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Do You Know How to Exfoliate Your Face Properly?

Do You Know How to Exfoliate Your Face Properly?

by Antoinette Barnardo 22 Apr 2020

Exfoliating your face is a key step in maintaining soft, smooth skin, especially in your more mature years when cell turnover slows down significantly.

But do you know how to exfoliate properly? It's not enough to simply add an exfoliant to your routine — incorrectly using this essential skincare product can create or exacerbate issues, including breakouts, redness, and dryness.

Here, we'll show you how to exfoliate your face according to your particular skin needs.

What Is an Exfoliant?

An exfoliant is a product that removes dead skin from the outer layer of your skin. Naturally, your body sheds these dead skin cells, but the rate at which that happens slows down over time. In your 20s, your skin renews itself about every two to three weeks. By the time you reach your 30s, cell turnover rates can increase to as long as 45 days. Regeneration rates will continue to slow down in your 40s and your 50s.

Why should you expedite the body's natural turnover process? For one, regular exfoliation can help reduce pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads, which can form when dead skin cells and sebum (oil) merge to clog pores.

Another benefit of exfoliating is more vibrant skin. A buildup of dead cells can result in a dull, listless complexion. Using an exfoliator can help shed those cells to reveal radiant, glowing skin.

The Two Types of Exfoliation

Exfoliation can be broken into two categories: chemical and physical. The best method for you will depend on your skin type and individual concerns.

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation dissolves the bonds that hold cells together, making it easier to buff away dead skin cells. In most cases, you don't wash this type of exfoliant off your face — you leave it on and allow it to do its job.

While the word "chemical" may elicit a sense of danger, this method of exfoliation is actually safe for every skin type when used correctly, including sensitive skin.

There are three types of chemical exfoliants:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
  • Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs)
  • Poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs)


AHAs are water-soluble and work strictly on the skin's outer surface. They're best used for reducing fine lines, sun damage, and hyperpigmentation. Popular AHAs include glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (from lactose), malic acid (from apples), and mandelic acid (from bitter almonds — and best for sensitive skin).


BHAs are oil-soluble and penetrate beyond the skin's surface to draw out impurities. That makes them ideal for treating acne and any resulting post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH, otherwise known as acne scars). BHAs are also good for fading dark spots and fighting signs of ageing. The most common BHA you'll find is salicylic acid (from willow bark).


PHAs are a relatively new discovery compared to AHAs and BHAs. Poly-hydroxy acids not only exfoliate the skin's surface (like AHAs), they're also humectants, meaning they help draw moisture to the skin, too. PHAs have a larger molecular structure, which makes them gentle enough for sensitive skin types to use. Gluconolactone (from glucose) and lactobionic acid (from milk sugar) are PHAs.

Physical Exfoliation

This method is what you may typically associate with exfoliating. Physical exfoliation, also known as manual or mechanical exfoliation, uses physical tools to slough off dead skin cells from the surface. Unlike its chemical counterparts, physical exfoliators are applied in gentle, circular motions on the skin and then washed right off with lukewarm water.

Manual exfoliants include:

  • Scrubs
  • Microbeads
  • Brushes and sponges


Not all face scrubs are created equal. Nutshells, fruit pits, coffee grounds, brown sugar, and salt can create microtears, which can weaken your skin's lipid barrier and lead to excessive dryness and breakouts. Meanwhile, scrubs that contain jojoba beads, bamboo powder, and other very fine powders serve as a more gentle solution to removing dead skin.


​Microbeads are made of plastic. While they may be less abrasive than traditional scrubs, microbeads are an environmental hazard since they do not dissolve in water.

Brushes and Sponges

You may prefer to use a separate tool combined with your favorite cleanser to exfoliate your skin. Nowadays, many brushes are battery-powered and provide pulsating sensations while cleaning your face. Konjac sponges, made from the porous root of the same name, provide a gentle touch and may even be combined with other ingredients such as charcoal or clay.

How to Exfoliate Your Face Based on Skin Type

Now that you have a better understanding of the different methods of exfoliation, it's time to take a look at which one best suits your skin type.

Exfoliating for Oily Skin

Oily skin types can benefit from both chemical and physical exfoliation. The best chemical exfoliant for oily skin is a BHA like salicylic acid since this type of chemical exfoliator goes pore-deep to purge impurities and remove excess oil.

Physical exfoliation can deep-clean pores, as well. However, make sure not to use scrubs on already-developed acne, as it'll become inflamed and irritated.

Exfoliating for Dry Skin

Dry skin types should opt for chemical exfoliation. A PHA such a gluconolactone or lactobionic acid will not only remove dead skin from the surface but also draw in moisture for a boost of hydration. Lactic acid, an AHA, can improve your skin's moisture content, per a 1996 study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science.

Physical exfoliation is generally not recommended for dry skin as microtears from harsh scrubbing can exacerbate dryness and flaking. Fine powder scrubs, however, may be gentle enough to remove dead skin without prolonging the symptoms of dry skin.

Exfoliating for Combination Skin

Since combination skin types have oily and dry areas, exfoliation methods must be targeted accordingly to avoid problems. For instance, an oily T-zone can be treated with a BHA or a gentle scrub. Dry cheeks, meanwhile, will be better suited for a PHA or AHA.

Exfoliating for Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin types will want to reach for a PHA. This category of chemical exfoliants is considered the most gentle. PHAs have a large molecular structure, which allows them to absorb into the skin gradually. Mandelic acid, an AHA, is also suited for sensitive skin, although the trade-off here is a lower rate of effectiveness compared to other AHAs like glycolic acid.

Very fine powders or a konjac sponge may be gentle enough for sensitive skin but overall, chemical exfoliation is preferred for this skin type.

Exfoliating for Mature Skin

AHAs are best for mature skin types since they're lauded for their ability to treat hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, and sun damage. Salicylic acid, a BHA, can also help eliminate signs of ageing with regular use.

Do's and Don'ts of Exfoliating

Besides knowing which type of exfoliation best suits your skin type, how you exfoliate — and how well you treat your skin after the process — should not be overlooked.

Do Wear Sunscreen

Sunscreen should already be a part of your daily skincare routine, but doubly so if you incorporate a chemical exfoliant. AHAs and BHAs can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Failure to wear an appropriate SPF in conjunction with using an AHA or BHA can make your skin more prone to sun damage.

Don't Over-Exfoliate 

How often should you exfoliate? This answer will depend on your individual skin condition and the method you use, but as a general rule of thumb try not to exceed three times per week. Over-exfoliating will invite a host of problems, ranging from dryness and flaking to redness, irritation, and even breakouts.

One exception to this rule is BHAs, which can be used every day.

Do Remember to Moisturise

Exfoliation not only sloughs away dead skin, but it also removes your skin's natural oils. To make up for the loss and prevent the risk of dryness, make sure to cap your routine with a well-formulated moisturising cream or lotion. If your skin needs a moisture boost, be sure to checkout our hydration collection.

Don't Layer Acids Haphazardly

It's possible to use chemical exfoliants with other actives, such as vitamin C, retinol, and niacinamide. However, the manner in which you do so can make a big difference. For example, if you use an AHA or BHA serum with a retinol cream in the same routine, you risk irritating your skin in a big way. One way to avoid aggravating your skin is to stagger these ingredients by either splitting them between morning and nighttime use or alternating days.

Do Visit a Dermatologist 

If your skin experiences any negative reactions upon exfoliating, a consultation with a dermatologist can help diagnose any potential ingredient allergies. A dermatologist can also help prescribe the best treatments for your individual skin concerns.

Exfoliate Your Way to Healthy Skin

Exfoliation can do wonders for your face. As you age, it's a key step in achieving clearer, smoother skin amidst your body's natural decline in cell regeneration. 

Because exfoliation is so important, it's essential to make sure you're doing it correctly. Knowing your skin concerns, along with the ingredients and methods that can best treat those issues, will make it much easier for you to enjoy a clear, glowing complexion.

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