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Written by: Becki Murray

Last Updated: 13 February 2024

Exfoliators are all about keeping your skin functioning healthily by encouraging the removal of dead skin cells from its surface. This then reveals the brighter, fresher skin below, which is super important as we age. That’s because our natural skin cell turnover slows down, leaving our skin rougher, drier, duller and even prone to breakouts.

There are two main types of exfoliators to choose from – physical and chemical exfoliators, which are explained in detail below. Whichever you choose, exfoliators can help with a wide range of skin concerns, including surface pigmentation and rough skin texture, as well as improving the effectiveness of the skincare you use afterwards. However, you need to be careful not to over exfoliate your skin and this can make it dry and sore.


What is exfoliation?

Exfoliation is a process that removes dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, revealing the brighter, fresher skin below. Your skin is constantly renewing itself, producing new cells in its deeper layers. These gradually work their way to the surface of your face, then die and are shed. You don’t even notice them going unless they clump together and come off in flakes. But, when they do collect in patches, they can make the skin look a bit dull.

Exfoliating is the process of clearing away these old dead cells, to keep your skin looking fresh and clear. These dead skin cells can be dislodged either physically, using an abrasive or peeling product, or chemically, using a product that dissolves the chemical bonds holding the dead skin cells onto the skin’s surface (such ingredients include alpha-, beta- and poly-hydroxy acids, as well as azelaic acid). Clearing away the dead cells leaves the surface of your skin smoother, so that it reflects light more evenly and looks brighter and fresher.



What does exfoliating do?

Since it removes dead skin cells from the skin and reveals fresher skin below, exfoliating helps with pigmentation and rough skin texture, as well as improving the effectiveness of the skincare you use (the products will be more evenly absorbed, and will sink in better). Exfoliating, unless you have very sensitive skin or exfoliate too harshly, makes an instant improvement to your skin.

What are my options for exfoliating?

You can choose between two means of exfoliation:

  • Physical exfoliation uses scrubs, cloths, sponges, or cleansing brushes.
  • Chemical exfoliation uses products that encourage dead skin cells to disengage from the surface of the skin.

Both physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation are effective, but they can work best for specific skin types and usage preferences. All that is explained below.


What are the benefits of physical scrubs and exfoliants?

Physical scrubs have the benefits of simplicity and effectiveness, but you must use them gently.

Scrubs: Scrubs are designed to physically shift the dead cells from your skin — and they certainly work. But they have the drawback that often the exfoliating particles are a bit rough, which can result in tiny scratches in the skin. So if you are using this type of face scrub, use it really gently. Think of the action as polishing your skin rather than scrubbing it, and don’t use the scrub every day.

Exfoliating cleansers: An alternative to face scrubs is using a gentle exfoliating cleanser, which can be a great way of killing two birds with one stone.

Gommages: An alternative kind of physical exfoliator that contains no gritty bits. These physical exfoliators are usually gel-based products that you apply to your face in a smooth layer, like a face mask, then leave to dry for a while before peeling or rubbing them off. They roll up into little rubbery bits that take dead skin with them, so they’re satisfyingly revolting to use, but getting an even result can be tricky and you can end up finding bits of it around your face and hairline.

Flannels: Another way of physically exfoliating your skin is as simple as wiping your cleanser off with a damp flannel. It might seem like it’s not doing much (if anything) – but it’s gently removing dead cells off the surface of your face.

Cleansing brushes: Alternatively, cleansing brushes are great for cleaning your face super effectively, and they exfoliate the face well, but it’s easy to overuse these, which stresses out your skin. There’s one which has silicone bristles, which is the one exception to this rule – it’s a lot gentler and doesn’t stress out your skin, but which will still shift dead skin cells.

How do chemical exfoliators work?

Chemical exfoliators use either enzymes or acids to disengage the dead skin cells from the surface of your skin so that you can then wash them away. ‘Acids’ might sound harsh, like paint-stripping for the skin, but depending on what you use, chemical exfoliation can be gentle, effective, and highly beneficial for your skin.

The acids or enzymes dissolve the ‘glue’ that holds your skin cells in place, loosening the already dead skin cells on the surface, so that these can be shed, making the fresher, smoother skin below become the new surface.

Depending on how long you leave chemical exfoliators on the skin for, they can reach a little deeper into the skin, like a mini home face peel. This can keep the skin’s surface clear and help to balance out congestion in the skin that causes whiteheads and breakouts. Stronger acid exfoliators can also help to soften wrinkles and improve skin texture by stimulating the skin-renewal processes that produce more supportive collagen and make the skin better hydrated, too.

Lastly, there’s also a variety of ‘sleep and peel’ exfoliating products which you apply at night, and which go to work while you snooze, to reveal brighter, clearer skin in the morning.

The main chemically exfoliating ingredients are:
Alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, and lactic acid and malic acid
Salicylic acid (also known as beta hydroxy acid, or BHA, which is good for acne).
Polyhydroxy acids like gluconolactone.
Azelaic acid, which gives a gentler sort of exfoliation
Fruit-derived enzymes such as papaya.

How to exfoliate your face

Some people cleanse first and then exfoliate, some people do it the other way round. Or you can use an exfoliating cleanser, and do both at the same time (although, as explained, don’t do this every day, as it is a quick way to damage the skin barrier).

Here are five examples of how you might exfoliate:

  • Use a flannel to take off your cleanser every day. This will give you a light exfoliation.
  • Use an acid toner every other day.
  • Use a stronger acid exfoliation product that you leave on overnight, once or twice a week.
  • If you’re using a mechanical cleansing brush, try twice a week.
  • If you’re an exfoliating cleanser, use it every other day.

My main tip: be really gentle! Think of using an exfoliator as polishing the delicate surface of your face. Most of us seem to think that we really need to scrub at our skin to exfoliate it but doing that is going to stress your skin, create inflammation and damage the skin barrier. You’re playing a long game with skincare. So be consistent, but gentle.

How often should you exfoliate?

As just mentioned, this depends on the method and intensity of your exfoliation, but by and large, it’s a good idea to exfoliate gently but frequently – for example, using a flannel to take off your cleanser every day will give you a light exfoliation. If it’s gentle and your skin is accustomed to it, you could maybe use an acid toner every day, though I would prefer you used an acid toner every other day.

Methods to use less frequently are using an exfoliating cleanser (use it just once – i.e. either morning or evening – every other day), using a mechanical cleansing brush (do this just twice a week) and using a stronger leave-on glycolic product overnight (again, maximum twice a week, unless it is a product designed for daily use).

What are gentle exfoliation methods for sensitive skin?

You can exfoliate sensitive skin gently either by using chemical exfoliation or by using physical exfoliation.

For chemical exfoliation, try a low-concentration exfoliator using either salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA) or a gentle alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), such as glycolic acid or lactic acid. Alternatively, try an enzyme-based exfoliator that uses an enzyme such as papain (from papaya) or bromelain (from pineapple), as these too are gentle on your skin.

For physical exfoliation, avoid a scrub that will tear up your skin. Instead, use an exfoliating mitt or cloth made from material such as microfibre or bamboo. Another possibility is a konjac sponge, which also provides gentle physical exfoliation.

How does exfoliation enhance skin radiance?

Exfoliation unclogs your pores and removes dead skin cells that may be making your skin look dull and rough. Both these changes help reveal fresher, smoother skin that better catches the light and looks radiant.

Beyond these immediate improvements, exfoliation stimulates cell turnover and causes your skin to boost collagen production. These two actions further improve your skin’s thickness and texture in the longer run.

How can I choose the right exfoliator for my skin type?

To choose a suitable exfoliator for your skin type, follow these guidelines:

  • Sensitive skin. Use either a low-concentration beta hydroxy acid (BHA) or alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) chemical exfoliator or a gentle physical exfoliator such as a microfibre mitt or a konjac sponge.
  • Dry skin. Get a hydrating chemical exfoliator that uses an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) such as lactic acid or mandelic acid. If you prefer physical exfoliation, try a konjac sponge.
  • Oily skin. Use a salicylic acid (BHA) exfoliator to unclog your pores and reduce your skin’s oiliness.
  • Acne-prone skin. Try a salicylic (BHA) exfoliator for mild acne. If you have severe acne, consult a dermatologist before exfoliating.

What are the best practices for using exfoliators?

Once you’ve chosen a suitable exfoliator for your skin type, it’s a good idea to perform a patch test to confirm that your skin can tolerate it. Put some of the exfoliator on the inside of your elbow and leave it there for 24 hours to make sure all is well.

If so, proceed with the exfoliator like this:

  1. Use a gentle cleanser to remove dirt, makeup, and excess oil from your face.
  2. Apply the exfoliator using light, circular motions rather than scrubbing.
  3. If your face has problem areas, such as blackheads or rough texture, focus on those areas. Be careful around sensitive areas, such as your lips and eyes.
  4. Rinse off the exfoliator thoroughly with lukewarm water, and then pat your face dry.
  5. Moisturise your face.
  6. Remember to apply sunscreen in the morning to protect your skin from sun damage.

Are there specific exfoliators for mature skin?

Yes, you can get specific exfoliators formulated for mature skin, which tends to be thinner and more delicate than younger skin. Normally, you’ll want to avoid rough scrubs or harsh ingredients such as alcohol and fragrance and use gentle chemical exfoliators instead.

If your main concern is fine lines and wrinkles, look for an exfoliator that contains ingredients to stimulate your skin to produce more collagen. Peptides and retinol are both helpful, but go easy with retinol to start with. If your aim is to make your skin firmer and more elastic, look for an exfoliator that contains ingredients such as peptides or niacinamide (vitamin B3). If you’re dealing with uneven skin tone, try a gentle exfoliator that includes an alpha hydroxy acid such as glycolic acid or lactic acid. Remember to protect your face with sunscreen.

Can exfoliators improve acne-prone skin?

If you have mild acne, don’t rough it up with face scrubs, but a chemical exfoliation with salicylic acid may be helpful to clear blocked pores. Start by exfoliating once or twice a week with a gentle chemical exfoliator and see how well your skin tolerates it. If you have severe acne, consult a dermatologist before exfoliating even with a chemical exfoliator.

FAQ ABOUT Exfoliators

Do I really need to exfoliate?

If your skin sheds dead cells all by itself, do you need to exfoliate? It’s a fair question — but those dead cells can quickly lead to dull, dry skin if they collect in patches on its surface. Clearing away the dead cells leaves the surface of your skin smoother, so that it reflects light more evenly and looks fresher and more radiant.

What are the latest innovations in exfoliating treatments?

Exfoliation? There’s an app for that! Seriously, one key area of innovation is personalised exfoliation plans based on an analysis of your skin type, the prevailing weather, and current pollution levels.

Here are three other areas of exfoliation innovation you might want to keep an eye on:

  • Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). If you’ve found AHA- and BHA-based exfoliators wanting, you could try these next-generation hydroxy acids. PHAs have larger molecules, which makes them suitable for sensitive skin and enables them to deliver longer-lasting hydration.
  • Enzyme blends. Blending enzymes such as papain, bromelain, and pumpkin results in a deeper exfoliant that offers gentle renewal.
  • Ultrasonic exfoliators. These exfoliators use sound waves to loosen the dead skin cells, giving a gentle physical exfoliation.

How to exfoliate your lips

Get your hands on and create a gentle scrub with some sugar mixed into a little bit of lip balm or vaseline. Rub that gently around your lips. Wipe (or lick) it off.

How to exfoliate your body

You can exfoliate physically with scrubs, cloths, sponges. Body brushing before showering is also a great idea as it stimulates the lymph channels and promotes lymph drainage. You want to brush from your extremities in towards your heart (which works the lymph towards the nearest lymph nodes for drainage) – i.e. working from your feet upwards, and from your hands inwards along your arms. (I’m never quite sure what to do with the stomach). The key thing is to do this lightly – it only requires a really light pressure. It should always be done with a dry brush.

Alternatively you can try a body lotion containing alpha hydroxy acids and/or salicylic acid to dissolve the chemical bonds holding dead skin cells onto the surface of the skin. Glycolic ones are particularly good for a skin condition called keratosis pilaris (a skin condition where the skin becomes really rough and bumpy), while salicylic ones are great for body acne.

How to exfoliate your legs

All the steps from the ‘how to exfoliate your body’ paragraph stand for your legs too. Scrubs, exfoliating gloves, a sponge and body brushing are all great ways to physically exfoliate your legs (shaving provides a light exfoliation too, if you want to do that), and chemical exfoliation works a treat too – use one that’s designed for bodily use.

How to exfoliate your scalp

Find an exfoliating scalp scrub or mask (yes, such things exist), or try one of those little scalp massage brushes which are circular with soft rubbery points (these are also called shampoo brushes). While shampooing your hair, massage these around your scalp. It’ll help to clear debris from around hair follicles and stimulate circulation – both of which help the hair to grow as an added bonus.

Should you exfoliate before or after shaving?

I would do it on a different day! Particularly if your skin’s sensitive – the shaving is quite aggressive on the skin, and tends to exfoliate the top layers of the skin anyway. However, if you want to do them both, and do them on the same day, I’d exfoliate first, and then shave.

How to use exfoliating gloves

Wet the exfoliating gloves with warm water, apply a product like a shower gel onto either the gloves or the part of your body you want to exfoliate, and then massage that area of the skin gently in circular motions (think of it as polishing your skin rather than scrubbing it – you don’t want to irritate or damage the skin).



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