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  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

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Expert-approved exfoliation tips for visibly soft, smooth skin

Dermatology providers share exfoliation advice for every skin type.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Mar 7, 2024 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
Facial Exfoliation
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Mar 7, 2024 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Elise Griffin, PA-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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Summary

  • Regular exfoliation can help improve skin texture, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and promotes a polished and smoother appearing skin surface.

  • To reap the benefits of exfoliation, it’s crucial to use the appropriate exfoliation product for your skin type.

  • During exfoliation, use small, circular motions to apply the product gently, and avoid hot water to prevent essential oil loss from your skin.

  • After exfoliating, moisturize, apply sunscreen daily, stay hydrated, avoid harsh products, and monitor your skin’s reaction to maintain a healthy and radiant complexion.

Exfoliation is a popular skincare method, and for good reason. It’s one of the best ways to enhance your skin’s texture and tone, and the best part? It’s something we can all easily do at home.

While exfoliation is simple, it’s important to do it correctly. Incorrect techniques may potentially do more harm than good to your skin. To help you navigate this process, Curology’s licensed dermatology professionals have compiled a thorough list of the best exfoliation tips designed to make exfoliation a safe and rewarding part of your skincare routine.

First, what are the benefits of exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the skin’s outer layer. Your skin naturally exfoliates itself through a process known as cell turnover.¹ However, factors such as pollution, lifestyle, skincare products, age, and dehydration can cause dull, flaky, or congested skin over time and increase signs of aging.² So, speeding up cell turnover through exfoliation can help maintain your skin’s health and radiance.

Some of the benefits of exfoliation include:

  • More youthful appearance: Regular exfoliation can help to remove older, dead skin cells, revealing clear, smooth, and more polished skin underneath.³ This process can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, giving the skin a more refreshed and vibrant look.⁴

  • More polished skin: Exfoliation helps smooth and visibly improve the skin's texture. By removing the outer layer of dead skin cells, exfoliation leaves the skin looking more polished and refined.⁵

What to do before exfoliating

Start your exfoliation journey with care. Assess your skin’s current condition and consider if exfoliating is right for its current state. Avoid exfoliating if your skin is irritated or broken (aka, has sunburns, cuts, rashes, or open acne sores); wait until it’s fully healed.⁶ Also, refrain from exfoliating skin recently treated with lasers or waxing, as it could aggravate the skin further.⁷

Select the right product based on your skin type

Exfoliants comes in two main types: physical and chemical. Whether a chemical or physical exfoliant is more suitable for you will depend on your skin’s needs, how well you tolerate the exfoliant, and your skincare goals.

  • Dry skin: Mechanical exfoliation is best avoided for people with dry skin.⁸ It could lead to increased dryness or small skin tears. Instead, a milder approach can be more nurturing, like a gentle exfoliating serum or cleanser. And, always follow up with a moisturizer to lock in hydration.⁹

  • Oily skin: Oily skin may benefit from a bit more robust exfoliation, like chemical exfoliation or mechanical exfoliation like scrubs or brushes.¹⁰ But remember, gentle strokes are key!¹¹

  • Sensitive skin: For those with sensitive skin, gentle is the way to go.¹² Avoid the rough textures of scrubs and brushes. A mild serum or cleanser, followed by a soothing moisturizer, is recommended. Always do a patch test first to avoid any unwanted reactions.¹³

  • Normal skin: If you have normal skin, you can experiment with different exfoliation methods but it’s best to introduce them one at a time.

How to exfoliate the right way

Once you’ve chosen the right exfoliation product, the next step is to use it correctly to maximize its benefits.

Using a scrub or chemical exfoliator: The key is to be gentle when applying a scrub or chemical exfoliator.¹⁴ Use small, circular motions to apply the product. Afterward, rinse your face with lukewarm water, not hot water.¹⁵ Be sure to follow the instructions for your specific product.

Using a brush: If you’re using a brush or sponge for physical exfoliation, the approach should be light and delicate.¹⁶ Opt for short, light strokes. Remember, the aim is to assist your skin in its natural exfoliation process, not to scrub it aggressively.

Using a sponge. A Konjac sponge is a gentle yet effective way to physically exfoliate, especially for those with sensitive skin. You can use it 2-3 times a week with plain water or your regular cleanser. The soft texture of the sponge provides a mild exfoliation, making it a great option for gently removing dead skin cells.

Remember never to exfoliate if your skin is in a sensitive state, like having open cuts, wounds, or sunburn.¹⁷

What’s the best time to exfoliate?

The ideal time to exfoliate isn’t set in stone; it varies based on the products you use and your unique skincare routine. For example, AHAs are best reserved for nighttime since they can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.¹⁸ However, you’re free to use other types of exfoliants, like physical or different chemical ones, either in the morning or evening.

Here’s what else you should keep in mind:

  • It’s usually best to avoid exfoliating your face daily. Over-exfoliation can lead to irritation, so if your skin reacts negatively, it’s wise to pause your exfoliation routine until things settle down.

  • Whether to cleanse before exfoliating is up to you. Cleansing first means clearing away dirt and oil and preparing a clean base for exfoliation. On the other hand, if you exfoliate before cleansing, you scrub away dead skin cells and surface debris, which can then be thoroughly washed off during cleansing. Both approaches have their merits, so you can choose based on what feels right for your skin.

You can read more on how often to exfoliate according to your skin type here.

If you’re a Curology member, we suggest messaging your dermatology provider for exfoliation tips to put you on the best path toward achieving your skin goals. When in doubt, seek guidance from an expert!

What to do after exfoliating

After exfoliating, look to follow a post-exfoliation checklist to ensure your skin remains healthy and reaps the maximum benefits from the process. Here’s what you can do:

Moisturize

Exfoliating can cause skin drying.¹⁹ To counteract this, apply a moisturizer immediately after exfoliating. Choose a moisturizer that suits your skin type to help replenish hydration and lock in moisture.

Apply sunscreen

Since exfoliation can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage, applying sunscreen is a must.²⁰ Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays. This step is especially important if you’ve used chemical exfoliants like AHAs, which can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.²¹ Sunscreen should be applied every morning, regardless of whether you plan to spend time outdoors, as UV rays can penetrate windows.²²

Avoid harsh products

Your skin is more sensitive and vulnerable after exfoliating. Avoid using harsh skincare products, such as those containing alcohol or strong, active ingredients, for a day or two. These may cause irritation or dryness, especially on freshly exfoliated skin.

Monitor your skin’s reaction

Pay attention to how your skin reacts after exfoliation. If you notice any signs of redness, irritation, or discomfort, give your skin a break from exfoliating and focus on gentle, soothing skincare until your skin feels normal again.

Limit sun exposure

Along with applying sunscreen, try to limit excessive, direct sun exposure for a few hours post-exfoliation, especially if you've used chemical exfoliants.²³ This helps prevent sunburn and sun damage on your newly exposed skin.

Take the guesswork out with Curology

The key to effective exfoliation lies in personalizing the process to suit your skin type, as outlined above. For an even more customized approach, Curology can help eliminate the guesswork from your skincare routine, giving you a personalized experience for healthier, more radiant skin.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Curology’s dedicated team of licensed dermatology providers is committed to providing accessible skincare. That includes offering guidance on skincare goals and a customized treatment plan with dermatologist-designed products.* It’s easy to sign up. Just take a short quiz and snap a few selfies. You’ll be paired with one of our dermatology professionals, who can prescribe a custom formula for your skin goals (with 3 active ingredients). Plus, you can also receive a 30-day trial with a cleanser, moisturizer, and our other non-prescription products to try.

FAQs

How can I exfoliate my face naturally?

You can exfoliate your face naturally using physical exfoliation techniques such as face scrubs made with oils and slightly abrasive ingredients such as sugar. You can also use a simple face cloth as a form of exfoliation, gently rubbing your skin in circular motions to slough off dead skin cells and promote cell turnover.

Do you exfoliate with a wet or dry face?

Whether you exfoliate with a wet or dry face depends on the type of exfoliant you’re using. For scrubs, it’s generally preferred to apply them on a damp face. The water helps to soften the skin and prepare it for exfoliation. Chemical exfoliants like AHAs are often applied to dry skin.

What can I use to exfoliate my acne-prone skin?

To exfoliate acne-prone skin, it’s advisable to use gentle chemical exfoliants.²⁴ Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are generally excellent choices for this skin type.²⁵ Remember to use these exfoliants sparingly at first and observe how your skin reacts, gradually increasing frequency as your skin adjusts.

Is exfoliating good for your face?

Yes, exfoliation is beneficial for the face, offering benefits such as a more youthful appearance, polished skin, and smoother surface.²⁶

How long after exfoliating should you moisturize?

After exfoliating, we recommend moisturizing your skin immediately.²⁷ Exfoliation, while beneficial for removing dead skin cells and improving skin texture, can leave it dry. Applying a moisturizer right after helps to replenish moisture and restore the skin’s natural barrier.²⁸

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. (2016, December 14).

  2. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Ibid.

  3. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Ibid.

  4. Grajqevci-Kotori, M. Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical archives. (December 2015).

  5. Grajqevci-Kotori, M. Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical archives. Ibid.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  7. Grajqevci-Kotori, M. Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical archives. Ibid.

  8. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  9. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  10. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  11. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  12. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  13. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  14. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  15. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  16. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  17. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  18. Tang, S. C., & Yang, J. H. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. (2018, April 10).

  19. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  20. Tang, S. C., & Yang, J. H. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. Ibid.

  21. Tang, S. C., & Yang, J. H. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. Ibid.

  22. Dale Wilson, B, et al. Comprehensive review of ultraviolet radiation and the current status on sunscreens. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (September 2012).

  23. Grajqevci-Kotori, M., & Kocinaj, A. Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical Archives (Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina). (December 2015).

  24. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  25. Green, B.A., et al. Clinical and cosmeceutical uses of hydroxyacids. Clinical Dermatology. (September-October 2009).

  26. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Ibid.

  27. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

  28. American Academy of Dermatology. How To Safely Exfoliate At Home. (n.d.).

Elise Griffin is a certified physician assistant at Curology. She received her Master of Medical Science in physician assistant studies from Nova Southeastern University in Jacksonville, FL

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Elise Griffin, Physician Assistant Curology

Elise Griffin, PA-C

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