The Essential Exfoliation Guide

By now, you know why you need to exfoliate: Removing dermis-dulling dead cells improves texture and tone, unplugging pores, lightening pigmentation, and helping skin lap up those lovely anti-agers. It also encourages cell turnover, bringing healthy, younger-looking skin to the surface. Chances are good you can even tick off a handful of effective glow-getters — from physical exfoliants (think vibrating brushes and microdermabrasion) to chemical ones like retinol creams and glycolic peels.
What’s not so obvious? How to incorporate these products and treatments into your beauty regime. In the quest for a brighter, smoother complexion, many of us have become exfoliation overachievers, slathering and scouring to extremes. And, that can definitely backfire.
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“Exfoliate too often or aggressively and you’ll risk shedding too much of the skin’s protective barrier, which can lead to excessive dryness, redness, and inflammation, in addition to rashes and blemishes,” says David Bank, M.D., a dermatologist based in Mount Kisco, New York. “Unless you have very oily skin, there’s no need to do it more than once or twice a week."
Choosing the wrong sloughing strategy can also lead to some unwanted side effects. “Exfoliation isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription,” says Bank, who recommends introducing a new product or treatment gradually, watching to see how your skin reacts. “If it’s irritated, or you’re not getting the results you’re after, stop, and try something else or consult a dermatologist.” Whichever methods you opt for, moisturize right after to lock in hydration and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily to protect fresh skin from damaging UV rays.
To clear up any confusion, we asked Bank and other experts for the lowdown on a dozen-plus at-home and in-office exfoliation treatments. Ready to give your skin some slough love? Start clicking.


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Minimalists will appreciate the one-two punch of a humble washcloth or designated facial mitt, which allows you to cleanse and slough simultaneously. Dampen it first and add a squirt of your usual nonabrasive cleanser to stave off irritation, says Bank. Then, using light pressure, work in small circular motions around your face, devoting about 10 seconds to each area. Rinse with warm water — scalding H2O will contribute to dryness — and pat dry. Wash the cloth with mild soap after every use to avoid bacteria build-up and mold.
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Employing the same technology that keeps our teeth tartar-free, Clarisonic Sonic Skin Cleansing brushes have achieved cult-like status. Soft, oscillating bristles loosen pore-clogging makeup, dirt, and oils along with dead cells. The rechargeable tool shuts off after the recommended one minute. Though the company says it’s gentle enough to use twice a day, Bank advises limiting sessions to just once or twice a week if skin is normal or dry and every other day if it’s oily. Choose the right brush head for your skin type, and wash after each use with warm, soapy water. Not ready to make the investment of $125 and up? Companies like Olay and Pro-Activ make battery-operated versions at lower prices.
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Made from the fibrous root of the Japanese konjac plant, this super-soft sponge exfoliates and cleanses more thoroughly without the abrasiveness of a washcloth or scrub. This is especially helpful for acne-prone and sensitive skin, says Bank. Konjacs dry quickly, making bacteria less likely to build up. Soak the hard, dry sponge in warm water until it’s puffy, then use the flat side to massage your face in a circular motion. Rinse and squeeze out excess water after each use, and discard after a month.
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If you prefer a more hands-on approach to exfoliating, a gentle facial scrub is the ticket. Choose one with small, spherical beads rather than jagged fruit kernels and nuts, which "can cause microscopic cuts that are just big enough for bacteria to get in,” says Bank. “If skin is on the sensitive side, look for scrubs containing glycerin or ceramides. For acne-prone complexions, the addition of salicylic acid can be helpful.” Apply a thin, even layer to wet skin and, using light pressure, massage in small circles around the face, avoiding the delicate eye area; rinse thoroughly.
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Men can thank their shaving routine for helping them look younger than their years. For us, there’s dermaplaning, a non-invasive procedure that involves scraping the skin’s surface with a thin scalpel blade. “Done correctly by an experienced aesthetician or physician, it removes dead cells and vellus hair (a.k.a. peach fuzz), reduces hyperpigmentation, and softens visible scars and fine lines,” says Bank. As with microdermabrasion and other mechanical procedures, dermaplaning is often combined with peels, masks, and serums because it makes the skin receptive to the active ingredients. There’s no downtime, but since the treatment calls for sharp surgical steel and a steady hand, he cautions against trying this at home.
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Available in spas and dermatologists’ offices, this resurfacing treatment employs a small, vacuum-like tip to spray the skin with very fine crystals (usually aluminum or magnesium oxide) and then suction them up. After a few monthly sessions, pores will look more refined and brown spots and scars will begin to disappear. “It’s also been shown to trigger collagen production so skin is stronger and plumper,” says Bank. Though there are several settings to control the pressure, the treatment can still be aggravating to people with sensitive skin or rosacea.
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If you’re unable to tolerate the sand-and-suction effect of microdermabrasion, you might consider Vibraderm. The pro procedure couples a flat abrasive hand piece with sonic technology to improve both the texture and tone of your skin. “The vibrational paddle is used to gently exfoliate and then pump a cocktail of hydrating serums into the skin, so you’ll see an improvement immediately,” explains Jamie Ahn, owner and creative director of New York City’s Townhouse Spa and Acqua Beauty Bar. To address concerns like hyperpigmentation, acne scarring, and fine lines, she recommends a “bootcamp,” or six weekly sessions followed by maintenance treatments spaced four to six weeks apart.
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Effective and gentle enough for all skin types, this multitasking treatment employs a single vacuum-based wand to cleanse, buff, extract blackheads, and deliver hydrating serums into the tissues. “After one session, skin will appear brighter and plumper because you’re removing the dead cells and infusing it with antioxidants and hyaluronic acid,” says New York City dermatologist Melanie Grossman, M.D., who recommends monthly sessions to tackle hyperpigmentation and fine lines. “The more HydraFacial treatments you do, the more you’ll improve your skin’s overall appearance.”
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Instead of relying on friction to sweep away dead cells, these chemical exfoliants dissolve the “glue” (or keratin protein) that binds them. Over-the-counter serums, masks, and peels formulated with alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric acid help to smooth and even skin tone, while stimulating collagen production. “Over-the-counter products can contain no more than 10% of the compounds,” explains Bank. “If you’re looking for the maximum, scan the label to make sure alpha-hydroxy acids are high on the ingredient list.” AHA-laced products are appropriate for most skin types, and especially thickened skin, where acne is not a problem. Apply nightly for best results.
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AHAs may be too irritating for some, which is why salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid derived from willow bark, may be a better fit. The compound works in much the same way, but because it’s oil-soluble, it can penetrate sebum, clearing oil, dirt, and skin cells from the follicles. It also soothes inflammation and offers antibacterial benefits — a boon for those with acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is also effective for normal or dry skin, provided it’s combined with hydrating ingredients. If skin is oily, BHAs may be used every day.
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Derived from fruits like papaya (papain), pineapple (bromelain), and pumpkin, enzymes break down keratin protein on skin like AHAs and BHAs, but they’re a lot gentler. Creams and peels formulated with enzymes can also protect against acne and sun damage, says Bank. A downside is instability. “Changes in skin pH and temperatures can deactivate the chemicals, rendering them useless,” he says. To extend the life of your enzyme-powered products, store in a cool, dry place."
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With a higher concentration of AHAs and BHAs — and no ingredients to buffer their effects — professional peels provide quicker results than over-the-counter peels, creams, and serums. “Spas typically use anywhere from 20% to 30% acid, while dermatologists can go as high as 70%,” says Bank. The type of acid used is often tailored to your skin type: Glycolic acid peels, are typically targeted at dry or mature skin, and salicylic at younger, oily, or acne-prone skin. “Lactic peels are less irritating and more moisturizing, so they can be used at a higher concentration,” says Bank. Depending on the strength of the peel, skin may be pink and even peel in the days following, so get these no more than once a month and stop taking Retin-A a few days to a few weeks prior to your appointment.
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These vitamin A derivatives have been age-avenging rock stars for decades, but in recent years, they’ve been included in exfoliation formulas. The reason?” Cosmetic ingredients like retinol are converted to retinoic acid in the skin, which boosts cell renewal,” explains Bank. Because they contain pure retinoic acid, prescription retinoids (like Retin-A, Renova, and Avage) are more potent than their OTC counterparts, but they’re also more likely to cause redness, flaking, and photosensitivity. You can apply at night (if you’re not using AHAs) or in the morning, using a day-specific formula, followed by sunscreen. Whether you go the OTC or prescription route, talk to your dermatologist, who may suggest you start with a twice-weekly application, and increase to three times a week if skin feels comfortable.
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If winter’s ravages hasn’t reminded you by now, your body needs a bit of buffing, too. Exfoliating skin while in the shower twice a week will smooth rough patches and keep follicles clear, preventing ingrown hairs. Grossman advises opting for exfoliating body washes and scrubs over loofahs and mitts. “They’re difficult to clean and are often left in the shower where the moist environment is ideal for microbe growth,” she says. Since the skin isn’t as sensitive as the face, feel free to choose a scrub with larger crystals like sugar or salt, provided it doesn’t irritate. If you suffer from bacne, go with a less moisturizing formula. “Start at the ankles and work your way up, concentrating on extra-dry areas like the elbows, knees, and heels,” says Bank. Rinse off thoroughly and slather moisturizer on still-damp skin to rehydrate.
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