How to Properly Exfoliate for Radiant, Healthy Skin

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We all want radiant, glowing skin. But this can feel like an elusive skincare goal, especially as we age because cell turnover slows down and dead skin cells can give us a dull complexion. The good news is that with a proper exfoliating routine for your face and body, you can safely and effectively remove the layer of dead skin and restore your healthy, vibrant glow. Exfoliating may help allow moisturizers and serums to better penetrate the skin and help your foundation glide on smoothly instead of sitting atop flaky skin.

But, with so many skincare products on the market claiming to be the best exfoliators for your face, feet, elbows, or body, and lots of conflicting how-to advice, it’s hard to know where to begin, what
products to use, and how to best exfoliate your face and body. So, we turned to three skincare experts for all the best tips and guidance for properly exfoliating your skin.

Ready to restore your skin’s healthy glow? Read on for everything you need to know about how to exfoliate your face and body, which products to use, and expert tips for the best results.

Meet the Expert

  • Christine McMackin is a certified advanced aesthetic specialist, certified family nurse practitioner, and the co-founder of New England Skin Center.
  • Rachael Burns is a consultant dermatologist for Sönd.
  • Michele Farber, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology.
  • Michelle Henry, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Why Is It Important to Exfoliate?

While you might already know that exfoliating your skin gives it that fresh glow, helping it look better, you might not know that it also improves the health of your skin. “On a daily basis, our skin cells renew, and the cells that form the outer layers of our skin die as the new cells replace them. Exfoliating ensures that the dead cells are completely removed,” explains Burns. “If we don’t remove the dead cells, our skin can appear dull and, in time, our pores can become blocked, which often leads to a breakout of acne or oily skin."

What Are the Benefits of Exfoliating?

"Exfoliating helps to brighten your complexion, improve the appearance of your skin, and crucially, it helps prevent pore clogging, acne spots, blackheads, and whiteheads," notes Burns.

Exfoliating also "helps stimulate collagen synthesis to improve the skin's texture, integrity, and keep the skin looking plump, tight, and young," says board-certified dermatologist Michelle Henry, MD. When it comes to how often you should be exfoliating, Henry says to listen to your skin. Some people prefer chemical exfoliants over physical ones and vice versa, but it's up to your specific needs.

McMackin adds that essentially, the younger, healthier skin we want is under the skin we have. “With chemical or physical exfoliation, we can remove the dead, dull skin that houses most of our skin damage [to] reveal our brighter, healthier, undamaged skin and expose a smoother, brighter complexion.”

What Precautions Should Be Followed When Exfoliating?

With those benefits in mind, you might feel enticed to start exfoliating right away with any old tools and products you have on hand. But, McMackin shares a word of caution before doing so: “If a product that is incorrect for your skin type is used, it may cause micro-tears on the surface of your skin. These tears allow for bacteria to enter the skin, potentially causing inflammation, clogged pores, broken capillaries, and scarring," she says. "However, there is no risk of exfoliating if it is done correctly with the correct product for your skin type," McMackin continues.

As for how often you should exfoliate, and how many exfoliating products you can use at once, it depends on your skin type and the other ingredients in your routine says Farber. "For people starting off with exfoliants, it’s best to use a gentler product once or twice a week. It’s possible to work up to daily exfoliation. I’d recommend one exfoliation product per day, but once your skin is tolerating products, it can be useful to alternate between different exfoliants." When in doubt, consult a dermatologist to learn about your skin type and the products best suited for your skincare needs and goals.

Another reason not to overdo it: it's counterproductive, says Burns. "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 lead to adverse reactions such as redness, peeling, and flaking." She also says to be careful when leaving your exfoliant on, because the time will vary between products. "Chemical exfoliants should only be left on for as long as the packaging recommends. Physical exfoliants should be used for no longer than a couple of minutes."

The Best Tools for Exfoliation

"If you’re looking for something natural to exfoliate with, you don’t have to look any further than your own kitchen. You can make up a natural exfoliant by using coconut oil mixed with used coffee grounds or granulated sugar," explains Burns. "Mix to the consistency that you like, and apply to the skin using small circular movements. Then rinse and moisturize as normal."

Other natural ingredients, like oatmeal and baking powder, may also work well for face and body scrubs, but you can't go wrong with a few exfoliating tools—as long as you have the right ones. 

Burns says you should consider the basic washcloth your best friend when it comes to exfoliating both your face and your body. “People often choose to exfoliate with a sponge, but it’s rougher on the skin and can, at times, be uncomfortable,” notes Burns. “A rough washcloth provides a more gentle experience and is a suitable alternative.”

There are other great tools for exfoliation, though. A dry brush like the Swissco Deluxe Bath Brush ($13) gets excellent ratings online, and exfoliating gloves are fantastic for scrubbing your skin in a circular motion.

Bath brushes are great and are designed to give your skin a good scrubbing before a bath or shower. However, if you buy one with a wood handle, be sure to keep it outside of the bath or shower when not in use. These can easily accumulate mildew, which you want to avoid at all costs.

Tips for Exfoliating the Face

Without proper exfoliation, your skin can be covered in dead skin cells, causing your face to look older and duller. Plus, foundation won't smooth over your skin cleanly, and moisturizer won't properly soak in. So, with that in mind, here are some tips our experts shared for exfoliating your face.

Get the Right Products

McMackin says it’s critical to get exfoliating skincare products designed for your skin type. “If you’re unsure of your skin type, be sure to consult with a skincare professional to help you understand your skin and which products are best suited for you,” she advises.

"Anyone with sensitive skin should choose gentler options for exfoliation, like a wash with a low percentage of an AHA or BHA, or a chemical exfoliant pad," says Farber. "I typically recommend chemical over physical exfoliation, particularly in those with dry skin."

And remember, not all skin on your own body is even the same. “It’s important to keep in mind that our face and neck skin is much more fragile than the skin on the rest of our bodies, [so] most people need two different exfoliants,” says McMackin. For the face and neck, her favorite product is the ZO Skin Health Exfoliating Polish. "It is an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) topical light serum that is perfect for achieving soft, glowing skin." She also likes the brand's Exfoliation Accelerator, which should be applied under moisturizer and can be used daily. "It will increase your photosensitivity, though, so SPF is a must."

And if you choose to exfoliate under the eyes, make sure to choose an acid serum "made specifically for the under-eye area, and slowly introduce it into your skin routine," says Farber.

Use the Products the Right Way

Burns says that even the right products can deliver poor results if you apply them incorrectly. “If you’re using a chemical exfoliant, always follow the instructions. As a general rule, use a small amount of product and apply it to cleansed skin with clean fingers, using small, gentle circular movements,” she explains. “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.”

Physically Exfoliate in the Shower

Our experts say that their top tip for successfully exfoliating your face (or any body part) is to do so in a warm, steamy shower or bath. “The warmth of a shower softens the skin and releases the body’s natural oils, all while opening your pores,” says McMackin. “This aids in the exfoliation process and the removal of dead skin cells.”

Burns agrees that immersing your face (and body, if you’re going to exfoliate other areas) in hot water before you begin exfoliating is key to opening up your pores and preparing the skin for cleaning. “You’ll also want to ensure that you have a running supply of hot water to wash away dead skin cells once you’ve scrubbed them off,” she advises. “If you’re exfoliating in the bath, opt for a fragrance-free gel and soak for 10 minutes before you begin exfoliating to allow the skin to soften. If you’re in the shower, run the water over your skin for five minutes before exfoliating.”

Exfoliate in the Morning

Though any time of day will work, exfoliating in the morning is ideal because the skin repairs itself at night, potentially leaving a layer of dead skin cells just begging to be sloughed off.

Apply a Moisturizer

After exfoliating, make sure you thoroughly rinse away the product and any dead skin cells and then pat your skin dry with a clean towel. ”Apply a moisturizer or shea butter following your [exfoliating] and shower/soak to help your skin retain moisture and look radiant,” advises Burns.

Use Some Pressure

While you certainly don’t want to hurt yourself, you also don’t want to be too dainty when exfoliating, or you won’t actually remove the dead skin. “Ensure that you apply pressure when exfoliating, and can feel the rough texture on your skin, to remove the surface layer of dead skin,” advises Burns.

Don't Skip Your Lips

Scaly lips are simply not appealing, but there are times in our lives when we all experience it. Luckily, getting rid of it is a relatively easy fix. All you need to exfoliate your lips is a little Vaseline and a toothbrush.

Your Step-By-Step Guide to Physically Exfoliating the Face

McMackin walked us through the best way to use physical exfoliant on your face:

  • Wash your face with a gentle cleanser and warm water.
  • After gently washing off your cleanser and while your skin is still damp, take a pea-sized amount of exfoliant, placing a small dot on your forehead, both cheeks, and chin.
  • In gentle, circular motions spread the exfoliant across your face. Some incredibly soft exfoliators, such as ZO Exfoliating Polish, can be used on the eyelids and over the eyebrows. “The mica in the Exfoliating Polish gives your skin a beautiful glow for a gorgeous cheek and eye pop,” says McMackin.
  • Once you have softly rubbed the exfoliant around your face for about 30 seconds, use warm water to rinse it off.
  • Then apply your skin type-specific creams and serums.

Body Exfoliation Tips

Exfoliating the Elbows

“Once your face has been exfoliated, move down your body accordingly, applying the same technique,” shares Burns. “Note that your heels, elbows, and knees are generally considered to be the dirtiest parts of your skin, so pay extra attention to these areas.”

McMackin says our elbows, knees, and feet have thicker skin, so they can withstand more aggressive exfoliation. “The ZO Dual Action Scrub would be perfect for those areas. It sloughs away skin-clogging cells, dissolves and removes excess oils, and replenishes hydration. It is also the perfect exfoliant for thicker, acne-prone skin as it destroys acne-causing bacteria, reduces inflammation (redness), and neutralizes free radicals,” she says. “A loofah scrub or even your everyday washcloth can be used to further the exfoliating effects on your thicker skin, such as your knees and elbows.”

Exfoliating the Feet

“Similar to when exfoliating your facial skin, using warm water is the best way to begin the exfoliation process,” notes McMackin. “This allows the dead skin to be removed with ease, leaving no room for potential skin damage or micro-tears.”

It only takes two minutes during every shower to keep feet in great shape for summer. Daily care will keep feet soft and supple, and you won't have to go all out when you get a professional pedicure (scraping off dead skin with a razor can be dangerous). This is also a great way to prevent dry, cracked heels, which many people forget to take care of until it's too late.

At the end of every shower, exfoliate the bottoms of your feet with a pumice stone for about a minute on each foot. Make sure to scrub around the toes and the entire heel.

Article Sources
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  2. Lyons AB, Moy L, Moy R, Tung R. Circadian rhythm and the skin: a review of the literatureJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2019;12(9):42-45.

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