Do I Really Need To Exfoliate My Face
Almost any beauty expert will tell you to exfoliate your skin. But why? If we shed our skin naturally, then why speed up the process? In truth, when it comes to buffing away our dead skin cells, this step is not a “need”, it’s a “luxury” — one that will keep your skin glowier, brighter and fresher-looking. From acne-fighting benefits to anti-aging factors, there are tons of reasons why it’s important to exfoliate your face. We gathered insights from top industry experts to explore the matter further.
Natural skin shedding vs. exfoliation
Naturally, all humans shed their skin. It’s a standard part of our skin’s life cycle, whereby old cells die and flake away, allowing new ones to surface.
As Charles Weschler and colleagues explain, “humans shed their entire outer layer of skin every 2-4 weeks at the rate of 0.001 – 0.003 ounces of skin flakes every hour.” This process is called desquamation, referring to our skin’s natural cellular turnover process. We all have different rates for how quickly this process happens. That’s why exfoliating your skin is important; it can kickstart the removal of slow, sluggish skin cells.
But exfoliation is not the same as desquamation (which happens organically). When you exfoliate, you’re encouraging your skin cells to turnover faster than they normally would.
How important is skin exfoliation?
Louise Deschamps, facialist to stars like J.Lo and Harry Styles, is a major fan of exfoliation. She recommends using a formula that “has fruit enzymes and brings oxygen to your skin.” That’s how you create radiance; when skin cells are more oxygenated, they can breathe better, which boosts circulation, brilliance and tone.
To achieve this effect, you need to exfoliate regularly to remove dead skin and impurities, clearing away dullness or grey tones from your complexion. In turn, skin appears brighter and perkier, and just overall more glowy.
Physical vs. chemical exfoliation
There’s no one-single way to exfoliate your skin. Generally, there are two ways: physical and chemical exfoliation. To understand the benefits (and cons) of each one, let’s review how they work.
If you prefer a chemical-free way to exfoliate your skin, you might turn to the physical method. Physical exfoliation is the process of manually dislodging dirt and surface cells using a scrub containing grainy bits.
But caution is key. “You want to gently cleanse the skin beforehand and you want to make sure that the skin remains moist/wet in order to prevent microscopic tears in the skin,’ says medical journalist Dr. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip. Her warning is the reason that infamous St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub came under a class-action lawsuit against St. Ives in 2017. The sharp walnut shell pieces were too abrasive and caused micro-tears in the skin.
Remember that our facial skin is extremely delicate. Being too aggressive with your skin can not only injure the surface layers, but you can actually trigger an inflammatory reaction. What’s more, if you make a habit of over-exfoliating, your pores release extra sebum to cushion the abuse on your skin. So you could start making your skin more oily. While physical exfoliants have their place in skin care, they should be used with extreme care.
Unlike physical exfoliants which “tear” away dead skin cells, chemical exfoliants work by dissolving them. While chemical exfoliants are arguably much safer, they also tend to be more costly, especially if the active ingredients are high quality.
Chemical exfoliants fall into three main categories: enzymes and hydroxy acids. The type you choose depends on your level of skin sensitivity and the intensity of exfoliation you need.
At the gentlest end of the spectrum, you’ve got enzyme exfoliants. Often derived from plants and fruits, they help break down the outer layer of skin to uncover newer skin.
Over time, this process can fade acne scars and pigmentation, exposing a smoother and brighter surface. Plus, they also fight free radical damage, which contributes to early signs of aging.
Enzyme-based formulas are ideal for sensitive skin types. “Unlike chemical acids that have the potential to burn or weaken your protective barrier, enzymes are unlikely to inflame, irritate or damage skin,” Dr. Nazarian says. That’s why enzyme peels are a popular choice for daily use.
“Enzymes set in motion a specific—and critical—skin-care reaction: they unglue the bonds between dead skin cells, which causes skin to exfoliate and slough off,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D. of Schweiger Dermatology Group.
Next, we have hydroxy-acid exfoliants. As they work to speed up cellular renewal, over time, your skin will appear more illuminated and softer in texture with fewer fine lines.
In the hydroxy acid family, we have two sub categories: alpha hydroxy acids(AHA) like glycolic acid and lactic acid, and beta-hydroxy acids (BHA) like salicylic acid. While BHAs penetrate deeper into your pores, AHAs are less intrusive and address the topmost layers of skin. For this reason, BHAs are usually better suited for controlling breakouts and fading acne scars. Like BHAs, AHAs also have skin-lightening qualities but are more often used for anti-aging purposes to improve skin quality, tone and texture.
Of all the AHAs, lately there’s been the most hype around gold masks and peels. We’ve seen top models like Kaia Geber, Irina Shayka and both Hadid sisters posting selfies on Instagram, showing off their gold-covered faces. It’s no wonder the 24K Gold Peeling Gel by EMK is becoming a cult classic. “It contains alpha hydroxy acids to gently remove dull surface cells, and vitamins A, B, and C to decrease dark circles and fight aging free radical damage," says Nazarian.
How often should you exfoliate your face?
There’s no golden rule for how often you should exfoliate your face. While some dermatologists recommend daily exfoliation, others advise two-three times a week.
Deschamps is among the dermatologists who are pro daily exfoliation. “You want to polish every day to remove the dead skin without being too aggressive or too invasive,” says Deschamps. However, if you’ve got delicate or reactive skin, there’s a good chance that daily exfoliating will leave you red and irritated. In this case, listen to your skin and create your own schedule based on your individual needs.
How often to exfoliate acne prone skin
Acne-prone skin has a lazy cell turnover rate. To speed up the process, you should exfoliate at least two to three times a week, recommends Joshua Zeichner, MD. And here’s why…
This condition means that dead skill cells stick to the skin surface longer, while excess sebum causes a buildup of oil and debris in the pores. To keep the skin clean, we rely on BHAs like salicylic acid to de-flake and unclog the skin. “Salicylic acid exfoliates the stratum corneum (outer layer of skin) to remove sebum,” explains Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist in New York City.
But just like any active ingredient, you should be careful when starting a new product with salicylic acid. Start off with a mild concentration and apply it once or twice weekly. As your skin adjusts, you can increase the frequency.
How often to exfoliate dry skin
Whether your skin is dry or oily, you should still follow Dr. Zeichner’s recommended exfoliation schedule of two to three times per week.
Both oily and dry skin have slow desquamation. However, unlike how you’d treat oily skin, people with dry skin may benefit from richer moisturizing products. Since dry skin has more flakes hanging around, the skin is less able to stay hydrated, according to Dr. Neal Schultz, board-certified MD, New York City-based dermatologist. "Flakes prevent moisturizers from fixing dry skin, so getting rid of them is a must to allow moisturizers to work," he explains. Considering how important skin exfoliation is to any anti-aging routine, it’s worth investing in a treatment that improves cell turnover. People get so concerned with their wrinkles but forget about the beauty of having a bright, glowing complexion. Really, after all, it’s about looking healthy.
About The Author: Rachel Esco is an educator and consultant in advanced cosmetics who empowers consumers to make informed choices about skin care. With a profound interest in beauty and biochemistry, her articles explore the latest breakthroughs in epigenetics and anti-aging technologies. Rachel is also a passionate advocate for the Beauty Conscious Movement, promoting the use of environmentally safe materials to create a zero waste culture.