How to Choose the Right Exfoliation Method for Your Skin

In the world of ever-evolving beauty products, it can be overwhelming to decide what products and techniques are right for you. After all, your skin is fiercely unique, and it requires an equally ferocious skincare routine.

You probably already drink a gallon of water a day to chase your whiskey, watch Dr. Pimple Popper daily have your esthetician pop your blackheads and wash your face every morning or at least lie about it. However, you might not have adopted exfoliation into your beauty regime.

While you might think exfoliation is as simple as perusing Sephora for anything that has “exfoliant” or “exfoliator” on the label, there are several different types of exfoliators—just like there are various ways you can exfoliate your skin.

Seeing as everyone has a different skin type and texture, you need to determine what type of exfoliant is right for you.

That’s right! There are different types of exfoliants beyond haphazard DIYs and store-bought (for when you give up on your dream career of becoming a DIY beauty guru). Luckily, there are only two types of skin exfoliants, so you don’t have to struggle too much to pick one.

Chemical Exfoliants

John Sullivan, CEO and Co-Founder of Quench Beauty, explains to Her Campus that there are varying types of exfoliants—mainly acids and enzymes. Ultimately, your skin type can help you determine which chemical exfoliant can best suit your flesh. Sullivan reveals, “(Alpha hydroxy acids or beta hydroxy acids) and enzymes which include fruit acids, salicylic acid and lactic acids dissolve the glue and dead tissue that hold old skin cells in place. These products work by themselves (without scrubbing) to help the skin speed up its cell turnover to reveal a fresh layer of tissue.” Chemical exfoliants are a lazy gal’s fantasy because they require no extra work (i.e. scrubbing).

For oily and acne-prone skin, Sullivan suggests BHAs (beta hydroxyl acids). Sullivan explains, “Specifically, salicylic acid derived from the willow bark tree are typically great for oily, acne-prone skin. Good BHA products penetrate slightly deeper and break through oils going into the pores, helping treat blackheads and whiteheads. They also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that help prevent newer breakouts from forming.” Because of the willow bark tree’s multifaceted functionality, you can use this chemical exfoliant as a way to rejuvenate your skin cells and treat your breakouts. (If only it could study for us, too.)

Whereas, enzymes might work better for you if you have combination skin (which is most of us). Sullivan expands, “Products like overnight masks that use fruit enzymes as the exfoliate are perfect for most combination skin types since they are gentle enough to not damage drier skin while still providing a fresh glow. Also, aging skin does not turn over as quickly as younger skin so it’s important to use the correct product as you get older and increase how often you exfoliate."

"Products containing glycolic acid will gently but effectively remove those dull skin cells and can be used two or more times per week,” Sullivan continues. Though most of us might not have the intention of committing to a specific type of skincare product when we scroll through Hush, being mindful of your skincare products will help prevent skin damage as you get older.

In addition to targeting oily, acne-prone skin and combo skin types, chemical exfoliants can also help treat other skin ailments. “Over time they can aid with hyperpigmentation, helping repair sun damage, fading fine lines and wrinkles and acne more than physical exfoliants,” Sullivan adds.

If you aren’t concerned with hyperpigmentation or the like, or you have dry skin, chemical exfoliants might not be your preferred option.

Mechanical or physical exfoliants

The term “mechanical exfoliant” might lead you to think you need a sand grinder to obtain Cardi B’s blemish-free complexion; however, heavy machinery is optional for this exfoliant group.  

Sullivan discloses, “Physical exfoliates consist of products like brushes, sponges and scrubs derived from a number of different ingredients such as stones, nuts, sugar or pumice. The functions of these products are to physically scrub old, dry and dead skin cells from the stratum corneum, which is the top or outermost layer of the epidermis.”

In conjunction with its other physical exfoliant siblings, dermaplaning is also a viable mechanical exfoliation option. Although difficult to master in a safe way, dermaplaning is an exfoliation method that combines a thorough arm workout in your beauty plan. (And it’s similar to microdermabrasion.)

Still, Sullivan advises that skincare lovers should be gentle when using their favorite physical exfoliant. “Scrubs or brushes may have large particles or bristles that can cause micro-tears in the skin and lead to inflammation, dryness or a rough texture. Problem skins that are prone to redness or acne may also react to the harsh friction of a physical exfoliant and can lead to additional irritation. Oily skin doesn’t always mean scrub harder; a gentle scrub containing activated charcoal would be a better choice to help absorb more of the oils while cleaning the pores,” Sullivan continues. After all, charcoal is essentially the superhero of the beauty world.

While most abrasive ~physical~ scrubs can be considered a viable option for mechanical exfoliants, that doesn’t mean using natural ingredients as a material component for an exfoliant is automatically a grand idea for a best-selling exfoliant product. Allure explains that the improper exfoliants are the heart of the ongoing St. Ives Apricot Scrub Lawsuit. (Because, allegedly, remnants of walnut husks in the product can clog consumers’ pores, leaving them inflamed and even covered in micro-tears.)

Regardless of what product YouTube beauty gurus swear by or what your roommate suggests you try, you need to scope out what exfoliant type will work best for you. Even if your exfoliant promises to swipe left on every f*ckboy on your Tinder account automatically, you still need to research what exfoliant is right for your skin.

But how should you apply your exfoliant?

You might be content with just slathering an exfoliant all over your face. Like the type of exfoliant you choose, your application process depends on your skin type.

Dr. Whitney Bowe, NYC celebrity dermatologist and author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, informs Her Campus, “When using a dry brush method, make sure to buy brushes with natural bristles instead of synthetic ones.” While natural bristle might not be vegan-friendly, you could always make your brush from your split-end trimmings use another type of applicator.

Dr. Jacqueline Schaffer, exfoliant-extraordinaire, bestselling author, medical doctor and founder of Schique Skincare, advises Her Campus, “Either [hands or a brush/applicator are] fine as long as the exfoliation process with your hands is always moving upward and gentle. For an applicator, the brush should always be on a lower setting before increasing to a more intense option—it's important to get a feel for what your skin responds to before cranking up the intensity.” Gradually increasing the settings on your mechanical brush or scrubber makes sense—because you wouldn’t automatically turn up the volume on your TV to the highest setting.

Dr. Schaffer adds that the amount of exfoliant you use matters as well.  You should use “about the size of a quarter, I always recommend to include your neck as well, not just the face. Most women forget about this area which tends to hold one of the first signs of aging if not taken care of properly,” Dr. Schaffer concludes.

After you decide which type of exfoliant is right for your skin type, you need to prep your skin beforehand, regardless of your skin type or your exfoliation method. (Don’t worry, this is a lazy girl approved prep process.)

Seriously, this part is simple. Dr. Schaffer says, “Cleansing your face prior to exfoliation is key to making your exfoliant most effective. To avoid damage, be sure to use a gentle exfoliant.”

After all, cleaning your face before exfoliating or moisturizing transforms it into a clean slate, which makes it more likely to respond to your skincare routine.

Regardless of which type of exfoliant you pick, you need to fight to urge to exfoliate every day.

We know, you spent a whole 15 minutes making a sugar scrub from your expiring groceries, but exfoliating too much can damage your skin.

Dr. Mirela Mitan, PhD, who is the Founder and CEO of MMXV Infinitude and has dedicated her career to curating over 30 formulas for various beauty companies, advises Her Campus readers against over-exfoliating. Dr. Mitan explains that when you exfoliate more than once a week, “The outer layers of the skin, stratum corneum, are removed before being ready to desquamate (or shed) on their own; as a result, the skin cells are prematurely exposed to environmental stresses.”

Basically, if you over-exfoliate, you could turn the outermost part of your skin into an open wound, which makes it susceptible to infections and even chemical burns (or rug burn if you opt for a physical exfoliant). Burns are never pleasant, unless you and your besties are roasting the latest beta f*ckboy who DMed you, so avoid over-exfoliating any part of your skin.

Conversely, other skincare experts recommend exfoliating no more than twice a week. Dr. Bowe suggests, “While using peels or glycolic acid serums may seem like a quick fix to revive dull skin, there is such a thing as too much exfoliation. Overdoing it actually can strip away the skin’s natural oils, disrupt the skin barrier and lead to red, blotchy, stinging skin. Instead, aim to gently exfoliate no more than twice a week to avoid unnecessary inflammation and any disturbance in the surface microbiome.”

You might neglect the skin on your body during your 18-step skincare procedure, but we definitely don’t blame you for wanting to over-pamper your beautiful face. Instead of giving into exfoliating your face thrice daily, curve your urge to over-exfoliate by applying a sparing amount of your legs, arms or stomach (or just all over).

While your bestie might be able to get away with exfoliating five times a day, that doesn’t mean you can. Everyone’s skin is different, and finding the ideal balance for your skincare routine, especially regarding exfoliation, can be difficult. “The bacteria on our skin exist in a very delicate equilibrium—a delicate balance or harmony even—that keeps our skin functioning at its optimal level," says Dr. Bowe. "When the bacterial balance is maintained, our skin is pumping out collagen, sealing in moisture with ceramides, and telling our immune systems to calm down. But when we upset that delicate balance by rubbing and scrubbing with loofahs, buff puffs, washcloths, harsh soaps with a high pH or antibacterial soaps with biome-sabotaging ingredients like triclosan, our skin begins to suffer.”

Timing makes a difference when you exfoliate, so pick the perfect time of day.

While you might think when you exfoliate doesn’t drastically impact your skin’s health and well-being, the time of day you choose to exfoliate does affect your epidermis.

Tiffany Lewis, owner of Tiffany Lewis Skincare and Esthetician for the last 19 years, tells Her Campus, “Exfoliating in the morning can make the skin more susceptible to damage from UV rays, pollution and free radicals, so it's wise to save exfoliating for the evening hours.”

Even if you’re a devoted introvert who only leaves the house for work and when you’re forced convinced to socialize, braving the outside world, even for a brief period of time, can expose you to UV rays.

Though you might seem safe exfoliating in the morning before work, Reuters explains that your car windows don’t protect you from UV exposure. Therefore, it’s better to exfoliate at night, so you can keep the chance of skin cancer at a minimum. Plus, organizing a habitual nighttime skincare routine can help you prepare you for some restful sleep.

And don’t skimp on your post-exfoliation plan either.

Although you like to tell the Twitterverse that you have a devout multi-step skincare regime like Kim Kardashian, you and your cat both know that you rush through your beauty routine five minutes before class. Even if you claim you’re the queen of multitasking and moisturizing, it’s virtually impossible to wash, serum-ize, moisturize and pack sunscreen on your face when you’re in a time deficit.

Granted, exfoliation is a process in itself and should only take place once a week. Nevertheless, you should allow additional time to your post-exfoliation steps—you know, to protect your skin, encourage new cell growth and enhance your self-care routine.

Dr. Schaffer suggests that you hydrate your skin after you exfoliate. “Moisturize! I cannot stress this enough. Your skin is so fresh after exfoliation and needs that extra moisture to prevent it from over-drying, becoming irritated or looking dull.”

Most importantly, if you’re a fresh face to the exfoliation realm, consult a dermatologist or esthetician.

Dr. Schaffer explains that the safest way to find the right exfoliant and exfoliation method for you is to contact your skincare expert. “When looking to tailor your exfoliant to your specific skin type and texture, I highly recommend seeing your dermatologist. Dermatologists are able to use a face scanner of sorts to measure skin hydration, texture and other variants that will pinpoint what exfoliant is best for you,” Dr. Schaffer reiterates.

After, you could think that you have oily skin because your t-zone is perpetually saturated in sweat and grease, but a dermatologist could help you discover that you actually have combination skin.

Embarking on anything new, whether it’s taking a new class or trying a new beauty gadget, can be a tumultuous journey. Instead of trying to aimlessly navigate the world of exfoliation (or beauty products in general), find a dermatologist you can trust—so your skin can avoid any potential heartbreak or burns.