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How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How often should you exfoliate your face according to your skin type

The answer will depend not just on your unique skin, but also the type of exfoliant you’re using.

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Curology Team
Aug 10, 2022 · 7 min read

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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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Exfoliating your skin can be a great way to get a softer, smoother complexion—but how exactly does it work? It’s pretty simple: Exfoliation removes dead skin cells from the top layer of skin. Most of the time, these cells fall off on their own, but exfoliation helps give them a little push. How often you should exfoliate your skin depends on your skin type and how it reacts to exfoliants—whether they’re physical or chemical exfoliants (more on the difference between the two a little later). 

How does exfoliation actually work?

The skin is the body’s largest organ, consisting of three main layers: the hypodermis, dermis, and epidermis. The layer you're most familiar with is the epidermis, which is the outermost layer.¹ It acts as a barrier that protects the inside of your body from the outside world. Your skin naturally regenerates every 40-56 days. As skin cells generated in the lower skin layers gradually push upward, older skin cells die and slough off, leaving fresh, newly formed cells from below.²  

The skin barrier is important to human health because it physically protects us from external threats, including infectious agents like bacteria, chemicals, toxins, and allergens. Internally, the skin maintains homeostasis and protects you from dehydration.³ Cell turnover is essential to healthy skin. When turnover is slower in some parts of the skin than others, it impairs the skin’s ability to maintain hydration and can lead to increased skin roughness. 

Exfoliation has been shown to decrease skin surface roughness and increase skin hydration, leading to smoother skin.⁴ This smoother skin allows products to penetrate more efficiently (i.e. work better!) and enhances collagen production.⁵

How often should you exfoliate your skin?

There isn’t a definitive rule for how often you should exfoliate. It all depends on your skin type, and everyone’s skin is unique. 

Follow these guidelines for exfoliation based on skin type: 

  • Dry skin and sensitive skin: Start with once a week. If it’s well-tolerated by your skin, bump up to twice a week, if desired.

  • Oily skin: Two to three times a week is typically enough, but more may be okay, depending on the method and product you use. For example, you might consider using a konjac sponge once or twice a week and a chemical exfoliator two different days a week.

  • Combination skin: Twice a week often works best for this skin type. Keep in mind that combination skin can be both sensitive and not-so-sensitive, depending on where it’s oily and where it’s dry. 

  • Normal skin: Two to three times a week is often enough for people with a normal skin type.

Want more? Here are some tips on safely exfoliating at home from the American Academy of Dermatology.

What type of exfoliation should you use, physical or chemical?

There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants include brushes, face scrubs, gloves, and sponges. Even a washcloth can be an exfoliant. Chemical exfoliation uses acids, like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Glycolic acid and lactic acid are common AHA chemical exfoliating ingredients, and salicylic acid is a popular BHA. 

Choosing a chemical or physical exfoliant will depend on skin type, how well you tolerate the exfoliant, and your skincare goals. Exfoliants are often used as part of an anti-aging regime and to help prevent breakouts. 

Finding the type of exfoliant that works best for you can require some experimentation. If one kind causes irritation, you’ll likely want to switch to another. 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! 

A gentle way to physically exfoliate your skin is with a konjac sponge. You can use a konjac sponge two or three times weekly with plain water or your regular cleanser. Physical exfoliants can generally be used by all skin types, but some may prefer chemical exfoliants. If that’s the case, here are some recommendations for chemical exfoliators based on your skin type. 

  • Dry skin and sensitive skin: Start with AHAs. They "unglue" dead cells and work in the superficial layers of the skin. Look for glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acid on the ingredients list. Just be aware that these may cause sun sensitivity,⁶ so use them only at night and wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day. Bonus: AHAs help repair photoaged skin, increase skin hydration, and improve skin turgor.⁷ 

  • Oily skin: Choose BHAs. They "degunk" (unclog) pores and work deeper than AHAs to decrease inflammation, treat, and help prevent acne. Salicylic acid is the most common BHA used to treat acne.⁸ But it can be drying so you’ll want to make sure you’re properly moisturizing your skin. BHAs are not known to cause sun sensitivity, so you can use this type of exfoliant day or night. 

  • Combination of skin and normal skin. Try alternating between AHAs or BHAs, depending on whether your skin feels more oily or dry.

What happens if you over-exfoliate your skin?

Allergic reaction, peeling, care for problem skin

If you over-exfoliate, the signs will be pretty obvious: Your skin will be irritated. When you over-exfoliate, you lose more of the surface “dead” skin cells than is ideal. It’s noticeable as light reflects off the smooth, flat over-exfoliated skin surface right back to the eye looking at the skin (or your mirror). This creates a "shiny but not oily" appearance. Other signs of overdoing it can include temporary redness, tightness, and dryness. Ideally, the surface of your skin should be just a bit rough so that the light scatters and shine is avoided.

When is the best time to exfoliate?

There’s no “best time” to exfoliate. When to exfoliate depends on the products you use and your personal skincare routine. As a rule of thumb, AHAs should generally be used at night as they can cause photosensitivity. Physical and other chemical exfoliators can be used day or night.  

Here are some other guidelines to follow: 

  • We generally don’t recommend exfoliating your face every day. If you notice any signs of irritation, suspend exfoliating until your skin is back to normal. 

  • You don’t have to cleanse your face before exfoliating, but you can. If you cleanse first, you’re removing the dirt and grime off your face to create a clean slate. If you exfoliate first, you’re removing dead skin cells and debris that you can wash away when you cleanse.   

Listen to your skin

How you exfoliate should depend on your skin and the products you use. When it comes to regular exfoliation, it's typically best to start slow and try different products until you find the skincare product that works for your skin type and skincare goals. Stop exfoliating if you experience irritation, redness, or itchiness on your skin. Once your skin returns to normal, you can consider starting again slowly—but you might want to use a different product than the one that caused the irritation to begin with.  

Remember, everyone’s skin is different, and looking for professional advice to take care of your skin's specific needs is always beneficial.

Take the guesswork out of your skincare routine with Curology

Curology is a dedicated team of licensed dermatology providers committed to providing accessible skincare to everyone. That includes offering guidance on skincare goals and a customized treatment plan with dermatologist-designed products. It’s easy to become a member. Just take a short quiz and snap a few selfies. You’ll be paired with one of our dermatology professionals who will customize a formula just for you (with three active ingredients). Plus, you’ll receive a cleanser, moisturizer, and any of our other non-prescription products to try. 

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FAQs

How does exfoliation actually work?

The layer you're most familiar with is the epidermis, which is the outermost layer. It acts as a barrier that protects the inside of your body from the outside world. Your skin naturally regenerates every 40-56 days. As skin cells generated in the lower skin layers gradually push upward, older skin cells die and slough off, leaving fresh, newly formed cells from below.

How often should you exfoliate your skin?

Follow these guidelines for exfoliation based on skin type: 

  • Dry skin and sensitive skin: Start with once a week. If it’s well-tolerated by your skin, bump up to twice a week, if desired.

  • Oily skin: Two to three times a week is typically enough, but more may be okay, depending on the method and product you use. For example, you might consider using a konjac sponge once or twice a week and a chemical exfoliator two different days a week.

  • Combination skin: Twice a week often works best for this skin type. Keep in mind that combination skin can be both sensitive and not-so-sensitive, depending on where it’s oily and where it’s dry. 

  • Normal skin: Two to three times a week is often enough for people with a normal skin type.

What type of exfoliation should you use, physical or chemical?

Here are some recommendations for chemical exfoliators based on your skin type:

  • Dry skin and sensitive skin: Start with AHAs. They "unglue" dead cells and work in the superficial layers of the skin. Look for glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acid on the ingredients list. Just be aware that these may cause sun sensitivity, so use them only at night and wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day. Bonus: AHAs help repair photoaged skin, increase skin hydration, and improve skin turgor. 

  • Oily skin: Choose BHAs. They "degunk" (unclog) pores and work deeper than AHAs to decrease inflammation, treat, and help prevent acne. Salicylic acid is the most common BHA used to treat acne. But it can be drying so you’ll want to make sure you’re properly moisturizing your skin. BHAs are not known to cause sun sensitivity, so you can use this type of exfoliant day or night. 

  • Combination of skin and normal skin. Try alternating between AHAs or BHAs, depending on whether your skin feels more oily or dry.

What happens if you over-exfoliate your skin?

If you over-exfoliate, the signs will be pretty obvious: Your skin will be irritated. When you over-exfoliate, you lose more of the surface “dead” skin cells than is ideal. It’s noticeable as light reflects off the smooth, flat over-exfoliated skin surface right back to the eye looking at the skin (or your mirror). This creates a "shiny but not oily" appearance.

When is the best time to exfoliate?

Here are some other guidelines to follow: 

  • We generally don’t recommend exfoliating your face every day. If you notice any signs of irritation, suspend exfoliating until your skin is back to normal. 

  • You don’t have to cleanse your face before exfoliating, but you can. If you cleanse first, you’re removing the dirt and grime off your face to create a clean slate. If you exfoliate first, you’re removing dead skin cells and debris that you can wash away when you cleanse.   

• • •

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

  1. Yousef, H., Alhajj, M., & Sharma, S. Anatomy, Skin (Integument), Epidermis. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. (2021). 

  2. Koster, M.I. Making an Epidermis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. (July 2009). 

  3. Agner, T. Skin Barrier Function. Indian Journal of Medical Research. (January 2018). 

  4. Li, W., et al. Influence of Exfoliating Facial Cleanser on the Bio-tribological Properties of Human Skin. Wear. (April-May 2013). 

  5. Al-Talib, H., et al. Efficacy and safety of superficial chemical peeling in treatment of active acne vulgaris. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia. (2017).

  6. Tang, S.C., et al. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. (April 2018).

  7. Babilas, P., et al. Cosmetic and Dermatologic Use of Alpha Hydroxy Acids. Journal of the German Society of Dermatology. (July 2012). 

  8. Bettoli, V., et al. Effectiveness of a Combination of Salicylic Acid-based Products for the Treatment of Mild Comedonal-papular Acne: A Multicenter Prospective Observational Study.Journal of Italian Dermatology and Venereology. (December 2020).

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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

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

Kristen Jokela, NP-C

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