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How to Exfoliate Your Face

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How complex is your skin care 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!) Perhaps you’re the type who cleanses but is perhaps 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 every new skin care product 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 (mostly) beneficial.

But what does exfoliating do? How do we do it? What should we be using to exfoliate with? And importantly, how often should we exfoliate?

Here’s our ultimate guide to exfoliating.

What is exfoliating?

Exfoliating means to use a device or a product designed to remove dead skin cells from the upper layers of skin. We can (and should) exfoliate our faces as well as the skin on our bodies, but for the purpose of this article. We’re going to talk about exfoliating the face.

During our normal daily lives, our skin cells are busy renewing themselves - the skin cells that make up our outer layers of skin are dying off and new skin cells are being pushed up from the deeper layers of skin to replace them.

Cleansing does help to remove some of these dead skin cells, but we need to exfoliate in order to thoroughly remove them.

If we don’t remove them, at best, our skin will look dull and sullen, and perhaps even dry. At worst, these dead skin cells can build up, and along with all the dirt, grime, pollution, excess sebum (the waxy like oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin to keep the skin hydrated and supple) and makeup can clog the pores.

As anyone who’s suffered acne spots and breakouts will know (hello, we’re amongst acne suffering friends here!) clogged pores means bad business for clear skin.

Clogged pores can lead to acne spots, oily skin and a worsening of other skin conditions such as eczemaand psoriasis.

Exfoliating effectively removes dead skin cells and helps to clear the pores. In doing so, it helps to brighten the complexion, improve the appearance of the skin, and crucially, help to prevent pore clogging, acne spots, blackheads and whiteheads.

How often to exfoliate the 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 it all depends on your 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.

For skin that gets stressed out, is prone to acne spots or is very oily or very dry, aim to exfoliate once or twice a week. You’ll know if you’re exfoliating too often as your skin will feel even more non conformist and may feel angry or red and may start to sting.

If you have rosacea, ultra sensitive skin or cystic acne (where the skin forms angry acne spots that are filled with pus and look yellow), then you really ought to be exfoliating less than this, perhaps once every two weeks. Anything more could be too harsh for your skin.

What different exfoliating products are there?

There are two types of exfoliant - a chemical exfoliant and a mechanical one. Neither of which are as frightening as they sound!

A chemical exfoliant is one that is applied to the skin, and contains ingredients such as salicylic acid, and type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from fruits.

Salicylic acid is a gentle exfoliant that works by removing the upper layers of skin. The skin that’s then revealed is brighter and fresher, and the pores are clearer and unblocked. 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.

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.

Products containing coffee grounds, crushed apricot kernels or anything else that will physically exfoliate the skin are also types of mechanical exfoliants.

They all work in the same way, by mechanically removing dead skin cells and unblocking the pores by physically rubbing at the skin.

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.

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.

How to exfoliate without damaging your skin?

As much as exfoliating is good for our skin, over exfoliating, either by doing it too often or by using an exfoliant that’s too harsh or doesn’t agree with our 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, always follow the instructions. But as a general rule, use a small amount of product and apply it to cleansed skin with clean fingers, using small, gentle circular movements.

If you’re using 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. 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 to 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.

How to exfoliate sensitive skin?

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 leave an exfoliator on 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 to exfoliate men’s face

We’re most definitely inclusive here and many of our customers are male. So we mustn’t leave you guys out!

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 nasty, 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 products to exfoliate with

If you’re looking for something natural to exfoliate with, you may not have to look much further than your own kitchen!

You can make up a natural exfoliant by using coconut oil mixed 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 use to exfoliate, enjoy your clearer, brighter skin!


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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