If you've searched for remedies to treat your acne or dry skin, you've probably heard that you should exfoliate. Exfoliation is a technique—either chemically or with a granular substance—to remove dead skin cells and debris from the top layer of your skin.

Skin exfoliation improves the appearance of uneven skin textures, hyperpigmentation, and dull complexion; minimizes enlarged pores; and helps you maintain healthy, youthful skin. Though it may seem simple, there is a lot to know about exfoliating, and it's not for everyone. So, is exfoliation right for you? And how often should you exfoliate your skin?

Exfoliation Methods

Exfoliation consists of two main methods: physical and chemical. The type of exfoliation method plays a role in how often you should exfoliate your skin.

  • Physical exfoliation: This refers to the manual removal of dead skin cells, skin debris, and oil utilizing a tool. Physical exfoliation may be performed with at-home devices, like sponges, scrubs, and dermaplaning devices, or in-office procedures, like microdermabrasion performed by a Dermatologist.
  • Chemical exfoliation: This refers to the use of certain ingredients that promote healthy skin turnover and may remove or dissolve dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliants may function by breaking bonds connecting dead skin cells together on the top layer of the skin. Chemical exfoliants include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, and citric and malic acid, and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), which are lipid-soluble and better absorbed into the skin pores and oil-producing glands. One example of a commonly used BHA is salicylic acid. Knowing which type of chemical exfoliant to use depends on your skin type and what you're looking to target. Here's a quick tip: If you're looking to target mild acne, fine lines and wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation, opt for an AHA. Go for a BHA if you're looking for a deeper exfoliant to target more inflamed, deeper pimples and cysts.

The Benefits of Exfoliating

Skin exfoliation helps to remove dead skin cells from the epidermis and promote healthy skin cell turnover. Here are specific ways in which exfoliation may benefit your skin:

  • Improving skin complexion and texture: Dull complexion may be attributed to dead skin cells on the top layer of the skin (i.e., the epidermis). By targeting and exfoliating this dead skin, your skin cells rejuvenate and your texture and complexion even out.
  • Acne: Certain types of acne (i.e., comedonal, inflammatory acne) may be triggered by blockage of skin pores by skin debris and oil. Skin exfoliation helps to remove the dead skin cells, oil, and debris and can help control oil production by sebaceous glands in the skin. Exfoliation also provides an added benefit of allowing skin care products to better penetrate the skin, given that trapped hair, dirt, and oil can prevent topicals from soaking in deeply.
  • Hyperpigmentation and melasma: Certain chemical exfoliants can be used to treat skin hyperpigmentation and melasma.
  • Dry skin: Dry, flaky skin may benefit from chemical and/or manual exfoliation to help remove dead skin cells and allow moisturizing topicals or prescription topicals to penetrate better into the skin. Chemical exfoliants are also beneficial to managing dry, itchy scalp and dandruff.
  • Anti-aging: Certain types of exfoliation (either physical or chemical methods) may be used to help soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles thanks to cellular turnover.
  • Keratosis pilaris: For those who suffer from rough and bumpy "strawberry" skin on the upper arms, thighs, and buttocks, opting for a gentle chemical exfoliant may be helpful to improve your skin's appearance. Your board-certified Dermatologist can recommend safe and effective chemical exfoliating topicals for keratosis pilaris.

Cons to Skin Exfoliation

Exfoliation may help to strip dead skin cells, unclog pores, and remove excess skin debris, but are there any disadvantages to exfoliating? Yes, although there are benefits, there may be some downsides to exfoliating, and it may not be suitable for every skin type.

In some skin types, exfoliating can cause skin irritation, dryness, and redness. This typically occurs with over-exfoliation and in those with dry, sensitive skin. You can also experience irritation if you're allergic to an exfoliating ingredient, like salilcylic acid and lactic acid, which are common allergens. These ingredients may be drying and irritating and may even trigger skin rashes. You should consult a board-certified Dermatologist who can help you identify safe exfoliating agents for your skin type.

When and How Often Should You Exfoliate?

The frequency of exfoliation depends on your skin type, the type of exfoliant used, and what area of the body you're targeting. A rule of thumb when it comes to creating a healthy skin care regimen is to keep it simple, and exfoliating should not be performed every day.

If you have dry, sensitive skin, over-exfoliating may be irritating whether you're using a physical exfoliant or opting for a chemical exfoliant (i.e., glycolic acid or salicylic acid). In general, it's recommended to not exfoliate more than one to two times a week if the skin on your face or the body is sensitive, and if you experience a reaction, you may not benefit from exfoliating at all. It is important to have a discussion with a board-certified Dermatologist about how often you should exfoliate, especially if you experience more allergy-prone skin.

If you have oily, acne-prone skin, the use of chemical exfoliants more frequently (three to five times weekly) may be beneficial to better control skin oil production and acne breakouts. However, when it comes to any type of exfoliation, it's important to be cautious as there is a frictional component of acne wherein the more you scrub or rub your skin, you may potentially trigger or worsen acne breakouts.

If your skin is dry and flaky, a gentle chemical or physical exfoliant may be helpful to remove excess dead skin, especially during the winter months. An essential step following either chemical or physical exfoliation is hydrating your skin with a lightweight and hydrating moisturizer, like the EltaMD Skin Recovery Light Moisturizer.

For people of color, certain chemical and physical exfoliation methods may cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or even hypopigmentation if they are too harsh, irritating, or drying. Being a proactive and knowledgeable consumer and understanding ingredients that are safe to use for each skin type and tone is helpful to avoid harmful skin reactions. According to the American Academy of Dermatology and Dermatology for Skin of Color Journal, glycolic acid (an AHA) is a safe chemical exfoliant to use in the treatment of hyperpigmentation and acne in skin of color. Minimizing the use of high concentrations of salicylic acid (a BHA) is helpful to reduce skin redness, irritation, burns, and worsening of skin hyperpigmentation.

Is Exfoliating Right For You?

Incorporating the right exfoliant may feel like a daunting task, but knowing how to exfoliate and what kind of products to use for certain skin concerns will help you exfoliate with the confidence that you're doing something good for your skin. For example, chemical exfoliants are typically found in toners, cleansers, shampoos, and creams. Toners and cleansers can help with acne breakouts, while hydrating creams can help combat dry skin and winter itch. With the winter itch, you may experience an itchy scalp, so an exfoliating shampoo or scalp scrubs should be used to minimize scalp irritation.

Physical exfoliation should only be performed a few times a week to remove dead skin cells. This is particularly important before a spray tan to ensure optimal results because dry, flaky, skin will result in a streaky spray tan. It's recommended to follow up the exfoliation with a hydrating moisturizer at least three to four hours prior to your spray tan appointment.

Exfoliating can be beneficial, but it's not for everyone. If you have skin concerns and are wondering if exfoliating will help, visit your Dermatologist. They can help you find the right products to help you achieve healthy, glowing skin.


  • Saving Pretty Faces With SPF

    My name is Dr. Rina Allawh and I am a Board-Certified Dermatologist in the Philadelphia suburbs, with a special interest in the unique challenges for pigmented skin with regards to anti-aging, hair loss, sun care and acne. Founder and co-host of "Skin the Surface" podcast which serves as an educational resource about skin-related issues, a tool to empower people to take a more active role in their skin health including skin cancer prevention, and an outlet to discuss some of the current hot topics in dermatology.