You've probably heard that your body is covered in dead skin cells, and that "exfoliating" is the best way to get rid of them, leaving a fresh, smooth surface behind! But do you have to exfoliate every day no matter what your skin type? Should your skin always be tingling and burning after exfoliating so you know it worked? To tell you what you need to know about exfoliating the skin on your face, we talked to dermatology experts for their practiced advice.
"I think the important question to ask is, is it dead skin?" says Dr. Joshua Fox, Medical Director of Advanced Dermatology PC. "In general, I think exfoliation is not required and its importance is overstated. People believe exfoliation keeps the pores clean, cleans the skin, and reduces outbreaks, but I don't know that a lot of data supports that." He says exfoliation does give the skin a sheen, helps improve the texture of the skin, brightens your complexion, and makes skin look less sallow. Though it may be unnecessary, it can still be helpful.
And there are plenty of people on the exfoliation bandwagon. However, what makes finding the right exfoliation routine tricky is that it varies from person to person, depending on skin type. Someone with oily skin may exfoliate two or three times a week, while someone with dry skin may want to try it once a week.
There are also different ways to exfoliate your face: You can do it chemically or physically, says Dr. Fox. Some of the chemical ways include using glycolic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, salicylic acids, enzymes, citric acid, malic acid, or chemical peels, which erases some of the elements that bind the dead skin cells to other cells. Many over-the-counter skin-care products contain these acid ingredients. Physical ways to exfoliate include microdermabrasion, facial scrubs, masks and lotions, or at-home exfoliating skin-care brushes, which remove the dead skin through friction.
Stronger exfoliation techniques are often done in spas or dermatologists' offices and may cause skin redness or irritation anywhere from an hour or two afterwards (usually laser spa treatments) to up to day (dermatology treatments like Fraxel, or light pixel treatments). Professional exfoliation, like chemical peels and laser treatments, are supposed to help minimize fine lines and signs of aging, even out skin color, brighten and smooth the skin or treat skin conditions. [source: American Academy of Dermatology]
Dr. Jeffrey Dover, a Boston dermatologist and co-director of SkinCare Physicians, says that benzoyl peroxide helps with exfoliation, as does salicylic acid, glycosidic washes, and home peels. "Lots of gently abrasive cleansers and scrubs are available over the counter."
A face scrub is an essential exfoliating tool for several reasons, according to Ole Henriksen, founder of the eponymous skin care brand. She tells the Huffington Post: "Firstly, it deeply cleanses the skin, dislodging build-up in the pores and helping to break up white heads. It also smoothes and refines the skin's texture, giving it a soft, supple look. And lastly, it enhances blood flow to the face, giving the appearance of a fresh glow." [source: HuffingtonPost.com]
Dr. Fox says face scrubs help the penetration of the chemicals into the skin but may irritate sensitive skin. He suggests you start with milder face scrubs or lotions and reminds us not to "scrub" it into our skin. Apply gently!
And be careful with the products you buy as you could wind up scarred from the creams or lotions, says Dr. Fox. "I had a patient who scarred her skin with a product she bought online to help her get rid of dark spots." Use a reputable manufacturer, and if you don't know about the product, ask your dermatologist about it. "They'll tell you if it's a reasonable product and whether the chemical percentages are right for you. It depends on what vehicles the products are using, some vehicles are more penetrating than others, or there could be a second ingredient in the product that makes it much more potent on your skin."
Skin-care brushes are a popular new at-home product in the skin-care world and are battery-powered devices that exfoliate skin using either a brush or pad. They range from high-end (Clarisonic) to budget-conscious (Neutrogena Wave) and oscillate to gently remove dirt, oil and dead skin cells. [source: SELF.com]
But most dermatologists aren't necessarily converts of these (sometimes expensive) at-home cleansing brushes. In a New York Times article, dermatologist Dr. Erin Gilbert tried the Clarisonic brush to find out what her patients were talking about and said, "The overall effects are modest. I don't think it's earth-shattering." [source: New York Times]
Just remember that overexfoliating can be dangerous, too. Using too many scrubs, peels and brushes may strip your skin of the natural oils it needs to get that healthy glow. For example, if you decide to use a brush, it may be smart to discontinue the use of any intense cleansers.
Bottom line: Each person's skin and exfoliation needs are different. Talk to your dermatologist about the exfoliation treatment and frequency they personally recommend for your skin.