How Often Should You Exfoliate? 3 Skin Experts Weigh in on the Gritty Truth

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone to town scrubbing your skin with a microbead-laden face wash every. Multiple times a week. (Shout out to Neutrogena Pink Grapefruit Foaming Scrub.) We’ve admittedly got our hand raised high, and yes, we’re cringing, too.

By now, we know that plastic microbeads aren’t just bad for our skin, they’re also harmful to the environment (all those tiny plastic particles wash into our water systems and never decompose). But what if you, like us, miss that satisfying scrubbing feeling? Turns out, there are plenty of exfoliants out there that are not only safer for our planet, but also much more effective at gently sloughing off that outer layer of dead skin to unearth younger, glowier cells.

How do you know which kind of exfoliator is best for your skin? Or how often you should be exfoliating? We turned to the experts (i.e., dermatologists and estheticians) to get to the bottom of it. Here, three of them weigh in on everything you ever wanted to know about exfoliating.

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What are the benefits of exfoliation?

“Regular exfoliation is key to a glowing complexion,” explains NYC board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. “Physical and chemical exfoliation help to brighten the complexion by sloughing off the old dead skin cells and revealing the fresh new cells underneath. This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, keeps skin clean and helps reduce acne breakouts. It also smooths and polishes the skin, decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.”

Whitney Yehling, esthetician at POMP adds, “The [skin] shedding cycle happens naturally every 28 days or so, but exfoliation encourages cell turnover at a faster rate.”

What’s the difference between chemical and physical exfoliants?

“Chemical exfoliants help remove dead skin cells and brighten your complexion. These usually contain ingredients like glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid among others,” explains Dr. Annie Gonzalez, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, FL.

“Physical exfoliants (or facial scrubs) use small grains to mechanically scrub away the dirt on your skin. They can also be brushes, sponges and other tools (like the Clarisonic),” she adds.

Which exfoliation method is best for me?

Physical exfoliation is a good method if you have non-sensitive skin or if you use retinols, because, “chemical exfoliants often increase retinol’s potential to cause irritation and dryness,” explains Dr. King.

Chemical exfoliation is great for all skin types, but especially those with acne, sun damage or very sensitive skin. “They work to exfoliate the top layer of the skin, just as physical exfoliants do, but they often work a little deeper within the skin to break apart and dissolve bonds holding the dead skin cells in place,” adds Yehling.

How often should I be exfoliating?

Dr. King, Dr. Gonzalez and Yehling all recommend easing into an exfoliating routine with just one to two days per week and then working your way up to no more than four days per week from there, only if your skin doesn’t become too dry or irritated.

Is it possible to exfoliate too much?

“It’s very important to mention that neither chemical nor physical exfoliants should be a part of your daily skincare routine,” says Yeling. “Over-exfoliating is possible and if you notice signs of this (excessive dryness, redness, peeling/flaking, soreness or inflammation) stop exfoliating and discuss the products you’re using with your esthetician or dermatologist before easing back in.”

And Dr. King adds, “If you use a physical exfoliant that has large or rough particles with sharp edges (like asymmetrical pieces of nuts or shells), you can create micro-tears in the skin that can lead to irritation, inflammation and possibly even infection.” Instead, look for products with the word "polish" in the name, because it typically indicates that it's made of clay or micro-particles. She also mentions that no matter what type of exfoliation you do, you should follow with a moisturizer to lock in hydration and protect the newly revealed surface skin cells. And (as if we even need to mention it) SPF is even more imperative post-exfoliation.

Are exfoliants safe for sensitive skin?

“For sensitive skin, I would highly recommend a chemical exfoliator over a physical one,” says Dr. Gonzalez. She explains that people tend to overuse scrubs and damage their skin, so gentle chemical exfoliants are a better, and safer bet.

However, if you really want to use a scrub, Dr. King says, “look for a product that contains emollients (which are ingredients that prevent water loss, like plant oils, shea butter and cocoa butter), because this helps protect the skin barrier during and after the exfoliation process.” Individuals with sensitive skin should also seek out exfoliants with fine particles (like those facial polishes we just mentioned), rather than large chunks or seeds.

When should you avoid exfoliating?

“Don't do anything else irritating to your skin right before exfoliating,” advises Dr. King. “For example, if your skin is irritated or inflamed from extractions or a sunburn, then this won't be a great time to exfoliate. Also, if your skin is inflamed from a rosacea flare or other breakout, then it’s best to wait until irritation goes down,” she says.

Well, there you have it. Adding an exfoliant to your weekly routine can make all the difference in achieving a youthful, glowing complexion. Need a place to start? Shop Dr. King’s, Dr. Gonzalez’s and Yehling’s recommendations below.

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Brianna Lapolla formerly held the role of Senior Commerce Editor at PureWow covering all things shopping across beauty, fashion, and lifestyle. Now, she's putting her 12 years of...