Exfoliating your face is a crucial step for healthy, glowing skin—but how often you do it and what ingredients you use is just as—if not more—important. We spoke to a top dermatologist and esthetician to get a final answer on how frequently you can (and should!) exfoliate your skin.
Below, read all about the benefits of exfoliating your face, the different types of exfoliants, and the important ingredients you should be looking for when trying a new product.
What Are the Main Benefits of Exfoliating Your Face?
Let's start from the top: Why exfoliate your skin in the first place? According to celebrity esthetician (and Byrdie's favorite skincare guru) Renée Rouleau, there are a plethora of benefits to regular exfoliation for all skin types. For those prone to blemishes and clogged pores, exfoliation should be the main focus of your routine. There are a few different types of exfoliants (which we'll get to in a second), but for these acne-prone skin types, Rouleau recommends using a chemical exfoliant formulated with beta hydroxy acid, which will work "to reduce bacteria on the skin while exfoliating and cleaning clogged pores."
Meet the Expert
- Daniel Behroozan, MD, FAAD is the director of the Dermatology Institute of Southern California and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine.
- Renée Rouleau is a celebrity skincare expert and esthetician with more than 30 years of industry experience. She has an eponymous skin care line that caters to nine different skin types.
Exfoliation is important for anti-aging as well. For those concerned about wrinkles, Rouleau says, "As you increase your exfoliation, you are tricking the skin into acting young again." Retinoic acid and retinol are special types of exfoliants that work particularly well within deeper layers of the skin. "With continued use, skin will look younger and smoother each day," she says.
Plus, for all skin types, exfoliation simply gives the face an instant glow, both by clearing away the dead skin cells that cause dullness and by allowing your other anti-aging products to penetrate the skin more effectively.
Which Type of Exfoliator Is Best to Use?
There are two main types of exfoliants: Physical exfoliants (like face scrubs and clay masks) and chemical exfoliants (like acid serums and peels). There are also products that incorporate both.
As for the best kind? There's no 100% objective answer (though most experts do caution you away from over-exfoliating with physical scrubs). Rouleau's favorite type of exfoliator is a leave-on acid serum (formulated with BHAs and AHAs), which is super effective at brightening skin and clearing pores without irritation. "When applied to the skin, [the serum] lowers the pH of the skin… and starts to dissolve and digest the cells both on the surface and deeper within the skin—without having to scrub and tug at the skin the way you have to with physical exfoliators."
If you're more of a mask fan, PCA Skin makes some amazing ones for exfoliation. "Their Purifying Mask uses pumice, red clay, and algae to pull out any debris stuck in the pores," says Daniel Behroozan, MD, FAAD, director of the Dermatology Institute of Southern California and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine. "The pumice adds a nice grit to the mask that leaves the skin really soft." The brand's Revitalizing Mask offers natural chemical exfoliation, using papaya enzymes meant to eat away any dead skin cells on the surface of the skin.
How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face?
The answer to our million-dollar question is pretty universal across the board: You should exfoliate your face about two to three times a week. (An acid serum two to three nights a week, plus a weekly mask or peel is a great routine to shoot for.) You may have heard only once a week, but dermatologists say that for most skin types, that's not enough. Encouraging that extra, dull layer of skin cells to go on their merry way two to three times a week may be the secret to smooth, glowing skin.
For those with skin types prone to redness and irritation, you should only exfoliate once or twice a week.
What Are the Exfoliating Ingredients to Look For?
When you go to pick out an exfoliator, it's important to look for expert-approved ingredients. For chemical exfoliators, keep an eye out for glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, as well as lesser-known acids like malic, lactobionic, and mandelic, which increase cell turnover. Plant enzymes like papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate are also potential natural exfoliators for sensitive skin types.
If it's physical exfoliation you're looking for, try natural ingredients like pumice, poppy seeds, and jojoba beads.
Jojoba oil is a natural oil produced from the seed of the chinensis plant, a drought-resistant shrub native to southern Arizona, California, and Mexico. It mimics natural sebum and conditions and seals moisture in the skin without clogging pores or exacerbating acne.
Maia Campos PM, Gaspar LR, Gonçalves GM, Pereira LH, Semprini M, Lopes RA. Comparative effects of retinoic acid or glycolic acid vehiculated in different topical formulations. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:650316. doi:10.1155/2015/650316
Cleveland Clinic. 5 ways to exfoliate your skin without irritation. Updated February 12, 2020.
Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare bootcamp: the evolving role of skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152
Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-inflammatory and skin barrier repair effects of topical application of some plant oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;19(1):70. doi:10.3390/ijms19010070