Ask a Dermatologist: The Exfoliation Basics

  • Written By:Alexandra Perron, Managing Editor
  • Photography:Ben Ritter & Jon Paterson
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I will never forget my first introduction to exfoliation. In middle school, I invited a friend to spend the week with me at my aunt’s cabin and she packed St. Ives Apricot Scrub. We scrubbed our faces like maniacs every single night, convinced all those scratchy bits of apricot shells were helping to turn us into clear-skinned goddesses. (Spoiler: They didn’t.)

I like to think I’ve come a long way since that first peach-toned tube of scrub, but I still find myself experimenting with my own exfoliation routine. Needing advice, I called up my long-time dermatologist (and friend of the blog!) Dr. Sejal Shah of SmarterSkin Dermatology in New York City. Below, she gets into everything you need to know about exfoliation and getting your best skin ever.

Let's start with the basics: why should we exfoliate our skin? What are the benefits?

The skin does have a natural ability to self renew and remove dead skin cells, but as we age this process slows down which allows dead skin cells to build up on the skin’s surface. When this happens the skin can appear dry, dull, and rough. In some people, it can lead to clogged pores and excess oil production. This buildup can also prevent the penetration and therefore effectiveness of your skin care products.

Regular exfoliation removes this barrier of dead skin cells revealing smoother, brighter, softer skin and enables your skin care products to work more effectively.

What do people get wrong about exfoliation?

The most common mistake I see is over-exfoliating, whether it’s too often or with products that are too harsh.

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What's the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation manually removes the dead skin cells, for example scrubs or dry brushes. Chemical exfoliation utilizes agents that dissolve the dead skin cells, such as AHAs, BHAs, or enzymes.

Do you recommend one versus the other based on skin type or skin conditions?

Generally, I recommend physical exfoliation is for combination or oily skin and dry skin types. Chemical exfoliation can be used by all skin types and generally the type of exfoliation I recommend for sensitive skin, and individuals with certain skin conditions such as acne, rosacea and psoriasis.

Now let's talk about ingredients — what works?

For physical exfoliants, look for gentle natural ingredients and smooth uniform granules.

Common chemical exfoliants are glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids. Some other acids are malic, mandelic,and lactobionic. Plant enzymes like papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate are also great for sensitive skin types.

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Where does exfoliation go in a daily/weekly routine?

Generally, I recommend exfoliating 1-3x per week. There really isn’t a hard and fast rule about what time of day to exfoliate and there are different benefits to each time. I do feel that exfoliating in the evening can help prepare the skin for its natural turnover cycle which happens overnight, so it’s what I tend to recommend but there are reasons why you may choose morning instead. If, for example, you have sensitive skin and are already using strong or potentially drying products in the evening-retinoids, acne medications-then morning may be better. If you have oily skin or need an AM glow then you may benefit more from morning exfoliation.

(Editor's Note: Don't forget the SPF when you're exfoliating! A good moisturizer helps too.)

Are there professional treatments that address exfoliation?

Chemical peels, microdermabrasion, dermaplaning. Even laser resurfacing treatments will provide exfoliation. They are all good treatments and the choice of treatment really depends on the individual’s skin type and skin concerns.

Any favorite products when it comes to exfoliation?

Omorovicza Acid Fix, Fresh Sugar Polish, Tatcha Rice Enzyme Powder, Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Pads.

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