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Exfoliation can be an incredibly effective part of your skin care routine – as long as you do it correctly. While it’s not for everyone, exfoliation can give your skin a youthful, smooth appearance that you might not have thought possible.

If you’re not familiar with exfoliation, here’s some information on what it is, how best to exfoliate according to your skin type, and how to do it without causing potentially damaging irritation.

What is Exfoliation?

In a nutshell, exfoliation is the process of helping rid your skin of dead cells. As a result, if you exfoliate your face it can help improve your complexion. When you’re born, your skin is extremely smooth because your body does a great job of replacing skin cells. However, as you get older, it gets harder for your body to shed dead cells. Age, hormones, sun exposure, and other factors lead to the accumulation of dead skin. This, in turn, can lead to the formation of wrinkles and fine lines.1

Exfoliation | Beverly Hills MDNow, the process by which your body naturally sheds dead skin is known as desquamation. It occurs when desmosomes, substances that hold skin cells together, begin to weaken as they move from the deeper levels of your skin to the surface levels. The outermost layer of skin is known as the stratum corneum layer. This is where enzymes further break up desmosomes, and the cells are sloughed off. Exfoliation helps to speed this process.2

While exfoliation is often done on the face, it can also be useful to help remove dead skin cells from other areas of your body — including your feet, elbows, and knees.

When you exfoliate, you’re helping your body rid itself of these cells, so that your healthy skin can shine through.

Exfoliation can help to lessen the appearance of age spots, wrinkles, and fine lines, and it also helps to unclog pores. In addition, freshly exfoliated skin may better absorb moisturizers.3

How Exfoliation Works

Now, there are two main types of exfoliation: chemical and mechanical (or physical) exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliation involves the use of enzymes or acids. It’s also known as a “chemical peel.” The two most common kinds of chemical exfoliants are known as Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, and beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA.4,5 Here’s a quick look at both of them:


AHAs come from sugar, fruit, milk, and other sources. Some of the more popular kinds of AHAs include lactic acid, which comes from milk, and glycolic acid, which comes from sugar. AHAs combine with fats in the outermost layer of your skin and dissolve them. This loosens dead skin cells so they can be easily washed away.6


BHA works in much the same way as AHAs. They work with skin fats to dissolve dead skin cells. The main difference is that BHA is considered to be gentler to the skin than AHAs.7

Enzymes are also commonly used in chemical exfoliation. They are typically recommended for people who have sensitive skin. Enzymes also come from natural sources and work as an acid, but do so more slowly. As a result, they are generally regarded to be much gentler than acids, and much less likely to irritate the skin.8

Some people prefer to exfoliate using mechanical, or physical, exfoliation. This typically involves using some sort of substance, such as a pumice stone or crystals.

These substances will usually need to be somewhat abrasive in order to remove dead skin cells.

Exfoliation | Beverly Hills MDSo, if you have thicker skin, you will likely be able to tolerate a more abrasive material, such as magnesium oxide crystals, a loofah, or pumice – though pumice should never be used on facial skin. And if your skin is more sensitive, then you will probably be better off using gentler materials, like a washcloth.9 Other methods of mechanical exfoliation include using tools, such as brushes or sponges.

No matter what type of skin you have, be careful if you choose to try mechanical exfoliation. Some exfoliators may be too abrasive to use on the face. If you have any doubts as to which method would be best for your skin, talk to a dermatologist. A skin care professional may recommend a method known as microdermabrasion. This involves the use of a special tool to loosen dead skin cells.10

Exfoliation and Different Skin Types

Different skin types require different types of exfoliation. Using the wrong method might result in red, irritated skin. No matter what kind of skin type you have, it’s important to be as gentle as possible and avoid over exfoliation. You never want to over exfoliate – if you do, you’ll irritate otherwise healthy skin.

Let’s take a look at some of the methods of exfoliation recommended for some common skin types:

Oily skin – If you have oily skin, you may be able to tolerate a stronger exfoliant, whether you choose chemical or mechanical exfoliation. In addition, you might be able to exfoliate more often than those who have other skin types.

Exfoliation | Beverly Hills MDDry skin – People with rough or flaky skin might be better off using AHAs that do a good job of removing dead cells. This will make it easier for moisturizers to do their job of hydrating healthy skin cells.

Sensitive skin – If you have sensitive skin, you need to be very careful not to over exfoliate. You need to be gentle. Either wet a washcloth with a mild cleanser and warm water or use a mild chemical exfoliant. Mechanical exfoliation is likely not for you.

Combination skin – There might be some parts of your skin that are oily, while others may be dry, or even sensitive. If you fall into this category, you’ll probably want to use different exfoliation methods for different areas – and on different days. You may need to experiment to find what works best for you.11

How to Safely Exfoliate

Once you’ve determined the best method for your exact skin type, the next step is to exfoliate safely. It will be very important that you are as gentle as possible to your skin. Whether you use the chemical or mechanical method of exfoliation, apply the product for about 30 seconds After you’re done, wash the product off using lukewarm water. Then apply moisturizer to make sure your skin stays hydrated. Skip exfoliation if you have a sunburn or you have any type of cut or other wounds.12

What Happens When You Over Exfoliate?

Again, you should always take precautions so that you don’t over exfoliate. Over exfoliation is one of the most common mistakes when it comes to skin care.

How can you tell if you’re a victim of over-exfoliation? You might notice increased redness on your face, or you might see a rash. Another sign of excessive exfoliation is the presence of broken blood capillaries just underneath the skin.13

Exfoliation | Beverly Hills MDFor people with sensitive skin, redness and tenderness are sure signs of over-exfoliation. That’s why it’s so important that you exfoliate carefully especially if you choose mechanical exfoliation.

There are a lot of products out there that contain components such as nut shells, and even the pits of fruits. These components can seriously damage sensitive skin, leading to irritation that can last for several days. In addition, harsh exfoliants can, in some instances, worsen breakouts.14

If you experience pain or excessive redness, discontinue your exfoliation routine, and talk to a doctor to find the method that will work best for your specific skin type.

Wrapping It Up

When it comes to skincare, exfoliation is an important part of the regimen. It can help lessen the appearance of some signs of aging, and it can help make your skin stronger and healthier. But you need to proceed cautiously until you find the routine that works best for you and your skin type. If you over-exfoliate, you run the risk of pain, redness, and possibly an increase in dark spots.

Talk to a dermatologist to determine not only the right exfoliation method for you but also how often you should exfoliate. And be very careful regarding the types of products you use. Do your homework, and make sure you’re not only buying products from reputable companies but also products that will be safe.

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