Have you ever tried to get your glow on with a cool new scrub or exfoliating tool, only to end up with a raw face just in time for date night?
Yeah, it's not a fun place to be. And New Jersey dermatologist Avnee Shah, M.D., 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,” says Shah. Which is ironic—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 for all of us who have ever Googled "how to exfoliate face," this one's for you. Shah dishes on everything you need to know:
What exactly is exfoliation?
For the folks in the back: Exfoliation a skin-care technique where 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 lets your skin-care products penetrate deeper into your skin (making them work better), says Shah.
It’s especially helpful as we age and cell turnover slows down to prevent skin from looking dull, by keeping the process moving along at a good speed.
There are two types of exfoliation: mechanical and chemical
In mechanical exfoliation, a tool (like a Clarisonic brush or even a washcloth) or face scrub physically removes the dead skin cells.
Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, use ingredients like alpha- or beta hydroxy acids (think a face wash with salicylic acid, or a facial peel pad with glycolic acid) to dissolve cells, says Shah.
The best method for you depends on your preferences, as well as what kind of skin you have (more on that in a sec).
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: You should be extra gentle and exfoliate with a warm, wet washcloth or a mild chemical exfoliant with lower active ingredient percentages once or twice a week, max. Scrubs with beady parts usually just irritate this skin type and should be skipped.
- For oily skin: Your skin has a higher tolerance for the heavy-duty stuff, says Shah, and you can exfoliate up to five times a week. Try a cleansing tool like Clarisonic by morning, and an exfoliating peel or serum by night.
- For normal to combination skin: You can use either of these methods with optimal results up to three times a week.
When should you skip exfoliation?
Not everyone is meant to go to town with a coffee scrub or intense facial peel, says Shah. “I see exfoliation in a lot of my acne patients doing more harm than good,” she 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, says Shah.
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 what your skin needs during those times.
Now, for the (literal) nitty-gritty: How to exfoliate your face!
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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