How to Exfoliate Based on Your Skin Type
Plus, the difference between physical and chemical exfoliants and which to choose.
With time, dead skin cells build up on the surface of our faces and can cause breakouts, clogged pores, and dull skin. If you're anything like us, that doesn't really align with that whole 2021 glowy skin vision we have for ourselves—so exfoliation is key. Exfoliating helps slough off dead skin and allows our serums and moisturizers to sink into our skin better. At our best, we're exfoliating regularly (say, twice a week) and are using one of two types of exfoliants: chemical or physical.
But with so much information out there regarding chemical vs. physical exfoliants and best exfoliation practices, things can get overwhelming. No worries, though: We talked to several dermatologists and got the lowdown on the difference between the two exfoliants, when to use them, and how to exfoliate based on skin type. We even got a list of dermatologist- and skin expert-approved products to help you get that ever sought after glowy skin.
What is the difference between chemical and physical exfoliants?
The difference between chemical and physical exfoliants is all in the name. Physical exfoliants use something physical, like the bristles of a brush or particles in a sugar scrub, while chemical exfoliants use acids (such as lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, salicylic acid, etc.) to remove dead skin cells. Dendy Engleman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, says chemical exfoliants work to break down the cellular bonds of dead skin cells rather than physically buffering away the top layer of dead skin.
According to Tiffany Libby, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan, both chemical and physical exfoliants have their pros and cons. A pro for using a physical exfoliant—per Maya Crothers, founder of Circcell Skincare—is that you can control the amount of pressure used to better suit your skin's sensitivity level. However, it's worth mentioning that physical exfoliants require a certain level of caution. Dr. Libby warns that some physical scrubs contain larger, more abrasive particles that can cause micro tears to the skin, which could lead to irritation and inflammation.
For this reason, many experts prefer chemical exfoliants. According to Dr. Libby, chemical exfoliants are often overall safer, more controlled, and, in her experience, more effective with regular use. Plus, they can help minimize and treat acne as well as even out your skin tone for a glowing and bright complexion. When considering what method of exfoliation to use, it's most important to take into account your skin type.
Keep scrolling for a breakdown of how to exfoliate based on your skin type, whether you have combination, dry, sensitive, oily, or melanin-rich skin.
How to exfoliate normal or combination skin:
If you have normal or combination skin, you likely experience both oiliness and dryness in certain areas. Regular exfoliation can address both concerns by helping to reduce an excess of oil, unclog pores, and remove dry, dead skin. Board-certified dermatologist Alicia Zalka, M.D., recommends exfoliating once to three times a week with a glycolic acid-based cleanser or toner. When introducing an exfoliating product into your routine, start out using it just once a week and increase the frequency if your skin tolerates it. "Too often or too harsh exfoliation can leave the skin pink, inflamed, or irritated and itchy," Dr. Zalka explains.
She also says people with normal or combination skin may want to consider microdermabrasion, a minimally invasive physical exfoliation process that involves gently sanding the skin to remove its outermost layer. You can head to an aesthetician for these treatments every eight to ten weeks, or invest in an at-home microdermabrasion tool.
This cleanser uses both glycolic acid and phytic acid to dissolve away dead skin cells and brighten skin tone. The gentle foaming gel is also formulated with aloe leaf extract and glycerin to moisturize and soothe skin, keeping dry areas from becoming irritated.
How to exfoliate sensitive skin:
When exfoliating sensitive skin, it's important to proceed with caution. Rather than using exfoliants every week, Dr. Zalka instead recommends opting for once or twice a month to avoid irritation. For gentle physical exfoliation, she likes the Eve Lom Muslin Cleansing Cloths, which work to lightly scrub away dead skin cells and can be used with your regular facial cleanser.
To take the chemical route, Dr. Zalka suggests using an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)-based chemical exfoliant product before bed so that the skin has time to "relax" overnight. On the days when you exfoliate, she cautions to avoid mixing with other active ingredients, like retinol, since this can increase the risk for irritation.
When testing out a new exfoliant, be sure to test the product on a small area of the face or arm a couple times before applying to the entire face to ensure you don't have an adverse reaction.
These cleansing cloths are soft yet lightly textured to remove the skin cells from the skin surface and encourage healthy blood circulation. Use the cloths with makeup remover to ensure a deep yet gentle cleanse.
This product may be an exfoliant, but it'll feel like a soothing lotion. This 2021 Beauty Crush Award Winner melts makeup away and gently exfoliates with papaya enzymes while papaya seed oil and antioxidant-rich blueberry extract work together to hydrate and protect the skin from pollutants.
How to exfoliate oily skin:
Oily skin tends to have the highest tolerance for exfoliation since it's the least prone to dryness and irritation. So, Dr. Zalka recommends exfoliating three to five times a week with a glycolic or salicylic acid product in order to reduce excess oil production and keep pores from becoming clogged.
While Dr. Zalka says she would caution against products containing salicylic acid for other skin types, she recommends the powerhouse ingredient for oily and acne-prone skin, since it penetrates deep into the pores to dissolve debris. The ingredient is a heavy hitter for both treating and preventing acne, while also keeping oil at bay. However, if you already use products or medications that contain ingredients like retinol or benzoyl peroxide for acne treatment, be careful combining these as they can make the skin more sensitive to exfoliation.
This drugstore cleanser is a cult favorite product for daily use acne treatment. The formula uses salicylic acid to give pores a deep cleanse while grapefruit and vitamin C work to brighten and shield skin from UV rays.
How to exfoliate dry skin:
If you have dry skin, Dr. Zalka recommends following the same exfoliation practices shared above for sensitive skin. This is because dry skin, like sensitive skin, can easily become irritated when further dried out, so it's important to use gentle methods and products when exfoliating to support the skin barrier.
For dry skin on the body, however, Dr. Zalka says dry brushing, followed by a chemical exfoliant, like this AHA body scrub, can be a great way to remove dead skin buildup. Just be sure to followup up with ceramide-based moisturizing lotion, she says, for deep and restorative hydration.
This exfoliating brush is made with natural, biodegradable fibers from the agave plant to scrub off dead skin cells while also energizing the skin. The ergonomic handle makes it easier to target difficult to reach spots, so you can give your whole body an exfoliating treatment.
You can exfoliate your whole body in a simple swipe with these Dr. Dennis Gross body wipes. The 2021 Beauty Crush Award winner contains both salicylic and glycolic acid to reduce pore blockage and body blemishes while also improving overall skin tone.
How to exfoliate melanin-rich or dark skin:
Melanin-rich or dark skin can fit into any of the above categories of skin types, but there are some additional considerations to take into account when exfoliating skin of color. Over-exfoliation can activate melanocytes (melanin-producing cells that are more present in darker skin), leading to hyperpigmentation. Research also shows that more melanin-rich skin is lower in ceramides (naturally found lipids in the skin that lock in moisture), making it more prone to dryness. So, it's important to exercise caution when using exfoliants to avoid irritation.
However, when done carefully, chemical exfoliation can also be used to address and reduce hyperpigmentation. Research has shown that glycolic acid may lighten hyperpigmentation by dispersing melanin in the lowest layer of skin, in addition to removing discolored cells in the outer layers of skin.
With 5% glycolic acid, this solution works to remove dead skin cells, while licorice extract works to reduce dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone. Use after cleansing and before bed a couple times a week, or only as often as skin tolerates.
No matter your skin type, Dr. Zalka recommends following the forever applicable rule of moderation. "Too much of any form of exfoliation can leave the skin angry," she says. "If your skin remains irritated hours or days after exfoliating, it is a warning to take a break and revisit the task more gently."