Do You Really Need to Exfoliate Your Face? The Experts Weigh in
Main image – Angelarober/stocksy
So, you’ve washed your face and applied your moisturiser.
But hang on a minute. Your skin isn’t feeling as soft or looking as even or glowy as it once did. And who is this unwelcome new arrival on your face?
If you experience things like breakouts, flat, dull skin, pigmentation or fine lines, it may mean that your complexion needs a regular dead skin overhaul. In short: exfoliation.
But how do you know if it’s right for you? How often is too often? What are the options when it comes to exfoliation methods? And how do you pick yours?
Here, board certified dermatologist Madeleine Gantz, skincare expert Merry Thornton and expert in anti-aging medicine Dr Saulis Banionis give their advice on all things facial exfoliation so that you’re fully in the loop. Prepare for prettier, polished skin.
What does exfoliating actually do?
Well, a surprising amount of good actually. As you can see from Dr Banionis’ list of 7 (yes 7!) facial skin benefits.
- It gets rid of dead skin cells:
“Exfoliating helps to slough off dead skin cells from the surface of your skin,” he explains. “These dead cells can make your skin look dull, rough and can even clog pores, leading to acne breakouts.”
- It improves skin texture:
“Regular exfoliation can leave your skin feeling smoother and softer,” says Dr Banionis. “By removing the top layer of dead skin cells, you reveal the healthier more youthful skin beneath.”
- It gives skin a glow:
“Exfoliation can help to improve the overall radiance and brightness of your skin. When you remove dead cells, your skin reflects light more evenly.”
- It unclogs pores and reduces blackheads and whiteheads:
“This is particularly important for people with acne-prone skin,” he says.
- It encourages skin’s natural renewal process:
“It can stimulate the production of collagen and elastin, which are essential for maintaining skin’s elasticity and firmness.”
- It helps products absorb better:
“Exfoliating your skin can improve the penetration of skincare products, such as serums and moisturiser, making them more effective,” Dr Banionis explains.
- It reduces hyperpigmentation:
“Exfoliation can help fade [things like] dark spots and acne scars by encouraging the turnover of skin cells.”
Should I be exfoliating then?
Ok, if exfoliating is so great then does that mean that everyone should be doing it?
“If you do not exfoliate regularly, you can get a build-up of dead skin which makes the complexion look dull,” confirms Thornton.
“You can also get sebum and dead skin trapped in the pores leading to comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) and pimples.”
However, the experts agree that if your skin is particularly sensitive, or you suffer from skin conditions like rosacea, you should proceed with caution.
“If your skin can tolerate it, everyone can exfoliate,” confirms Dr Gantz. But “it’s best to start slow to see how your skin responds.”
If in doubt then, always check with a dermatologist, doctor or skincare expert before starting to exfoliate if your skin is sensitive.
All the ways to exfoliate
Before you reach straight for the face scrub, just know that there are lots of different types of ways to exfoliate and you’ll want to pick the one that’s best for your skin type.
Below, we’re set out the most popular types of exfoliation but for a guide to every type of exfoliator and which one’s right for you take a look here.
These are the grainy, slightly abrasive scrubs you can use at home that contain physical particles to help dig deeper into the pores and leave a more polished finish.
Another one to use at home, these usually come in liquid form (poured onto a cotton pad) and contain things like fruit enzymes and AHA and BHA acids for a gentler exfoliation.
The results are the same – buffed away dead skin cells and a more even texture – and it can be done more regularly than a physical exfoliator as it’s not so abrasive on the skin.
Performed by a professional, chemical peels are a stronger version of the at-home chemical exfoliator that you can buy in a bottle. It provides a deeper exfoliation as it contains harder working exfoliants.
Another professional treatment which uses a machine to sprinkle miniature crystals onto the skin to help buff it and then hoover up dead skin cells.
- Laser exfoliation
This is where things get really medical. The laser removes the top layer of skin to help boost elasticity and treat any other skin concerns.
Here, a professional uses a tool to scrape away dead skin cells and fine hair from the surface of the skin.
How often should you exfoliate?
Despite the benefits of exfoliating though, “Over-exfoliation can lead to skin irritation, redness and increased sensitivity,” warns Dr Banionis.
Balance is key then.
Physical exfoliators are more abrasive so it’s best not to use one of these more than twice a week. Chemical liquid exfoliators can eventually be used up to daily as they are gentler, however you should introduce one into your regime slowly.
Start by using it twice a week (spaced out), then slowly build up to three times a week, then four and so on, as your skin becomes accustomed to it. If your skin is reacting well, you can up it to once a day, eventually weaning your skin onto it twice a day.
If you’re using other actives (like vitamin C or benzoyl peroxide) at the same time though, you’ll want to introduce exfoliation alongside them with particular care. For our guide on how to exfoliate while using retinol take a look here.
Our favourite exfoliators
With huge amounts of products available though, it can be fairly confusing. That’s why I asked two Live That Glow editors to share their favourite exfoliators, and I’m also sharing mine too.
It turns out that we all prefer a chemical exfoliant over a scrub, but your own skin type and preferences will ultimately dictate what’s right for you.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Sally Underwood, says, “My favourite ways to exfoliate are with gentle acids plus using a soft mitt to remove my cleanser to get a very slight physical exfoliation.
“I love REN’s Ready Steady Glow AHA Tonic (£30 from REN UK /$40 from REN US). It’s ridiculously easy to use (just sweep over skin on with a cotton pad), is gentle enough for even my sensitive skin, and gives me a lovely glow from the first use. It also lasts for ages making it fairly reasonable value.”
Laura Kemp, our Senior Beauty Editor, explains, “I use The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution (£8.90 from The Ordinary UK /$9.50 from Sephora US), it evens out any texture and I always feel like my skin glows after using it.
“It gets rid of all the dead skin, especially in annoying areas around my nose, and it really helps unclog pores and minimise spots – even from first use! At under £10, it’s also a bargain.”
I personally use a chemical exfoliator after cleansing, morning and evening with a cotton pad.
And when I’m not feeling quite so flush (!), I turn to La Roche Posay Effaclar Clarifying Lotion (£15 from Look Fantastic UK /$16.99 from La Roche Posay US) which is much cheaper and great for when I’m having a breakout.
So, do you really need to exfoliate your face? The evidence suggests it improves the skin in a lot of areas. At least 7 to be exact.
An at-home exfoliator (physical or chemical) is the right choice for convenience and to help with mild skin issues. If that’s not making any difference though, or you’re suffering from a more serious skin condition, it might be a good idea to see a professional to assess which clinical method would best suit your budget, needs (and pain threshold).
With so many exfoliation options to choose from, there’s an ideal solution for everyone. Smoother, clearer skin, here we come!
Meet the experts
Madeleine Gantz is a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology. She has a diverse educational background, having received a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Lafayette College as well as a Master’s in nutrition from Columbia University.
Merry Thornton is a Board Certified Physician Assistant in Dermatology, licensed skincare expert and Founder of Element Medical Aesthetics in New Canaan
Dr Saulis Banionis is board certified by The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and was trained extensively in aesthetic and regenerative medicine to become an expert in anti-ageing medicine. His practice is PB Antiaging and he has also worked as a Medical Expert for the Florida Board of Medicine.