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How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face: The Complete Guide ----- Back

05.11.19 - How To

How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face: The Complete Guide

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Words by Antoinette Barnardo

We all know that exfoliation is an essential step in our skincare routines for a smooth and glowing complexion. The use of a facial scrub or an acid peel sloughs away the dead skin cells on your skin's surface to reveal healthier and brighter-looking skin. Nothing feels more satisfying than that baby-soft, smooth texture which might make you want to exfoliate more. 

But too much of a good thing can also be detrimental to your skin. Over-exfoliating your skin can strip it of its natural oils which will affect the skin barrier and moisture levels. This could lead to dryness and inflammation. Some might even experience acne breakouts due to the impaired protective barrier. 

To prevent over-exfoliation, how often should you exfoliate your face? In this post, we'll look at the factors that determine how often you should exfoliate your face, the best method of exfoliation for your skin type, and how to care for your skin after exfoliating. 

Exfoliation: An Essential Step in Your Skincare Regime

Your skin is constantly growing and shedding dead skin cells. To understand this skin renewal cycle better, we'll focus on the uppermost layer of the skin — the epidermis. 

In the epidermis, there are four layers: 

  • Stratum basale
  • Stratum spinosum
  • Stratum granulosum
  • Stratum corneum

The cells in all the layers (except the stratum basale) are known as keratinocytes. The keratinocytes in the stratum corneum, which is the most superficial layer of the epidermis, shed regularly and are replaced once every four weeks. This means there will most likely be a build-up of dead skin cells and other debris on your skin's surface without regular exfoliation. 

That's why exfoliating twice or three times a week is essential to get rid of these dead skin cells that would otherwise clog pores, make your skin duller, or even cause acne. Moreover, regular exfoliation allows other skincare products in your routine to penetrate more easily into your skin. Serums, essences, and moisturisers will be more effective and will help you achieve a clear, glowing complexion. 

How Often Should Each Skin Type Exfoliate?

The golden rule recommended by most dermatologists is two to three times a week to get clear skin, and never more than that. Of course, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution when it comes to exfoliation. Start by exfoliating once a week and see how your skin feels before you increase the frequency to two to three times a week, depending on whether your skin needs it or not. Also, remember to exfoliate gently depending on how abrasive the product is. 

The frequency of exfoliation can vary according to your skin type:

  • Oily skin: This skin type needs more frequent exfoliation, at least two to three times a week, to remove the excess sebum and dirt accumulated on the skin surface. By doing so, it will reduce the chances of clogged pores and pimple breakouts. 
  • Mature skin: Given that ageing skin has a slower skin turnover rate, exfoliating two to three times a week can help in reducing the appearance of fine lines and dullness. However, it's also crucial to avoid over-exfoliation which could lead to skin thinning and speed up skin ageing even more.
  • Sensitive skin: To prevent worsening skin sensitivity, exfoliating once a week is generally recommended for this skin type. Also, choose exfoliating products that contain gentle ingredients such as plant-based enzymes and rice extract. 
  • Dry skin: As dry skin tends to have a build-up of dead, flaky skin on the surface, exfoliating twice or three times a week is best. But remember to choose products that contain hydrating ingredients to avoid exacerbating the dryness. 
  • Normal to combination skin types: Two to three times a week is ideal to keep the dead skin cells away without risking over-exfoliation. 

What Are the Exfoliation Methods Available?

Other than skin types, the method of exfoliation used also affects how often you should exfoliate your face. 

When it comes to exfoliation, there are two ways you can go about it: 

  • Physical exfoliation (also known as manual exfoliation) 
  • Chemical exfoliation 

To decide which method is best for your skin type, let's take a closer look at each of them. 

Physical Exfoliation 

Physical exfoliants use physical tools to slough away the dead skin cells. 

Some common examples are: 

  • Face scrubs 
  • Microbeads 
  • Facial brushes or sponges 
  • Washcloths 
  • Microdermabrasion 

There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding face scrubs. Some might say that face scrubs are too abrasive for the skin and should be avoided altogether. Others have heard horror stories of how the grains in these scrubs cause microtears in the skin. 

But not all face scrubs, or more specifically, not all ingredients used in the face scrubs are too harsh for the skin to handle. Nut shells, fruit pits, and salt are too abrasive to be used as scrub particles. But face scrubs that use ingredients like bamboo powder or jojoba beads are gentle enough even for sensitive skin types. Also, choose products that contain scrub particles in super-fine or powdered forms and use gentle, circular motions on your skin to keep the irritation to a minimum. 

So are physical exfoliants for you or not? We list out the pros and cons of this method so you can be the judge: 

Pros:

  • Physical exfoliation gives immediate results — say hello to smoother, brighter complexion right after exfoliating. 
  • Physical exfoliants won’t interfere with the performance of other products in your routine so you are safe to put on a serum or hydrating essence immediately after rinse-off. 

Con:

  • The physical tools require cleaning. Make sure to keep your brushes, sponges, and cloths in a dry place to prevent bacteria from breeding. 
  • Some physical scrubs that contain scrub particles like walnut shells and fruit pits have sharp, jagged edges which could cause microtears. 

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants often contain skin-exfoliating chemicals like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) or plant-based enzymes. These chemical exfoliators work by dissolving the bonds that hold the cells together which makes it easier to buff away the layer of dead skin cells. The result is newer, more radiant-looking skin that feels smoother. 

Chemical exfoliants typically come in the form of: 

  • Leave-on liquid formula
  • Peels 
  • Exfoliating pads 

To help you decide whether your skin is a good fit for chemical exfoliation, we've listed out its pros and cons below: 

Pros:

  • There are no mechanical motions involved which means no risk of microtears or skin abrasion. 
  • Application is fuss-free since most chemical exfoliants are a leave-on formula that doesn’t need to be rinsed off. 

Con:

  • These chemicals can penetrate deeper into the skin which may increase skin irritation or sensitivity. 

Acids like AHAs, BHAs, and even polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) have become general knowledge when it comes to chemical exfoliants. But what are the differences between these acids, and how do you know which type is best for your skin? 

A Note on AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs

For a long time, AHAs and BHAs have dominated the world of chemical exfoliants. They are capable of whisking away dirt, dead skin cells, and other impurities from the skin to reveal healthier-looking skin. But in recent times, a new group of hydroxy acids, PHAs, have also come to play. 

The differences between AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs are: 

  • AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid are water-soluble and act only on the skin’s surface. By exfoliating the top layer, they are great for reducing the appearance of fine lines and sun damage. 
  • BHAs like salicylic acid are oil-soluble and penetrate deeper into the skin to draw out deeply embedded impurities which makes them great for oily skin and clogged pores. 
  • PHAs like lactobionic acid have a larger molecular structure which means that they do not penetrate as deeply into the skin and cause irritation. As such, they are best for sensitive skin types. 

The bottom line is that no individual acid is better or worse than the others. The trick is to know what your skin type and concerns are and pick the right acid for your skin. 

Which Exfoliation Method Is Best for Your Skin Type?

Now that you’re aware of the different ways of exfoliating your skin, it could be a little confusing to decide which method is best for your skin type. 

Here’s a breakdown of which exfoliation method will work for your unique needs: 

Oily Skin

Both physical and chemical exfoliation are beneficial. 

  • Physical exfoliation — It's great for removing excess sebum and unclogging pores thanks to its mechanical motions. 
  • Chemical exfoliation — Exfoliants like BHAs effectively penetrate through the sebum layer and deeper into the skin. 

Mature Skin

Both physical and chemical exfoliation are beneficial. Choose a product that also includes anti-ageing ingredients like retinol to boost its effectiveness in targeting the signs of ageing.

Sensitive Skin

Both can be used, but you’ll need the right products with the right exfoliating ingredients. 

  • Physical exfoliation — Try gentle products like bamboo beads which are mild on the skin and much less likely to irritate the skin. 
  • Chemical exfoliation — PHAs are a good bet since they can’t penetrate deeply which means these acids are less likely to sensitise the skin. Mandelic acid is also an ideal exfoliant for sensitive skin

Dry Skin

Chemical exfoliants are usually preferred over physical ones. 

  • Physical exfoliation — Go for products without harsh ingredients like large granules or nutshells that could cause microtears. 
  • Chemical exfoliation — Any acids are okay, particularly PHAs, which are less likely to irritate. Peels with gentle enzymes like papain extract are also a great choice. 

Combination Skin

Both physical and chemical exfoliation are beneficial. Make sure that the product you choose targets both the oily T-zone and dry patches.

Normal Skin

Both physical and chemical exfoliation are beneficial. 

How Often Should Each Exfoliation Method Be Used?

The different effects of physical and chemical exfoliants can affect how often each exfoliation method should be used. 

First, due to the mechanical movements involved, physical exfoliants may irritate the skin more and should only be used two to three times per week.

On the other hand, how frequently chemical exfoliants should be used depends on whether it's a leave-on or wash-off, as well as the type of acid it contains. 

Leave-on exfoliants have more time to sink into the skin and should be used two to three times a week at most. In contrast, wash-off exfoliants have less time to penetrate the skin which reduces the risk of skin irritation and can be used every other day. Follow the usage instructions on the product to make sure it’s used correctly. 

When it comes to acids, AHAs target the skin surface and should only be used every other day at the most to prevent over-exfoliation. Conversely, BHAs, also known as salicylic acid, are safe for daily use because they’re less likely to irritate skin. 

To sum it up, physical exfoliants and most of the chemical exfoliants should be used two to three times per week. The only exception to the rule would be BHAs which can be used every day. 

After-Care: What to Do After Exfoliating

After exfoliating, there are two things you must do to protect your skin. 

Moisturize

When you exfoliate, the natural oils on your skin get stripped away. So repeated exfoliation without proper moisturization afterward can make your skin even drier over time. Since the skin’s protective barrier is now affected, your skin could experience redness, sensitivity, or even acne. To solve this, apply a hydrating product such as a serum or moisturizer to replenish your skin's moisture levels. 

Protect

It's also essential to put on sunscreen, particularly after using chemical exfoliants. Your skin is extra sensitive which puts it at a greater risk of UV-induced sun damage. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or more every day. 

Say Hello to Baby-Soft Skin

All in all, exfoliation is an effective step for everyone’s routine. The key to getting baby-soft, glowing skin is to exfoliate the appropriate amount of times per week. Your skin type and the method of exfoliation will determine how often you should exfoliate each week. If you slather on moisturizer and sunscreen after exfoliating, your efforts will not be in vain.

Words by Antoinette Barnardo

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