin, exfoliation helps brighten your complexion, and allows your skin-care products to penetrate deeper into your skin (making them work better), says Dr. Shah.

It might make your skin softer and reduce the risk of acne as well, she says, since those dead skin cells can accumulate and clog up your pores. Exfoliation is especially helpful as we age and cell turnover slows down, as it keeps the process moving along and prevents the skin from looking dull.

What are the are two types of exfoliation?

  • Mechanical: Mechanical exfoliation typically employs a tool (like an oscillating cleansing brush or even a washcloth) or face scrub to physically remove the dead skin cells. Dr. Shah says that if you go the scrub route, the finer the particle, the better off you’ll be because they’re less abrasive. (Think: sugar scrubs and rice enzyme powders like Tatcha's.)
  • Chemical: Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, use alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) - or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) (think: a face wash with salicylic acid or a facial peel pad or moisturizer with glycolic acid) to dissolve the sticky glue that holds these cells together, says Dr. Shah. According to Dr. Shah, retinoids can also be considered exfoliants, since they also work to increase cell turnover. “I find that if people are using retinoids, they don’t really need to exfoliate on top of that,” she says.

    The best exfoliating method for you really depends on your preferences, as well as what kind of skin you have (more on that in a sec). But TBH, Dr. Shah says that dermatologists are recommending chemical exfoliation more than mechanical methods these days, especially since scrubs have the potential to create small tears in the skin.

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    How often should you exfoliate your face?

    As a general rule, less is more. The goal is NOT to turn beet-red or to feel a sting—it’s to gently help along your body’s natural exfoliation process so that your face glows. As for specifics on how often you should exfoliate, it depends on your skin type.

    • For sensitive skin: According to Dr. Shah, people with sensitive skin usually have trouble finding facial skin-care products that aren’t irritating. Their skin tends to turn red and often gets itchy, she explains. If that sounds like you, she advises skipping exfoliation altogether. But if you feel like you have to exfoliate, just use a creamy cleanser with a low percentage of glycolic acid once a week, she says.
    • For oily skin: People with oily skin might see a fine sheen on their face pretty early into the day, according to Dr. Shah. “And if you’re prone to acne, or you feel like your pores get clogged often, that’s usually an indication of excess sebum production, which is associated with oily skin,” she says. If you do have oily skin, you have a lot more freedom with your regimen—Dr. Shah says you can exfoliate up to four times per week (just make sure you work up to it over time), and your skin can probably tolerate both chemical and mechanical exfoliation. One option for your regimen, according to Dr. Shah, is to use an AHA-based cleanser two to three times per week and a facial peel pad once per week. Alternatively, you might work up to using a retinoid every day.
    • For normal to combination skin: Dr. Shah advises exfoliating twice per week by using a retinoid or an AHA or BHA cleanser.

      When should you skip exfoliation?

      If you're mid-breakout, you might be tempted to go to town with exfoliants—but you should actually avoid abrasive mechanical methods. “I see exfoliation in a lot of my acne patients doing more harm than good,” Dr. Shah says.

      Why? If you have cystic or chronic acne, your skin is already inflamed. So irritating it further with harsher exfoliants can leave behind dark marks known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. The marks can last even longer (and happen more often) in people who have tan to deeper skin tones, Dr. Shah adds. As for chemical exfoliants, they can help in some cases, she explains, but it’s best to get advice from your dermatologist before going for it, because you’ll want to take a more nuanced approach to your exfoliation regimen.

      Other times you should hold off on exfoliation: when you have any kind of cut or open wound on your face, if you have an infection on your face like a cold sore (it'll spread!), or if you're sunburned. Moisturizer and TLC is more of what your skin needs during those times.

      How to exfoliate your face

      Mechanical Exfoliation

      1. Using a clean brush or your favorite scrub, move in small, gentle, circular strokes around your face, says Dr. Shah.
      2. Keep your movements light. Shah says think of it more like caressing flower petals rather than rubbing a stain out of your favorite shirt.
      3. Rinse with lukewarm water so your freshly exfoliated face isn’t irritated by hot water.
      4. Pat face dry and apply moisturizer. Don't skip this—Dr. Shah says exfoliation is always a bit drying.

        Chemical Exfoliation

        1. Take your favorite chemical exfoliant and apply gently in small, circular motions after cleansing.
        2. If it's a product that sits on your face (like a peel), follow the package directions for how long you should wait before rinsing off your face. If it's a face wash, lightly rinse your face with lukewarm water.
        3. Pat face dry and apply moisturizer. Again, don't skip this step!

          If you still manage to overdo it, remember that no one gets a trophy in the exfoliation Olympics. Take a few days off, and come back when the seas (and your complexion) are calm again.

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