The Starbucks holiday menu. Dinner at your in-laws'. John Mayer. Facial exfoliation. Sure, these things seem straightforward enough at first, but man, do they become infinitely more complicated once you get a little closer.
The first three don't exactly come with instruction manuals, but luckily, that last one can be understood with a little help from a dermatologist — like Beverly Hills-based doc Ava Shamban, MD. Dr. Shamban tells us that the simple step of exfoliating the skin can do a lot for your routine. "Exfoliation addresses both irregular texture from erratic cell turnover, eliminates debris and dead skin cells, and creates a smoother skin surface for better penetration of actives, more effective hydration, and an easier makeup application," she says. Nothing not to like there.
But when we get into the when and how of exfoliation, a few more questions arise. Though regular exfoliation may seem more urgent during sticky summers, when you can practically feel your sweat-clogged pores, Dr. Shamban tells us it's vital to sweep away dead skin cells no matter what the weather. "Skin cell turnover may become sluggish in the winter," she says. "With a boost from exfoliation, cells are kept vibrant."
Then there's the matter of frequency: Some skin types benefit from a strong dose of alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids every other day, while others are better suited for a light, gentle physical exfoliant just once or twice a week. So where do you fall on the exfoliation spectrum? The experts break it down, ahead.
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When skin is already parched, it can feel counterintuitive to start scrubbing away with an abrasive or acidic exfoliator. That's why Dr. Shamban suggests reaching for a physical exfoliant created with an emollient base. "Oils are rich in essential acids, which moisturize skin and help to repair the outer barrier," she says. "They're superheroes for preventing moisture loss." This oil-based cleansing balm — made with organic and natural ingredients in Sweden's West Coast — is spiked with ultra-fine flakes of sea salt to gently exfoliate without leaving skin dry or tight.
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New York-based dermatologist Melissa Levin, MD, says she often sees patients with oily skin that use harsh and irritating ingredients in order to minimize shine. "This can strip the skin of its essential natural oils, resulting in increased oil production, clogged and enlarged pores, and hyperpigmentation, which leads to uneven skin tone," she says. The takeaway? Shoot for a more moderate exfoliating schedule — two to three times a week — using acids rather than scrubs. It's especially important to moisturize the skin after cleansing in the winter, Dr. Levin says, because colder climates come with less humidity.
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For the oily and blemish-prone, Dr. Levin suggests looking for formulas with glycolic or salicylic acid. "Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient that can break up dead skin cells and easily get to the root of many pore-clogging skin care concerns, such as the buildup of makeup, dirt, and environmental debris," she says. "It works by gently softening skin and dissolving impurities along the way." This serum packs a powerful cocktail of active ingredients, including salicylic acid, niacinamide, retinol, aloe, and witch hazel.
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To help encourage the turnover of dead skin cells, Levin suggests trying a cleanser, serum, or peel pad spiked with alpha-hydroxy acids (such as glycolic, lactic, or malic acid). This travel-friendly option is designed to release 10% glycolic acid while you sleep. But if your combination skin is on the more sensitive side, Dr. Levin recommends a gentle exfoliating cleanser made with fine micro-particles, like the environmentally-friendly jojoba beads in Fré Purify Me Hydrating Facial Cleanser.
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There's no need to throw already-balanced skin out of whack with excessive exfoliating, so Dr. Levin recommends a product with alpha-hydroxy acid to maintain skin health. This treatment toner combines the exfoliating power of 6% glycolic acid with 2% brightening niacinamide, calming chamomile extract, and hydrating hyaluronic acid, for a little bit of everything.
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Dr. Shamban suggests a one to three times a week exfoliation regimen for those addressing stubborn acne. "If you live in a polluted city, you may need to exfoliate more frequently," she adds. "The key here is to keep the skin, pores, and follicles clean without drying the skin, so the body isn't triggered to produce more sebum — something that causes more clogging and ultimately more acne." If you have sensitive skin that's also acneic, the derm suggests using an exfoliator geared to sensitive skin.
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Physical abrasives, like volcanic crystals or fruit-seed powders, and salicylic acid are Dr. Shamban's choice exfoliators for those with acne-prone skin. This scrub is nothing like the drugstore apricot scrubs of yore: Instead of being made with sharp seed slivers, it taps ultra-fine apricot-seed powder to exfoliate without further inflaming skin, plus salicylic acid to help treat breakouts.
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Thanks to an abundance of aggressive formulas on the market, exfoliants may pack a fear factor for those with sensitive skin. But Dr. Shamban maintains there is a place for exfoliation for this skin group — done once a week and with the right products. "The goal is cellular turnover and renewal, not inflammation and aggravation of the dermis, so gentle exfoliation with soothing and calming support is required," she says. "We want to engage a skin reaction, but not irritate the skin."
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Dr. Shamban suggests looking to enzymes (like papaya, pineapple, or bromelian) to help regenerate, repair, and protect the skin in the gentlest way possible. "Papaya enzymes delivered in a creamy, rich foam can soften, exfoliate, and gently release debris to promote healthy and natural skin turnover," she says. This powder-to-foam exfoliator doesn't come cheap, but it does a beautiful job of super-gentle exfoliation, thanks to papaya enzymes, bamboo powder, and an included konjac sponge, which helps sweep away dead cells without taking the skin's beneficial bacteria with it.
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Because heat from friction is one of the most common triggers for those with rosacea, most traditional exfoliators are out of play, Dr. Shamban notes. For everyday cleansing, the derm suggests avoiding rubbing or scrubbing; instead, use your hands to wash with tepid water and soap-free cleanser, then gently blot dry.
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Find heat-free exfoliation with a non-abrasive mask. This one is as smooth and gentle as a hydrating formula, but includes willow bark, which Dr. Shamban says is "a very good natural remedy that helps with symptoms of rosacea." It also contains hyaluronic acid to plump skin and soothing chamomile, another ingredient Dr. Shamban likes for rosacea patients — and plus, the rose-gold sheen is just begging to be Instagrammed.
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"Glycolic acid is derived from sugarcane and is typically safe to use during pregnancy," Dr. Levin says. "It's not only anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, but also decreases skin-cell adhesion, too." She suggests starting with a lower-concentration glycolic product, like this cleanser, before working your way up to something stronger, like her favorite, NeoStrata Foaming Glycolic Wash, which contains a whopping 18% glycolic acid.