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Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Exfoliating, Explained


Exfoliation is a lot like cleaning out your closet—slightly messy, sometimes emotional, and potentially irritating—but when all's said and done, both are necessary labors. In perfect self-care, exfoliation also happens regularly—twice weekly to get specific. But life is hard and we're busy, so if you haven’t regularly been exfoliating, now is your time to shine—both literally and figuratively. "But wait!" You might be thinking. "I don't know how to do it properly." Well, you've come to the right place.

Exfoliants on the market today currently run in two lanes: physical and chemical. They both technically do the same thing—slough off dead skin—but they do so in very different ways. And you want to make sure you're doing it right, because proper exfoliation allows your serums, moisturizers, etc. to sink into your skin a whole lot better. Which means you're getting more for your hard-earned money. So why would you skip this step? You wouldn't, but here's a breakdown of best practices, just in case you're rusty:

Physical Exfoliation

What is physical exfoliation?
Pretty straightforward exfoliation with the use of small grains, a brush, or a scalpel. But not all physical exfoliants are created equally. In the case of your typical drugstore scrub, peep the ingredients list to make sure that none of the exfoliating agents are too large—such is the advice of Dr. Dennis Gross, dermatologist and exfoliation expert. Scrubs do work, says the doctor, but they need to be handled gently. And despite what some may think, they aren’t as effective or as gentle as chemical exfoliation. More on that later.

I love physical exfoliation. Are there ingredients I should be avoiding?
Yes. Avoid large exfoliants like fruit pits and nut shells since these have a tendency to cause micro-tears in the skin.

Um… What’s a micro-tear!?
Don’t panic! Everything is fine. Micro-tears are created by agents that are too sharp or jagged, causing little tears in the skin. Many dermatologists are not fans of physical exfoliants because of how they can result in micro-tears. “If you look under a microscope, [it] looks like sandpaper to wood," said Dr. Gross. "There are rough, etched tears made to the epidermis which shows the unevenness of physical exfoliation.”

But physical exfoliation isn't all bad. If you're in the market for a regular face scrub, Fresh's Sugar Face Polish is a favorite for its light fruity scent and its tendency to deliver great skin after each use. The sugar granules are tiny enough not to be irritating, but powerful enough to get the job done.

Besides scrubs, are there other forms of physical exfoliants?
There’s microdermabrasion, which is basically face scrubbing at the hands of a licensed professional. This form of physical exfoliation is especially ideal for those with scars, wrinkles and stretch marks. There's also dermaplaning, which ITG covered last week. Spoiler alert: Knives are involved. Isn't this fun?

Chemical Exfoliation

What is chemical exfoliation?
Chemical exfoliants remove dead skin cells with the use of—are you ready?—chemicals to aid in cell turnover. Peels are chemical exfoliants, and are not only great for smoothing but also for brightening. The glow effect!

What chemicals should I be looking for?
There are a couple types to look out for, starting with alpha hydroxy acids. AHAs are derived from natural substances and are ideal for exfoliating dry skin, since they remove the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together. Gross, yes, but smoother skin is the payout. However AHAs, because they're water soluble, can’t penetrate very deep into pores. Unlike BHAs.

By contrast, BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) are oil-soluble molecules. Thus, they can reach deeper into the skin and pores. BHAs also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties—a more in-depth exfoliation in general. This type of chemical exfoliator is recommended with those with acne-prone, oily skin. If blackheads are a concern, stick to BHAs.

Is it possible to use both?
Yes! Since AHAs and BHAs work in different ways to exfoliate the top layer of skin, it is in fact safe to use both. BHAs break down the bonds between cells while AHAs cause the cells themselves to detach. Dr. Gross used a brick wall metaphor—in between these “bricks” are the fibers that holds the skin cells together. BHA break down the bonds between cells while AHA’s cause the cells themselves to detach.

Are there other chemicals or ingredients I should be looking out for?
Yup. Fruit enzymes like papain (papaya!) and bromelain (pineapple!) are perfect exfoliants for those with sensitive skin—they’re not nearly as harsh as BHAs or AHAs. Fruit enzymes break down the keratin in skin and target only the outermost layer of the epidermis. The only thing that’s finicky about enzyme exfoliators is that they can become unstable depending on their environment. Dr. Gross warned that some enzyme exfoliators have the risk of affecting the healthy cells underneath the skin, so all in all, ask your derm before proceeding.

Any recommendations?
Always. ITG polled its most valuable resource—the people at Glossier HQ—for their suggestions. From our team to your Top Shelves:

Omorovicza Refining Facial Polisher
"I'm a big fan of physical exfoliants! I just like how satisfying they are. And as somebody who was raised on the gross pink pumice cleanser everybody used in middle school, this feels like home. It uses fine pumice to exfoliate alongside Hungarian mud—sometimes I leave it on like a mask before I scrub it off. Oh, and it smells like a wealthy baby." —Brennan Kilbane, Assistant Editor

Naturopathica Sweet Cherry Brightening Peel
"The first time I tried this, the redness around my nose visibly decreased and my skin felt smoother—and since using it once a week or so, I've have noticed that my skin looks generally brighter and that my dark spots has noticeably faded without the rest of my face having a reaction. It’s a great mask for someone with slightly sensitive skin who wants to get a clearer, brighter complexion without using something that feels scarily strong. Also, the cherry scent!" —Amulya Uppala, Marketing Content Coordinator

Skin Inc Pure Revival
"It's no nonsense—it doesn't have fragrance and it won't make you feel like you at a spa, but it gets the job done very efficiently, and that's really what I'm looking for. It's instantly gratifying—I can see my dead skin come off, and in two minutes, I have a fresh, smooth face. Gross, but true." —Kelly Dill, Strategy Associate

M-61 Powerglow Peel Pads
"These pads are the kinds of things that in the moment don't really seem like they've done anything, and I wonder if I should've pressed the pad harder into my skin or spent more time using it before I chucked it in the trash. Throughout the day, though, I'll go into the bathroom in the office and my skin just looks good. My pores look a lot smaller and skin looks shiny and tight, like a rich Beverly Hills woman right after she's gotten Botox." —Kim Johnson, Associate Community Manager

(If "rich Beverly Hills woman" didn't sell you, we give up.)

Photo via ITG. Research by Claire Cohen.

More on this: Tom picks his favorite BHAs and Emily shares her choice peels for sensitive skin.