Skincare 101: What Does Exfoliation Mean + How to Do It Right

What does exfoliation mean and do I really need it - we're answering all your Whats, Whys, Whens, and Hows.

November 29, 2021 4 minutes read

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You've probably heard (or read) countless times that exfoliation is a fundamental skincare step for a smooth and radiant complexion. But what does it exactly mean, and how do you know you're doing it right?

So, let's start from scratch – explaining the science behind skin exfoliation and answering all your burning questions regarding this holy-grail skincare ritual.

What Does Exfoliation Mean: the Whats

Our skin naturally renews itself every 28 days, more or less, getting rid of dead skin cells from its surface and making way for new ones. However, sometimes it does only a half-baked job, especially as we get older and our skin becomes lazier and lazier.

With this whole process postponed, dead skin cells pile up on the surface of the skin. This leads to clogged pores and blackheads if you have oily skin or dull complexion and flakiness if you have dry skin.

This is where exfoliation comes in handy, hurrying the process a bit and helping the skin finish the job. So, in a nutshell, exfoliation is the chemical or physical removal of dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin, clearing the way for the healthier and fresh skin cells from underneath, and basically, tricking our skin into thinking it's younger.

Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation

Physical or mechanical exfoliation involves using an exfoliating tool (like a sponge or brush) or a scrub containing microbeads, crystals, or fine granules that rub against the skin and physically slough away dead skin cells. These only work on the surface layer of the skin and don't have any additional benefits besides exfoliation.

On the other hand, chemical exfoliants or peels contain different exfoliating acids, such as AHAs or BHAs, that dissolve and loosen intercellular bonds or glue that keeps dead skin cells together. By breaking these bonds, the cells from the epidermis (the top layer of the skin) loosen and slough off more easily. In addition, chemical exfoliants penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, allowing for a more thorough cleanse and unclogging as well as better absorption of other skincare products in your routine.

Is Facial Exfoliation Necessary: The Whys

So do you really need to exfoliate? And what happens if you don't? Regular exfoliation will prevent clogging of the pores, which means fewer breakouts and a brighter complexion in the long run. If you don't exfoliate, dead skin cells will build up on your skin's surface, leading to blackheads, blemishes, dull and flaky skin, and more pronounced fine lines and wrinkles.

According to the AAD (American Academy of Dermatology), these are the benefits you can expect from regular exfoliation:

So, whether it's necessary or not – it's up to you to decide. In any case, we encourage you to try it (if you haven't already), stick to it for a while, and see the changes happening.

How Often Should I Exfoliate: The Whens

As always, moderation is the key. Too frequent exfoliation can lead to heightened skin sensitivity, redness, and irritation. In the long run, over-exfoliation can disrupt your skin's natural barrier and make it more prone to environmental damage.

On the other hand, if you don't exfoliate enough, your skin will have a hard time catching up with getting rid of dead skin cells, which leads to more breakouts, excess oil, or flakiness.

So, finding the right balance for your skin type and needs is essential. However, some rule of thumb would be to exfoliate once a week or once in ten days with mechanical or physical exfoliants.

With chemical peels, the story is a bit different. Even though the term chemical peels or exfoliating acids may sound intimidating, these are much gentler to your skin than face scrubs. Depending on the strength and formula of the product, you could use chemical exfoliants once or three times a week. If your skin is more resistive, you could apply them more often or even nightly. However, if you're just starting out, limit your exfoliation routine to just once or twice a week; otherwise, you might notice some unwanted side effects, like skin purging and redness.

How to Safely Exfoliate at Home: The Hows

Your exfoliating routine will depend on your skin type, needs, and preferences. However, there are some general guidelines, and tips dermatologists recommend to prevent skin damage:

Tip #1: Choose the Right Exfoliant

If you have oily, thicker skin that's more resilient, you can go for stronger exfoliating treatments and even use mechanical exfoliants on a regular basis. In contrast, those with more sensitive, dry, or acne-prone skin should avoid mechanical exfoliants since these can be irritating. Instead, go for mild chemical exfoliation or use a washcloth for mechanical exfoliation.

People with darker skin tones should steer clear of aggressive forms of exfoliation as these can cause dark spots. Likewise, if you have fresh burns, acne breakouts, or bug bites, avoid exfoliation in general to prevent irritation.

Tip #2: Be Gentle

Remember to always be gentle to your skin no matter your skin type or exfoliation method you chose. This is especially important if you're using face scrubs – apply the products gently to your skin using light circular motions with just a slight pressure. Do this for no more than 30 seconds, then rinse with lukewarm water.

If you're using exfoliating brushes or sponges, again apply just a little pressure and use short, feather-light strokes. Avoid using these on fresh cuts, wounds, bug bites, or acne.

Tip #3: Be Mindful of Other Products You Use

If you're using other potent actives, be it prescription or over-the-counter, you should skip using a peel as part of the same skincare routine. So, if you're using retinol (or any other form of retinoids), vitamin C serums, and products with benzoyl peroxide, avoid using chemical peels simultaneously to prevent irritation, acne, and excessive drying of the skin. Instead, do your retinol (or benzoyl peroxide) routine in the evening and exfoliation in the morning or the next day.

Tip #4: Always Start With Cleansed Skin

You should always cleanse your skin and remove all excess dirt and makeup before exfoliating. Likewise, post-scrub or chemical peel, continue with your toner to make sure to rebalance your skin's PH levels.

Tip #5: Follow Up With a Moisturizer

No matter your skin type – normal, dry, oily, or sensitive – always apply your moisturizer after exfoliating. This is because exfoliating can be quite drying to the skin, so you need to keep it hydrated and balanced. So remember to always follow up with your moisturizer and SPF after your a.m. exfoliating routine and night cream or balm in the p.m.

Tip #6: Find Schedule That Works for You

As we already mentioned, the frequency of your exfoliating routine will depend on your skin type. So, if you have oily and resilient skin, you can go for more frequent exfoliation (3 times a week). On the other hand, those with acne-prone and sensitive skin should be more careful. So, essentially, you'll have to experiment a bit, in the beginning, to see what schedule best works for you (it could be once a week or once a month).

In addition, be mindful of your product's formula – the stronger the concentration of your chemical exfoliant, the less frequent it needs to be done.


Hopefully, we've answered all your questions regarding exfoliation. To sum up, be gentle to your skin and don't overdo it – using stronger concentrations or harsher scrubs won't bring you faster results but can only damage and irritate your skin. So, listen to your skin and find the right exfoliant and schedule for its needs.

Also, if you have eczema, rosacea, or any other inflammatory skin condition, avoid doing exfoliating treatments at home. Instead, talk to your dermatologist to help you establish the best possible skincare routine for your individual needs.

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