How complex is your skincare routine? Are you the kind of person who splashes their face with cold water each morning and that’s it? (If you wear makeup, we sincerely hope not! Stale makeup clogs the pores, which will lead to blockages and potentially spots and breakouts.) Or perhaps you’re the type who cleanses but is maybe a bit slapdash with the moisturiser at night?
Maybe you religiously perform your full cleanse, tone and moisturise twice a day (well done you!) Or maybe you’re the type who buys all the skin care products under the sun (but never really gets to the end of a tube before buying the next new product).
Whatever your skin type, whatever your routine, one thing is for certain, gently exfoliating regularly will be beneficial. Oily skin, dry skin, acne-prone skin, 'normal' healthy skin, combination skin - we can all benefit from it.
But what does exfoliating do? How do we do it? How often should we exfoliate? What should we be using (is a washcloth enough or do we need a face scrub?) What's the best way to exfoliate?
Here’s our ultimate guide to glowing, smoother skin.
What is Exfoliation?
Exfoliating means to use a device or a skincare product to remove a layer of dead skin cells from the skin. There are two different types of exfoliant and we'll go into more detail below. How often you should exfoliate safely is down to your skin type.
We can (and should) exfoliate our faces as well as the skin on our bodies to remove the dead skin. But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk about exfoliating the face, rather than how to exfoliate your body.
What Are the Benefits of Exfoliating?
During our normal daily lives, our skin cells are busy renewing themselves. The skin cells that make up our outer skin layers are dying off and new skin cells are being pushed up from the deeper layers of skin to replace them.
This normal skin cell renewal process helps to make your skin healthy, protect the skin barrier and promote that glow we're all looking for. But sometimes, the outer layer of your skin needs a helping hand to shed itself.
What Does Exfoliating Do?
Cleansing alone does a good job of removing some of these dead skin cells, but we need to learn how to exfoliate properly in order to thoroughly remove them.
If we don’t remove the dead skin cells from the outer layers, at best our skin will look dull and sullen . We might develop dry or sensitive skin. Or our sensitive skin may become skin more sensitive - nightmare.
At worst, these dead skin cells can build up, and along with all the dirt, grime and pollution that builds up each day, in combination with stale makeup and excess sebum (the waxy like oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin to keep the skin hydrated and supple), they can clog the pores.
If you don't properly exfoliate your face, you may develop dullness on the surface of the skin, and deep seated problems that may lead to spots and breakouts.
What Are the Two Types of Exfoliation?
There are two types of exfoliant - a mechanical exfoliant and chemical one. Neither of which are as frightening as they sound they're both safe for your skin! They both do the same thing - taking away dead skin cells and unblocking the pores - but they work in different ways.
How Do I Exfoliate My Face with a Mechanical Exfoliant?
Mechanical exfoliants can be devices that you use to exfoliate the skin, or products that are applied to the face that contain exfoliating beads. For example, a good old fashioned flannel is an example of a mechanical exfoliant. So is a facial loofah or a facial brush.
A face cloth or brush can be used with our regular cleanser to remove dull skin and keep your skin bright and healthy looking.
Products containing coffee grounds, crushed apricot kernels or anything else that will remove skin cells from the surface are also types of mechanical exfoliants, that physically remove dead skin cells. These are usually used without the need for a brush, but need to be washed away from the skin.
What is Chemical Exfoliation?
A chemical exfoliant is one that is applied to the skin, and contains ingredients such as salicylic acid, a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from fruits.
Salicylic acid is a gentle product that works by removing the upper layers of skin. The skin that’s then revealed is brighter and fresher, and the pores are clearer. It’s available in shops and online in cleansers, serums and exfoliating products in a fairly low concentration.
You may have also heard of chemical face peels - these can be bought and used at home too and contain ingredients such as salicylic acid (or glycolic acid, another type of fruit acid). However, they’re also available from beauty therapists and skin specialists who are trained in applying stronger concentrations of chemical face peels, with more dramatic effects on skin cell turnover.
How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face?
If we had a pound for every time we’ve been asked how frequently we should exfoliate… Well, we’d be rich.
There simply isn’t a set answer to this question, because its all based on skin type. If you have ‘normal’ skin that doesn’t often suffer breakouts and isn’t overly dry or oily, then your skin can probably tolerate an exfoliating session two or three times a week using any type of product.
For skin that gets stressed out, is prone to spots or is very oily or very dry, use a mild chemical exfoliator once or twice a week. If you have sensitive skin, aim for once a week so that it doesn't irritate your skin.
You'll know if your skin doesn't like the level of buffing you're giving it as the health of your skin will change. You may develop skin irritation and it may cause your skin to feel even more non conformist, angry or red and may start to sting.
When Should You Skip Exfoliation?
If you have rosacea, ultra sensitive skin or cystic acne (where the skin forms angry spots that are filled with pus and look yellow), then you really ought to be exfoliating less often, perhaps once every two weeks. Anything more could damage the skin.
Always choose a product suited to your skin type to exfoliate the right way.
What Are the Best Exfoliants for Different Skin Types?
There is no ‘best exfoliant’ only the ‘best exfoliant for you’. It’s worth experimenting with different types of chemical and mechanical exfoliants to see which type or types suit your skin best. Your skin may require a gentle way to exfoliate and a different product to someone else, so avoid making comparisons - you do you!
Whichever one you choose, remember to only use it as often as your skin can tolerate and use it no more than two or three times a week.
Is Exfoliating Good for Acne?
As anyone who’s suffered spots and breakouts around your face will know (hello, we’re amongst acne suffering friends here!) clogged pores means bad business for clear skin.
It's good to know about exfoliating your skin effectively to remove dead skin cells and clear the pores. Products that physically remove the dead skin cells help to brighten the complexion, improve the appearance of the skin, and crucially, help to prevent pore clogging, acne spots, blackheads and whiteheads.
Exactly How to Exfoliate Your Face Without Damaging Your Skin
As much as exfoliating is good for the surface of your skin, over exfoliating, either by doing it too often or by using an exfoliant that’s too harsh or doesn’t agree with your skin, can be quite the opposite.
Redness, peeling and flaking can be a sign that you’re exfoliating too frequently or using the wrong exfoliating product.
If you’re using a chemical exfoliant, which is generally a gentler way to exfoliate, always follow the instructions. But as a general rule, apply exfoliant onto damp skin, use a small amount of product and apply it to cleansed skin with clean fingers, using small, gentle circular movements.
If you decide on an exfoliating wash, you can rinse it off the skin after a minute or two. For chemical peel products, follow the instructions and don’t be tempted to leave it on for longer than recommended time Rather than doing the skin some good, it may cause the skin to become red and sensitive possibly with some peeling or flaking.
Either way, once you’ve removed the product, rinse your face, pat dry with a clean towel and always apply moisturiser.
If you’re using a mechanical exfoliant, apply it onto the skin with clean fingers, or use a clean exfoliating brush with your favourite cleanser and again use small, gentle, circular motions. Never scrub aggressively and always keep the pressure light.
Do this for a minute or two (depending on what your skin can tolerate) and rinse your face with warm (not hot) water. Then pat your skin dry using a clean towel and apply moisturiser.
Do You Cleanse or Exfoliate First?
The removal of dead skin cells should always be performed on cleansed skin.
Is it Possible to Exfoliate Your Skin Too Much?
Yes. It depends on your skin type, but if your skin becomes irritated, you could be overdoing things. People with oily skin may notice this more apparently and may need to exfoliate less often.
How Do I Exfoliate Skin at Home if it's Sensitive?
If your skin is sensitive, follow our advice here and once you’ve found the right exfoliator for you, take extra care to go gently and not overdo things.
How Long Should You Exfoliate Your Skin For?
Chemical exfoliants should only be left on for as long as the packaging recommends. Mechanical exfoliants should be used for no longer than a couple of minutes.
How Can I Exfoliate My Face at Home: Male Skin
We’re most definitely inclusive here and many of our customers are male. So we mustn’t leave you guys out as you tend to have thicker skin that can become irritated.
If you’re male, exfoliating is just as important for a clear, bright complexion, especially so if you have particularly fast growing or curly facial hair. The hair on the face can grow back in on itself, creating ingrown hairs that can lead to angry, inflamed bumps that can also become pus filled.
As well as helping to make the skin appear bright and clear and help to prevent spots, exfoliating can help to prevent ingrown hairs. Use a gentle exfoliant such as a salicylic face wash before shaving to help look after your skin. (And always use a clean razor and moisturise afterwards!)
Using Natural Skin Exfoliation Products
If you’re looking for something natural to exfoliate your face and body skin safely, you may not have to look much further than your own kitchen!
You can make up a natural exfoliant that won't irritate skin. Mix coconut oil with used coffee grounds or granulated sugar. Mix to the consistency that you like, and apply to the skin using small circular movements. Then rinse and moisturise as normal.
Whatever you choose to exfoliate with, enjoy your clearer, brighter skin!
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.