From Bumpy Arms to Scaly Legs, Here’s How to Exfoliate Every Part of Your Body

Here’s a question for you: Do you exfoliate your body? If you’re one of few people who already do this regularly, we applaud you. If you (like us) seldom scrub below your neck, let’s make a pact to start now. Because after doing a deep dive into the topic, we’re convinced it’s the one upgrade our skin needs (particularly as the sleeves come off and the bathing suits go on). 

But first, what Is exfoliation? 

Let’s take it from the top, shall we? According to our friends at the American Academy of Dermatology, exfoliation is “the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layers of your skin.” Skin is in a constant state of repair and regeneration. Because of this, most of us end up with dead cells that sit on the surface and cause that dullness, dryness and break outs for some people.

So, exfoliation helps remove excess or old cells, allowing that healthy, new skin underneath can come to the surface. And there are two ways to do this: chemical and physical exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliation uses, well, chemicals (more specifically alpha or beta hydroxy acids or fruit enzymes) to gently dissolve surface skin cells and the intracellular glue that holds them together so they are more easily removed.

Physical or mechanical exfoliation involves using a product (like those grainy vanilla-scented body scrubs your great aunt Susie always loves to gift during the holidays) or a tool (like a brush or mitt) to manually remove dead skin cells from the surface.

How (exactly) do I exfoliate my body?

Most chemical exfoliators (like a body peel or a body wash that contains glycolic acid) are meant to be applied directly to skin and work best in the shower. We also find that leaving the product on for a couple minutes before rinsing it off gives it time to absorb and yields better (read: silkier) results.

For physical exfoliation, the process is a little more involved, but can be done in three key steps:

  1. First, we recommend soaking your body in a tub of warm (not hot) water for 10-15 minutes before going in with a scrubby mitt (hello, Italy towels!). This softens your skin and makes it easier to slough off the dead cells without having to exert too much force (which can be abrasive).

  2. Using a light-to-medium pressure, rub the mitt down your limbs and back in short, vertical strokes; using small, circular motions, rub the mitt over the heels of your feet, knees and elbows. Option to go over these areas again as they tend to be the driest parts of your body. 

  3. Lather up with your soap or wash of choice, rinse thoroughly and finish with a layer of moisturizer. Bonus: Thanks to your freshly exfoliated skin, your moisturizer will be able to penetrate better and leave it smoother than before. 

Which type of exfoliation is best for me?

As a general rule of thumb, if you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, a chemical exfoliant is a safer bet (and less likely to cause irritation). If you have normal, oily or dry skin, either a manual exfoliation or chemical exfoliation will work—or you can use a combination of both methods. 

One precaution: Just make sure not to use both exfoliators at the same time (i.e., rubbing a glycolic acid serum on with a brush or mitt). As with everything, moderation is key and too much exfoliation can actually cause injury to the skin barrier and make things worse. Be gentle.

Are there any other precautions I should take when exfoliating?

Whether you choose to go with a chemical exfoliation or prefer going the manual route, you should only do it every few days as needed. Again, over-exfoliating will only cause irritation.

On that note, skip exfoliating any areas with open cuts, scratches, insect bites or wounds and within the first 24-28 hours of shaving or waxing. (It’s better to exfoliate a day or two before any hair removal).

And if you’re using a product that contains alpha or beta hydroxy acids to exfoliate, make sure to exercise caution in the sun as these ingredients can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. Some best practices include applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen of 30 or higher to any areas that will be exposed and seeking shade whenever possible (but especially during the peak hours of 11 am to 3 pm).

Do you recommend any exfoliators in particular?

As a matter of fact, we do. And since we’re spoiled for choices when it comes to beauty products, we’ll do you one better and offer some of our favorite picks for specific issues: 

  1. If you deal with bumpy skin on the backs of your arms (aka keratosis pilaris or “KP” for short) or are prone to getting ingrown hairs, we like Glytone Exfoliating Body Wash, which has a whopping 8.8 percent glycolic acid to gently remove old skin cells.
  1. If you have acne on your chest or back or tend to sweat a lot, we recommend Murad Acne Body Wash, which uses salicylic acid to go deeper beneath the surface of your skin and break down any debris or oil that could clog your pores.
  2. If you your skin looks dull or ashy, a gentle lactic body serum (we love True Botanicals Resurfacing Body Mask) will give you a glowing boost without causing irritation.
  3. And if you just have overall dryness, but no particular issue, we swear by a good soak and thorough scrub down using an exfoliating mitt, brush or towel.

Jenny Jin Headshot Vertical 2023

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...