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7 Things To Know Before You Even Think About Exfoliating

Why you should, when to do it, and what to look for in an exfoliator.

Regular facial exfoliation is key to encouraging cell turnover (meaning smooth, soft skin) AND reducing clogged pores—which often lead to breakouts. However, it's a skincare topic that can cause confusion. How much exfoliation is too much? Is it good or bad for blemishes? And why do some contain acid? We asked Dr. Howard Murad, a board certified dermatologist and founder of Murad skincare, to explain the whys and hows, dos and don'ts. Scrub up on your knowledge here:

1. Why do I actually need to exfoliate?

Dead skin cells piling up can be problematic for two reasons, they "can leave skin looking dull, rough, and dry" Dr. Murad says, which can appear to age the skin, and also it "can result in excess oil and clogged pores, leading to blemishes and acne."

"Proper exfoliation removes the barrier of dead skin cells clogging the skin and uncovers fresh new cells below." He says you want to polish away dullness, "while preparing the skin for optimal treatment results" from your skincare products.

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2. Where does it fit into my cleansing routine then?

Dr. Murad recommends cleansing and then exfoliating prior to using a treatment (such as your serum) and moisturizer. Morning or evening—your choice.

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Exfoliators are a whole skincare category and you can find ones that do multiple jobs. "Look for exfoliating cleansers or at-home exfoliating masks that contain plenty of antioxidants to combat free radicals" he suggests. "This is a great way to maintain the skin's health in between facial treatments and boost your weekly skincare routine." 

3. How often should I exfoliate?

You should aim to exfoliate at least once a week. This removes old skin cells while increasing cell renewal, "leaving your complexion looking radiant and smooth" Dr. Murad explains. Consider your skin type, though. "If you don't have sensitive skin, you can exfoliate 2-3 times per week," he advises.

4. What is 'chemical' exfoliation?

Exfoliation can be done in two ways: chemically and physically. Dr. Murad explains, "Physical exfoliators buff away dead skin through a mechanical abrasion, often with a fine grit or special exfoliating beads"—this is your traditional 'scrub' method. "Chemical exfoliators, like Alpha Hydroxy Acids, Beta Hydroxy Acids, and enzymes break the bonds that hold dead cells and debris to the skin's surface so that they can be rinsed away." Don't let the acid labels scare you.

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5. What ingredients should I look for?

For chemical exfoliation, "ingredients such as Salicylic, Lactic, and Glycolic Acids will dissolve dull, dry surface cells." For manual exfoliation, look for "ingredients like Jojoba Beads or Bamboo Beads that will give that extra gentle slough of skin cells as you are putting on and taking off your exfoliating product." Natural beads like this are considered biodegradable and therefore eco-friendly; a win for your skin and the environment.

6. So how do I choose between 'chemical' and 'physical?'

Choosing between a chemical and physical exfoliator depends on how aggressively you want the job done and how sensitive your skin is to it. "For optimal results look for formulas that contain both types" the expert says, but if it's your first time using a chemical exfoliant do a patch test on the inside of the arm first and build up your frequency of use. If you notice sensitivity stick to gentle manual exfoliation.

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7. Which exfoliator is best for MY skin type?

Consider your skin concerns and take Dr. Murad's tips for the right formula for you:

Normal/combination skin: "Even if your skin concern isn't breakouts or aging, all skin types can benefit from a skincare regimen that regularly includes using Fruit Enzymes and other AHAs and BHAs to remove the dull surface skin for more radiance." Remember, if your skin is sensitive, do a patch test with a chemical exfoliant before use on the face.

Blemish-prone skin: "Exfoliation is particularly important for this skin type, because it generates more dead skin cells. Plus, it tends to be oily so cells easily get trapped on the skin's surface, further clogging pores. Fruit Enzymes will gently slough away dead skin cells without aggravating the skin. Blemish-prone skin will also benefit from Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs such as Salicylic Acid and Papaya Fruit Enzymes). These are oil soluble and can penetrate the skin, which means they're able to operate more effectively in clearing clogged pored and preventing blemishes."

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Dry/aging skin: "Using chemical exfoliators can increase cell turnover which will reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Chemical exfoliators work to accelerate the movement of fuller, hydrated skin cells to the surface, replacing the drier skin. The more hydrated your skin is, the less depth there will be to your lines and wrinkles. However, the outermost layer of your skin is always the driest."


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.