Exfoliating has always been my favorite skincare step. Whether I'm using a physical exfoliator that I massage into my skin to manually remove surface debris or a chemical exfoliator to chemically dissolve debris, I always bask in the moment. There's just something about it that feels refreshing and freeing—almost like I'm setting my complexion back to its natural, fresh state. But, while I know the process makes my skin look and feel better almost instantly, I can’t seem to pinpoint why and how it actually works on my particular skin type.
Herein lies my confusion: Everyone says exfoliation is a key step in a well-rounded skincare routine since it sloughs off dead and dry skin. But what if you don't have dry skin? Dry skin isn't something I struggle with. In fact, my complexion is perpetually oily. So what else is my exfoliating habit doing that makes me love it so much? Skincare experts reveal that aside from clearing away dry and dead skin, a regular exfoliation habit increases your skin's radiance, clarity, and youthfulness, and that's just the start.
Keep scrolling to read some of the benefits of exfoliating that go far beyond removing dead skin cells.
1. It Unclogs Pores
When you exfoliate your skin, you're effectively unclogging your pores, according to Lily Talakoub, MD, of McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center. Sweeping away dry skin and other debris that might remain on your skin after cleansing stops it from clogging your pores which effectively prevents the formation of whiteheads and blackheads.
These are two skin issues that are insanely difficult to get rid of which is why exfoliating is so important. It stops them before they even have a chance to appear. "Dead skin seals the pores, so when sebaceous glands produce oil, it's 'stuck' under the dry skin. This causes breakouts because there is nowhere for the oil to go," explains celebrity esthetician and skin expert, Sonya Dakar.
2. It Prevents Acne
Unclogging your pores not only prevents whiteheads and blackheads, it also puts a halt to other blemishes—namely acne. "Exfoliating helps to unclog pores, therefore reducing acne," says Michelle Henry. MD, dermatologist and clinical instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
She recommends using it to prevent breakouts, but only in a safe and non-irritating way. In other words, don't scrub your skin raw in the name of acne reduction, which will only harm your skin and lead to a whole host of other problems. "A physical exfoliant (something that contains beads or small grains) can be used once or twice a week," she says. "A gentle chemical exfoliant may be used daily depending on its strength. Listen to your skin. If it is ever sensitive or red after exfoliating, reduce your frequency."
Dakar recommends using her eponymous two-step exfoliating product. "I use a combination of lactic acid, finely milled flax seeds, and hyaluronic acid to give skin both a physical and chemical exfoliation while hyaluronic acid plumps skin," she said. "It can be used as a quick polish, left on longer for a peel, and even an exfoliating mask." Use the active version three to five times a week. The regular formula can be used daily.
3. It Helps Other Skincare Products Penetrate Deeper
Having your pores unclogged and free of dead or dry skin allows your skincare products to penetrate more deeply and effectively. "Exfoliation helps serums, moisturizers, and growth factors penetrate deeper into the skin," Talakoub says. When something that's rich in nourishing ingredients penetrates deeper, it's able to work more effectively which is why exfoliation should always be included in your skincare routine. Take it from Dakar: "Dead skin basically becomes a barrier between your skin and serums. By removing it, you allow everything to work much better."
4. It Evens Skin Tone
People with dark spots, rough texture, hyperpigmentation, and acne scars know how frustrating these issues can be to treat. I'm right there with you. I have a cluster of old acne scars lining my chin that took months of exfoliation and patience to remove. But they're gone, which is the only thing that matters, right? Exfoliants help to break down dead skin while at the same time smoothing its overall texture, making the skin appear more uniform over time.
5. It Boosts Circulation and Lymphatic Drainage
As skincare expert Jocelyn Petroni told our colleague, "Exfoliation has many benefits, including stimulation of lymphatic drainage for internal cleansing and stimulation of oxygen-rich blood to feed and nourish the skin's surface." The former is a form of skin detoxification, working to remove toxins and other unhealthy debris. The latter boosts cellular health to reveal glowy, radiant skin (that's why oxygen facials are so pervasive in spas and esthetician and dermatology offices around the globe).
6. It Increases Cell Turnover
In addition to increasing circulation, exfoliation can also help to boost your skin's overall radiance. It helps cell turnover "so the skin looks more glowing," says Talakoub. This means that the skin keeps fresh, healthy cells at the surface, removing dead, dry, or dying ones. In terms of appearance, this turnover results in that ultra-dewy and baby-faced complexion we all strive for.
"For a daily routine, I recommend using something mild like the iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+ ($148) in the morning and evening. It contains retinol, which increases cell turnover and helps the outer layers of the skin exfoliate," Talakoub explains. For stronger exfoliation, she turns to a scrub or a deeply exfoliating glycolic acid product. "Once a week, I recommend using something with a scrub texture or glycolic acid like the Cane + Austin 10% Glycolic Pad ($60) for the face and 20% for the body. Once a month, I like getting the Fire and Ice facial by iS Clinical that helps exfoliate the skin leaving you with a glow."
7. It Stimulates Collagen Synthesis
Regular exfoliation also "helps to stimulate collagen synthesis to improve the skin's texture, integrity, and keep the skin looking plump, tight, and young," according to Henry. This means that exfoliating can actually offer a ton of anti-aging benefits, effectively helping to lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Henry recommends using SkinMedica's AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser for optimal results. "It's an effective exfoliant but contains jojoba oil to minimize irritation," she says.
As for how often you should be exfoliating, take Henry's advice and listen to your skin. Some people prefer chemical exfoliants over physical ones and vice versa, but it's up to your specific needs.
Luckily, Dakar has some general guidelines. She recommends that people with rosacea exfoliate once a week. Normal skin can handle three to seven times a week with a gentle exfoliant, but cut that number back if you're using something more intense. For example, if you use a chemical exfoliant, aim for one to three times per week. If you use a physical exfoliant like a scrub, aim for three to four times per week. "Look for tiny finely milled grains such as flax seeds and rice," Dakar said. "They should not scratch and damage skin."