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Here's How to Properly Exfoliate Your Face


Want to achieve glowing skin and keep acne at bay? It’s time to re-examine the way you exfoliate. You probably already know that exfoliation is a crucial step in your skincare routine, but the scary truth is that exfoliating can also do more harm than good if not done properly. “Americans are notorious for over-exfoliation, which can actually cause skin issues such as dehydration and sensitivity,” says Josie Holmes, esthetician at Skinney MedSpa in New York City. 

Want to make sure you’re doing it right? We turned to the pros to teach us how to exfoliate your face to get radiant, smooth skin without redness and irritation. 



What is Exfoliating?

Before we get into the right way to exfoliate, let’s start with a refresher on why the skincare technique is so important. "Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the top layer of skin by using a chemical exfoliant, mechanical exfoliant, or both,” says Holmes.

Not sure which type of exfoliant is right for you? That’s where we come in. “Both types of exfoliation are a controlled trauma to the skin to encourage cell turnover and reveal fresh skin, and both types can cause irritation if performed too often or too intensely,” says Dr. Jessie Cheung, a board-certified dermatologist. “Many people think that scrubbing harder with a physical exfoliant will give better results, but the opposite may occur–the microtrauma can cause more redness and breakouts.”

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The Two Types of Exfoliation: Chemical and Manual

Chemical Exfoliation: You may see the word “chemical” and automatically assume that the process is going to be way too strong for your skin. However, using a chemical exfoliator is a safer, more gentle, and  foolproof option when it comes to sloughing off dead skin cells. “Chemical exfoliation relies on acid to dissolve the attachments between skin cells,” says Dr. Cheung. This gentle approach typically incorporates alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). AHAs are known to be more gentle and skin-soothing, while BHAs have anti-inflammatory properties, making them a beneficial choice for oily, acne-prone skin.

Manual Exfoliation: When you think of exfoliating, the first thing that often comes to mind is physically scrubbing away at the surface of your skin–AKA physical or manual exfoliation. “Mechanical, or manual, exfoliation is the process of exfoliating the skin through motion. Most mechanical exfoliants will contain an ingredient that helps assist you in removing those dead skin cells,” says Holmes. “Mechanical exfoliants range from using a handheld device or utilizing a product that includes granules, such as jojoba seeds.”

So, What are the Benefits of Exfoliating?

When you properly exfoliate your face and clear away dead skin cells and pore-clogging debris, you can achieve a brighter-looking complexion all while reducing the appearance of dark spots and fine lines and keeping pore-clogging, acne-causing bacteria at bay. “Exfoliation is very beneficial for the skin as it sloughs off excess skin cells, removes oils and impurities from the skin, assists in product penetration, increases cellular turnover and circulation,” says Holmes. 

Exfoliating also ensures that the products you apply during your daily skincare routine will be more effective as they penetrate the barrier of your skin. The technique also allows you to achieve a more airbrushed look when you apply makeup, because when your skin feels smoother your foundation can glide on more evenly. 

While there are a bevvy of benefits to exfoliating, it’s also important that you’re aware of what happens to your skin if you aren’t exfoliating properly, so that you can adjust your routine accordingly. If your complexion is red, your skin is flaking, or it actually hurts when you scrub, it’s time to change up your routine.

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How Often Should You Exfoliate?

How often you exfoliate really depends on your complexion and the products in your skincare routine. “Your frequency of exfoliation will depend on multiple factors,” Dr. Cheung says. “Are you using any other topicals that speed up cell turnover, such as retinoids, or contain irritants, such as benzoyl peroxide? Is your skin oily and resistant, or dry and sensitive?” We break down the answer to these questions below:

  • For sensitive skin: If you have sensitive skin you should only exfoliate once or twice a week. “Using a moist, soft washcloth might be enough mechanical exfoliation for sensitive skin” says Dr. Caren Campbell, San Francisco-based dermatologist. Start with a warm washcloth and graduate to a gentle chemical exfoliator that employs gentle AHAs. We recommend reaching for an option with lactic acid as it will also soothe your complexion while sloughing off dead skin. It’s best to avoid scrubs as they typically irritate sensitive skin.

  • For normal skin: Those with normal skin can rely on either type of exfoliation (manual or chemical) to yield positive results and can exfoliate up to three times a week. It really all comes down to preference.

  • For dry skin: If you have dry skin opt for a chemical exfoliator, as scrubbing away at the surface of your skin will contribute to flaking and irritation. An exfoliating cream or serum that employs AHAs might be a better option for your complexion. Start on a weekly basis before incorporating exfoliation into your routine twice a week.

  • For oily skin: If you suffer from oily, acne-prone skin you should exfoliate up to five times a week. A chemical exfoliator with BHAs (like salicylic acid) is your best bet as scrubbing manually over acne can just exacerbate a bad breakout. Chemical exfoliators will also help clear your skin, according to Dr. Cheung. ”Oily and acne-prone skin types should reach for chemical exfoliants to dry out the skin and unclog pores,” says Dr. Cheung. BHAs are also anti-inflammatory, which means they’ll bring down any swelling and help reduce the size of pesky pimples.

  • For combination skin: Manual exfoliation is a great choice for combination skin since it gives you the control to hone in on the areas that need it the most. If you have combination skin you should exfoliate no more than 2-3 times a week.


How to Exfoliate Your Face, Step-by-Step

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If You’re Using a Physical Exfoliator:

Step 1. Begin with a clean face 

Before you start to exfoliate, it’s crucial that you first wash your face–exfoliating should not replace cleansing in your skincare routine. “It is so important to prep the skin before exfoliation,” says Holmes. “If you live in a big city with pollution or you wear a lot of makeup, a double cleanse may be best.”

Step 2. Massage, Don’t Scrub

“Apply a small amount of your manual exfoliant onto your fingertips and apply to the face,” says Holmes. “You will want to massage the product into your skin with circular motions, avoiding the eye area.”

Step 3: Rinse Away

Holmes says it’s best to rinse your face with lukewarm water as you wash away both the exfoliant and the dead skin cells from the surface of your complexion.

Step 4: The Drying Technique

Even if you aren’t an over-scrubber you could be messing with your complexion if you rub a towel over your face in a hurry. Resist the urge to quickly dry off and pat dry instead, advises Holmes. 

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If You’re Using a Chemical Exfoliator:

Step 1. Begin with a clean face. 

Washing your face is the crucial first step in the exfoliation process regardless of which type of exfoliant you think is right for you. 

Step 2. Massage & Wait

While you can wash off a manual exfoliator rather quickly, if you’re using a chemical exfoliator it’s important that you give the product time to break down the dead cells on your skin’s surface, as acids are only effective when they’re on your skin for an extended period of time. “With a chemical exfoliant, you will apply a small amount to your fingertips and massage into the face. Always follow your product instructions; most chemical exfoliants need to be left on the skin for 15-30 minutes,” says Holmes. Peels, pads, toners, and serums that employ chemical exfoliants are also a great choice if you don’t have time to wait it out in front of the sink.

Step 3: Rinse & Dry

 “After the product has been massaged into the skin and left on for the appropriate amount of time, you may wash your face with lukewarm water and pat dry,” says Holmes. “Following your exfoliation, you may use a toner or essence and finish with moisturizer.”


The Best Face Exfoliators for Every Skin Type

MURAD AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

1. The Best for Sensitive Skin: MURAD AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

This chemical exfoliator is gentle enough for even the most sensitive complexions and employs lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acid to slough off dead skin cells, leaving you with a glowing complexion. “Exfoliating, but not too harsh. Leaves skin feeling great,” said one Ipster.

DR. BRANDT SKINCARE Microdermabrasion Age Defying Exfoliator

2. The Best for Normal Skin: DR. BRANDT SKINCARE Microdermabrasion Age Defying Exfoliator

This Ipster favorite employs both manual and chemical exfoliation, combining lactic acid and micro crystals to exfoliate the surface of your skin, making it a winning choice for normal complexions. It also contains a soothing blend of jojoba, chamomile, and aloe vera. “Whenever I use this product my skin feels amazing! Very refreshing and I am noticing a change in my hyperpigmentation,” raved one Ipster.

SKIN&CO ROMA Truffle Therapy Face Gommage

3. The Best for Dry Skin: SKIN&CO ROMA Truffle Therapy Face Gommage

Truffle extract helps maintain moisture levels, leaving you with a smooth complexion without over-drying the surface of your skin. “I normally have oily or acne-prone skin, but occasionally I will get a bout of dry skin (mostly on the cheeks and chin). This product really helps to smooth everything out and get rid of the flakiness, but it doesn't cause me to break out at all,” said one Ipster.

SAND & SKY Australian Pink Clay Flash Perfection Exfoliating Treatment

4. The Best for Oily Skin: SAND & SKY Australian Pink Clay Flash Perfection Exfoliating Treatment

Soak up oil and say goodbye to shine once and for all with this detoxifying treatment that contains powerful fruit acids. Australian pink clay tightens up pores and refines the surface of your skin while macadamia and bamboo gently rinse away dead cells. One Ipster shared: “I really enjoy using this exfoliant. Helps get that dead skin off easily especially around the nose area! Love this!”

GLAMGLOW TROPICALCLEANSE™ Daily Exfoliating Cleanser

5. The Best for Combination Skin: GLAMGLOW TROPICALCLEANSE™ Daily Exfoliating Cleanser

This refreshing manual exfoliator allows you to target the areas where you need it the most and employs pomegranate seeds and tropical fruit enzymes to reveal a smoother, brighter complexion. “Wow. I mean, WOW. This stuff is very gentle, yet effective. The exfoliating beads are very small, making it pleasant to use. My skin look[ed] and felt SO soft, cleansed and smooth,” said one Ipster. Bonus: it smells AH-MAZING.


When it comes to exfoliating, it might be time to take a less-is-more approach to ensure you aren’t doing any damage to the surface of your skin. Want in on all the Glam Bag fun? Take the beauty quiz now to get started. And don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

About the author
Katrina Mitzeliotis Lanza
Katrina is a freelance writer and on-air correspondent with over a decade of experience covering beauty, fashion, and entertainment. When she isn't freelancing, you can catch her on QVC or chasing after her two-year-old son.
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Article Last Updated February 26, 2020 12:00 AM