For your best skin ever, don't skip this important step.
woman receiving exfoliation facial
Credit: Blue Cinema/Getty Images

Exfoliation is an important part of any skincare regimen. It's the step where you can often see immediate results since it removes the superficial dead skin cells to reveal a fresh, radiant complexion underneath. Not to mention the fact that it unclogs pores and helps serums penetrate deeper for increased effectiveness. For many of us, our intro to exfoliation was that St. Ives Apricot Scrub from the late '90s (you know the one). But exfoliation has gotten much more sophisticated since then-and much gentler. Back then, more was more, in that we tended to strip our skin with rough exfoliators and alcohol toners in an effort to make our complexions "cleaner."

We now know, though, that less is sometimes more for healthy, glowing skin. Overdoing it can lead to redness, irritation, and peeling. Here, dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum, MD, and celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas, founder of Joanna Vargas Salons and Skincare, share everything you need to know for proper and effective exfoliation.

There are two types of exfoliators, mechanical (or physical) and chemical.

"A mechanical exfoliant would be something that physically scrubs the dead cells and surface dirt from the skin's surface," Vargas says. "Ingredients of a mechanical scrub could be anything granular we find in skincare products like sugar, salt, or volcanic ash." Physical exfoliation, Nussbaum adds, can also include in-office microdermabrasion machines and at-home scrub brushes, like the Clarisonic. Chemical exfoliants, by contrast, are made of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, like lactic, glycolic, mandelic, and salicylic acids, along with fruit enzymes. "They're chemicals meant to remove dead skin cells and resurface the skin, leaving it brighter," Vargas says. They basically dissolve the cement between the dead skin cells that are holding them together, so they more easily wash off, and you'll have faster skin cell turnover, Nussbaum says.

Physical and chemical exfoliation have lots of benefits.

Physical exfoliators keep pores cleaner and allow for products to penetrate better into the skin, while chemical exfoliation does that and more. Because it penetrates more deeply into the skin than physical, it also helps to even the skin tone and decrease sebum production, the appearance of pores, and fine lines, Nussbaum says. (And it helps prevent acne!)

But they also come with precautions.

With physical exfoliation, the softer and smaller the texture of the scrub the better, because scrubs that are too coarse can cause inflammation and microtears in the skin. If you have extremely sensitive skin, even gentle scrubs may be too harsh for you. "People with eczema tend to do better with chemical exfoliation," Vargas says, "and if you have acne it's better to use a chemical exfoliant so you don't spread bacteria. If you're using retinol, be careful with a mechanical exfoliator-it might be too harsh to use at the same time." In general, Vargas recommends using a physical exfoliator once a week in the winter and twice a week in the summer.

Vargas recommends using chemical exfoliators once or twice a week; Nussbaum says depending upon skin type, you can start with two to three times a week and go up as your skin can handle it. Moral of the story? It's all about what your skin can handle. But chemical exfoliators can be customized, as they come in different strengths. Glytone, for example, has a range of glycolic acid exfoliating serums.

Sometimes chemical and physical exfoliation can be combined into a single product.

Because why do one when you can do both? (Ever so gently, of course.) Nussbaum is a fan of Amorepacific Treatment Enzyme Peel Exfoliator, which is a powder that's activated by water. We also love Tatcha The Rice Polish, another powder, made of rice bran and papaya enzymes. And we're new fans of Joanna Vargas' Exfoliating Mask, which can be used as a scrub, a mask, or both!


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