Like many women, you’ve probably pared down your skincare routine to the basics: Wash, moisturize, repeat. While this bare-bones beauty regimen may seem to be working just fine, if you’re not exfoliating, then you’re missing a crucial anti-aging step. “Regular exfoliation keeps the surface of your skin clean and refreshed, your pores looking smaller and your skin texture smooth, for a more glowing complexion,” according to dermatologist Dr. Naila Malik, creator of Naila MD Skincare.
When we’re young, our skin cells renew themselves every 21 to 28 days. By the time we enter our 40s, that rate is more like every 40 days. It’s this decrease in cellular turnover that leads to an accumulation of dead skin cells, oil and debris on skin’s surface, which causes aging complexions to look dull, ashy and lifeless. Exfoliating combats cell buildup and helps the turnover process along.
“Women should be exfoliating at least weekly, even more if possible,” suggests Omaha dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlessinger, Exactly how often, as well as how you exfoliate, though, depends on your skin type, as not all means of skin sloughing are the same. Mechanical (also known as manual) exfoliants rely on abrasive ingredients like salt or coffee grounds to physically rub off dead skin, while chemical exfoliants contain some form of enzyme or acid (like alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxy acids) that sheds cells by dissolving the glue-like bonds that hold them together. Read on to find out which is the right choice for your complexion.
Dry Skin: If your skin tends to be tight and dehydrated year round, choose gentle mechanical exfoliants or low-dose alpha hydroxy acids to sweep away dead skin cells. Many dermatologists recommend cleansing brushes like the Clarisonic Skincare Brush ($195, sephora.com). “These units can do a great job on an everyday basis and can be brought into the shower as well,” says Schlessinger, who says they’re an excellent option for anyone who often forgets or is too busy to exfoliate. There are also moisturizing lotions with alpha hydroxy acids that exfoliate while they hydrate (try NeoStrata Face Cream AHA 15, $38, lovelyskin.com). As a bonus, regular exfoliation, no matter the method, should also cut down on your dryness issues: “By removing the dead cells and debris, your moisturizer will go on smoother for more effective skin hydration,” says Malik.
Sensitive Skin: Manual exfoliation is the safest option for someone with sensitive skin, as scrubs and cleansing brushes remove the risk of potential allergic or irritant reactions that can occur with chemical exfoliants. Look for washes made with round exfoliating ingredients like jojoba seeds (try Desert Essence Gentle Stimulating Facial Scrub, $6.99, desertessence.com). Clarisonic also offers a brush head made specifically for sensitive skin, which Malik still recommends only be used one to three times per week on easily irritated skin. If you want to try a chemical exfoliant, Malik suggests pumpkin peels (like MyChelle Incredible Pumpkin Peel, $26.99, drugstore.com) to her patients with sensitive skin as they tend to be less irritating. Still, be sure to patch test any new product on an inconspicuous area before slathering it over your entire face.
Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: As a general rule, the oilier your skin, the more often you can exfoliate—with either manual or chemical exfoliants. That said, if you’re suffering from inflammatory breakouts, you may want to avoid exfoliating altogether. “I like to treat skin with active inflammatory acne like sensitive skin,” says Malik. “Over stimulation with chemical or mechanical exfoliation can exacerbate inflammatory acne.” When skin is oily and not in the middle of a breakout, exfoliants with beta hydroxy acids are best. “They have anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties and are great for treating blackheads and pimples,” according to Dr. Ava Shamban, a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist. Try Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Gel Exfoliant ($15.16, paulaschoice.com).
Normal/Combination Skin: Normal complexions or skin that’s slightly oily through the T-zone can benefit from peels that contain both alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids. It’s still smart to patch test new products, though, as it’s impossible to tell how your skin will react to different levels of acids. Some products should only be used once a month, while others are fine to use every week (like Philosophy’s weekly The Microdelivery Triple-Acid Brightening Peel, $68, sephora.com), so follow each peel’s directions carefully. Women with normal skin can also use mechanical exfoliants like scrubs up to three times each week.