If you have sensitive skin, you probably stay away from scrubs because you don't want to exacerbate or trigger redness. And if you're acne-prone, forget it, a peel definitely seems insane because breakouts, right? Wrong. Turns out exfoliation can benefit every skin type. Here's why:
"In addition to revealing fresh skin cells, exfoliating removes dead cells from pores, making them appear smaller," says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a Manhattan derm. Makeup also looks better, says Stalina Glot, an aesthetician at Haven Spa in New York City. "It's like sanding a wall before you paint." The other major perk: "Removing the buildup enhances your skin's ability to absorb everything else, from acne medicine to anti-aging serum," says Dr. Nazarian.
Here, we answer a bunch of burning exfoliating questions so all you need to do is find the routine that's right for your skin type and get glowing:
1. My skin's dry. Will exfoliating strip it?
Not necessarily. In fact, flakes can inhibit the full penetration of moisturizer. In addition, "oil can get trapped and cause tiny, pimple-like bumps," says Glot. Your best bet: gentle chemical exfoliators (an AHA-rich serum dissolves bonds between dead cells) or a light facial scrub. Try one, immediately followed by a gentle hydrating lotion, every two or three days.
Weekly Treatment: Transform skin from dull to dewy with an exfoliating mask.
2. But I'm oily and acne-prone! Will I break out?
Stay away from rough physical scrubs, which can contribute to breakouts. Chemical versions—such as a face wash made with hydroxy acids like glycolic or salicylic—remove grime and penetrate oil to break down pore-clogging dead skin cells. "However, if you have oily skin and a darker complexion, err on the side of less is more," adds dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D. "Start with a lower percentage when it comes to chemical exfoliants, which contain two to five percent of salicylic and glycolic acid, once or twice a week for a month. As soon as you know your skin can tolerate it (you'll know if your skin doesn't look red or feel raw), work your way up in strength. If you are someone who is also prone to hyperpigmentation, make sure you incorporate a niacin-based cream in your routine to brighten your complexion..
3. I'm way too sensitive… right?
Gritty scrubs are definitely off-limits, but most people can benefit from a mild, short-contact exfoliating product. Consider a cleanser or toner rich in fruit or plant enzymes, twice a week, to deep clean gently. "Just be sure you're not over-exfoliating, since you can make your skin barrier [your outermost layer of skin] super vulnerable, destroying the physiology of it," Dr. Barbara Sturm adds. "This can also dehydrate the skin, creating tiny cracks in it when it dries it out, inviting in more bacteria, which can then cause breakouts all over again."
Weekly Treatment: Use a cool, wet washcloth in circular motions to loosen and sweep away dead skin cells.
4. What should I do for my combination skin?
An oily T-zone and dry cheeks can benefit from the Goldilocks of exfoliators: baking soda. Add less water for a stronger scrub (perfect for the T-zone) and more for a gentler one (ideal for the cheeks). Do this two or three times a week.
Weekly Treatment: Home peels are an option for your problem-free skin. Dr. Nazarian recommends starting with a glycolic-acid concentration below 10 percent and slowly working your way up to stronger products, which help diminish fine lines and fade spots. Or, use an exfoliating gel that contains fruit enzymes that slough away dead skin as you massage it around on your face.
5. Should I exfoliate in the morning or night?
Either is fine; however, if you use treatments at night like retinol, you may want to exfoliate before bed, since your skin will be more receptive once dead surface cells have been removed, says Dr. Engelman. Just remember to protect your skin barrier and restore any lost moisture with a hydrating face cream or gel.
6. What if I have a bad reaction?
Use a one percent hydrocortisone cream on the area to reduce inflammation, says Heidi Waldorf, MD, a Manhattan derm. And switch to a gentle cleanser and moisturizer until skin calms down.