Your Exfoliating Questions, Answered


Last week, we asked the world to lay their exfoliating questions on us with the promise of expert answers in a week's time. After roughly 600 questions (300 on ITG, 300 in Glossier's Instagram DMs) we're back with the help of some of our favorite skin experts to answer the most pressing inquiries. And in less than a week! ITG is a site that keeps its word, after all. So buckle up for some fresh learnings—and probably scrubbing. We're all about to be so smooth.

Q: What even is exfoliating? Why should I care?

A: "An easy one to start off with! Exfoliating is simply the act of sloughing off of dead skin cells to reveal beautiful, newly generated skin cells. It's also a good excuse to use the word "sloughing". There are a number of ways you can do this—physically, with a scrub, a rough wash cloth, or a microdermabrasion machine; or chemically, with very safe skincare acids like glycolic, salicylic, lactic, etc. You care because it's the part of skin's life cycle that helps fight acne, restore brightness to the skin, and even prevent wrinkles. But, everyone needs to figure out the right way to exfoliate for their skin." —Emily Ferber, Senior Editor, Into The Gloss

Q: When should I start exfoliating?

A: “Exfoliation is a practice that requires experimentation. Some people can tolerate the more abrasive products while others need more gentle formulation that won’t leave skin red and irritated. On one hand, you’re scrubbing away dead, dulling cells to stimulate new cell growth and reveal that healthy, fresh glow. But on the other hand, you’re doing just that: semi-sanding your face! Finding the balance here is key. While it’s suggested to start exfoliating starting in your 20s, you may want to consider scheduling a mild peel or microdermabrasion once a month when you reach your 30s. Then in your 40s, it may be time to increase the frequency. This is the point in your life when your skin begins to thin and becomes even more vulnerable to the environment. At the same time, the natural enzymes in your skin begin to work less effectively at removing dead skin cells, so they hang on and prevent your skin from reflecting light. The result is an ashy and gray look. It will all depend on your individual skin type and texture. If exfoliation makes your skin red and irritated, don’t do it frequently or lighten up on the harshness of your methods. If you over-treat your skin, you could be setting yourself up for irritation and inflammation.” —Dr. Amy Wechsler, board certified dermatologist

Q: Physical vs. chemical exfoliation…when should you use either technique? How are they different? Should they be used in conjunction? Anything you need to know before doing both?

A: "Skin is a magical organ that regenerates itself and constantly rebuilds new skin. In order to have a great functioning epidermis we need to constantly but gently exfoliate. I like both chemical and physical exfoliation for this. And I want to debunk the idea that you can only do one or the other... I like to alternate between thoroughly cleansing, using extremely gentle scrubs, as well as a mild chemical exfoliant. Even when you're using a cotton round you are technically performing physical and chemical exfoliation. It's a little bit like a workout. But also like a workout, you can't immediately run a marathon. If you're completely new to exfoliation go easy. If you're unsure, try washing your face with and without a washcloth. You'll most likely notice a difference. If you need a little more you can always add a granule exfoliation. I prefer something mild like the MBR enzyme boosting cleanser because it has the softest texture. In terms of chemical exfoliation what you should use depends on your skin type. For instance if you are prone to breakouts BHA is beneficial. If you are looking for plumping and rehydration, lactic acid is your best bet." —Danuta Mieloch, aesthetician and owner, Rescue Spa

Q: Is it OK to exfoliate dry or sensitive skin? If so, what's the safest method and why?

A: "Dry skin is essentially a result of excess scale, where the epidermis is not turning over as quickly as it should. This causes flaking. You should definitely be exfoliating dry skin as this can increase the natural epidermal skin cell turnover process. Glycolic acid is one of the best ingredients to look for when exfoliating, as it can actually attract moisture and hydrate your skin without being abrasive. If you have sensitive skin, you should still be exfoliating, but use chemical exfoliators and AHA acids to help reveal softer skin without physically irritating the skin with harsh textures like microcrystalline/microbeads and walnut shells that are in common exfoliating cleansers. Abrasive brushes such as a Clarisonic could also cause irritation and should be avoided if you have sensitive skin." —Dr. Craig Austin, board certified dermatologist and founder, Cane + Austin

Q: I have oily skin and a lot of different products—BHAs, AHAs, retinol, scrubs… Can I use these all together? What’s the best way to get oily skin in check with exfoliation?

A: "You can use them together, but not all at the same time. Too much exfoliation can actually cause a reaction that ends up producing more oil, not to mention disrupting your skin barrier. Out of those four methods for treating oily skin, the BHA and the retinol are the most important. Make sure your skin does OK with both of those before introducing anything else. My general rule is one active for the AM and one active for PM. I would start by using a BHA 5 to 6 days a week. Then after two weeks or so try adding in a retinol every other night. Once you get your skin accustomed to retinol, just alternate your actives. There are a few ways to do that. You can do BHA in the morning and retinol at night, or you can alternate BHA and retinol at night. Once you're used to that combo, then AHA is OK to alternate into the mix. I personally use BHA and retinoids and like to use an AHA once or twice a week just to give my skin the best of everything. I would personally avoid using a scrub if using chemical exfoliation and retinoids, but if you must, just make sure it's super mild and gentle and not more then once a week." —Jordana Mattioli, licensed aesthetician

Q: Where should I exfoliate in my routine? Should that change with the seasons?

A: "You don't necessarily need to change your exfoliation routine with the seasons; however in the winter you may want to dilute your liquid exfoliator with damp cotton pads to cut the acidity. If that does not work, you can step your exfoliating toner down to one that is more moisturizing and less acidic. If a product is consistently leaving you irritated, either leave out acidic toner from your routine or find a really gentle one." —Melanie Simon, licensed aesthetician and founder, ZIIP

Q: Are micro tears real? And do I need to be worried about them?

A: "Micro tears occur when you use something with a sharp edge that creates an invisible laceration in the epidermis layer of the skin. (Think of when you scratch yourself on your hand with a sharp edge of your nail and it creates a tiny little laceration. If the skin wasn’t scratched too deep then no blood will form.) Bristles, such as from a Clarisonic brush, when pressed too firmly on the skin can create micro tears. Also, natural grained facial scrubs can have sharp edges, too. Walnut husks, for example, are smashed into tiny pieces and can get a little sharp when rubbed over the skin. This is why perfectly round, non-plastic beads are better to use in facial scrubs. Or the Foreo, if you like a brush. The problem with creating micro tears is that these can create cracks in the skins lipid layer, allowing moisture to escape more easily. In addition, irritants can get down to the nerve endings faster causing a stinging sensation. Meaning, products that might not normally sting someone might start stinging if there are micro tears in the skin. This is what is known as a damaged moisture barrier." —Renée Rouleau, licensed aesthetician

More from the pros, this way.