How to Exfoliate Your Face: How Much Is Too Much
Photo Source: Frank Body
Fun fact: every hour we shed between 30,000 and 40,000 skin cells (1). Gross right? Thankfully it’s not as bad as it sounds: shedding is a byproduct of the way our skin naturally goes about life. As your epidermis (the top part of your skin) produces new cells, the ones above them die — it’s the circle of life, baby.
Why Exfoliate Your Face?
Exfoliating is simply the act of sloughing off of dead skin cells to reveal youthful, newly generated skin cells. Your skin sheds these dead cells on it’s own, but as we age that process becomes slower and slower which leaves more dead skin cells to build up on the outermost layer of your skin. When you’re a baby, your skin cells turnover pretty much weekly, but by the time you’re in your fifties it can take up to 3 months for those cells to fully turnover.
Cell turnover, aka getting rid of those dead cells, is literally often the difference between baby-soft, bouncy skin and, well, old-looking skin. That’s because the buildup of dead skin cells can cause clogged pores, discoloration, and general dullness.
Top Benefits of Exfoliation
- Uncovering those new cells leaves you with a youthful glow.
- Gets rid of dead skin cells that can clog your pores.
- When you remove the dead cell barrier your skin care products are more easily absorbed.
Ways to Exfoliate Your Skin
There are two types of exfoliation — physical and chemical.
Physical exfoliation involves any kind of manual removal of dead skin cells like using a muslin cloth, scrub, cleansing brush, one of our favorites, dermaplaning.
The Best Manual Exfoliation
Be gentle; that’s the number 1 rule.
Ditch the walnut shells in favor of something softer to avoid “micro tears” in the skin. Bristles, like from a Clarisonic brush, or harsh scrubs with jagged edges, when pressed too firmly on the skin, can create micro tears which are essentially cracks in the skin’s lipid layer. The issue? These cracks allow moisture to escape more easily, in addition more easily allowing for the penetration of irritants. This is known as a damaged skin barrier (read all about why protecting your skin barrier is the key to skin health here).
Look for perfectly round, non-plastic beads in facial scrubs, or silicone cleansing brushes like the Forreo Luna.
Chemical exfoliation uses acids to remove dead skin cells. There are many kinds of exfoliating acids used in various percentages, so with a little research you can really customize what works best for your skin without irritating it. Let’s break down the two most popular acids: AHAs and BHAs.
AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) — like glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid — are defined by having hydroxyl group attached to the alpha position of the acid, making them water soluble. They’re effective because they work on the top layer of your skin (the epidermis) and a lower layer of your skin (the dermis).
This means they work really well to evenly slough off those dead skin cells and activate the cycle of new skin cells, which is helpful as we age.
The awesome benefits include softer, smoother skin, faded wrinkles, lightened age spots, decreased blemishes, and increased skin thickness and hyaluronic acid. (2)
BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids) — like salicylic acid — differ from AHAs because they are lipid soluble (versus water soluble). This means they can get through and penetrate the fatty layers of your skin— which is great if you skew oily or acne prone. They can also be a little less irritating, so if you if AHAs are too harsh for you, give BHAs a try for similar results.
AHA and BHA Together
Yes, you can use both acids together, but you need to pay close attention to the strengths of the acids in your products in order to prevent over-exfoliating (or just look for a product that combines BHAs and AHAs together). Our favorite is the Drunk Elephant Framboos Serum.
Enzymatic exfoliation is another more up-and-coming type of chemical exfoliation that breaks down the "glue" that holds dead, dulling skin cells together. It’s super gentle (more gentle than its AHA counterpart), which means that it can be used everyday. That’s good news for those of us that want to speed up cell turnover while having one, streamlined skincare routine we can stick to.
Many of these enzymes come from fruits and veggies like pumpkin, pomegranate and pineapple and they aren't nearly as pH finicky as AHAs or BHAs, so they can be used effectively in a wider range of pH levels which makes them perfect for a cleanser. Wash and exfoliate all in one — how easy does that sound?
Can You Exfoliate Too Much?
Obsessed yet? Yeah, it’s hard not to be. Exfoliation can be so good with such quick results that it can be addicting. But, like any good thing moderation is key.
Exfoliation is a practice that requires experimentation. Some people can tolerate the more abrasive products while others need more gentle formulations. On one hand, you’re scrubbing away dead, dulling cells to stimulate new cell growth and reveal that healthy, fresh glow. But on the other hand, you’re doing just that: semi-sanding your face! Finding the balance here is key.
So, yes, it is totally possible to over exfoliate. You don’t want to burn right past those dead skin cells and start getting rid of perfect healthy ones.
How Often to Exfoliate
There’s no one answer to this. The answer really depends on how sensitive your skin is, in addition to the strength of your exfoliator.
Even if you have sensitive skin, you should still be exfoliating. In general, it’s probably best to opt for either chemical or enzymatic exfoliation because they help to reveal softer skin without physically irritating the skin with harsh textures (walnut shells? Microbeads? Mmmbye). If you’re using higher strength acids, your skin might only be able to handle it about once a week. So, as a rule of thumb, start with once a week, and then slowly increase from there. The minute your skin starts to feel red or irritated you know you’ve reached your limit.
Dry, Flakey Skin
The right amount of exfoliation can be dry skin’s best friend. Usually, flakey, scaly skin means that your skin is not turning over as fast as it should. If that’s the case, your skin could definitely benefit from exfoliating in order to increase the cell turnover process to reveal smoother skin, and in order for the rest of your skincare products to penetrate more effectively.
Oily to Balanced Skin
If your skin is balanced to oily, most doctors recommend exfoliating about 2-3 times a week, or every other day
To sum it up: If exfoliation makes your skin red and irritated, do it less frequently or lighten up on the harshness of your methods. If you over-treat your skin, you could be setting yourself up for irritation and inflammation (or even cause your skin to overproduce oil, which can lead to acne). While you can stick to the guidelines above if you’re using a medium to higher strength method of exfoliation, our preference is to find an exfoliation method that you can work in daily for better compliance (like an enzyme cleanser, or a gentle silicone brush) as a baseline, and then add in other products as necessary.
How Important is Exfoliation?
By now, that’s a rhetorical question. Exfoliation is clearly very important if you want to support the part of skin's life cycle that helps fight acne, restore brightness to the skin, and even prevent wrinkles. But, it’s up to you to figure out the method that works best for you.
Written by Lauren Cody Hoffman