How do face exfoliators work?

Clinically Reviewed by Nora Laberee, Medical Writer Mar 10, 2022 • 7 min

You've probably seen face exfoliators at your favorite beauty shop or drugstore. 

There are so many products to choose from, all promising to deliver a healthy, glowing complexion. But what should you know before you exfoliate? The first step is to understand what face exfoliators can do for your skin and how they work. 

What are face exfoliators?

Face exfoliators are products that help you remove dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin. Many people use face exfoliators to improve their complexion because they have clogged pores or other skin imperfections. However, know that dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin naturally flake off about once a month to make room for new cells. If you choose to exfoliate, it's important to know how to use face exfoliator products so you don't damage your skin or cause skin irritation.

How often should you exfoliate your face?

How often to exfoliate depends on the type of skin you have and the exfoliation method you use. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the more aggressive the exfoliation product, the less often it should be used. Exfoliating too often can lead to red, irritated skin.

Which face exfoliators should be used?

First, it's important to consider your skin type before you try a face exfoliator. According to the AAD, these skin types are most common:

  • Sensitive: If you have sensitive skin, it may sting or appear red after using products.
  • Normal: If you have normal skin, it is clear and not sensitive.
  • Dry: Your skin might be flaky, itchy or rough in texture if you have dry skin.
  • Oily: Your skin is shiny and greasy if you have oily skin.
  • Combination: If you have combination skin, you have areas of dry and oily skin.

Before you try a face exfoliator, think about the other skin care products you currently use. Some medications and over-the-counter products may not interact well when an exfoliator is added to your beauty routine. For example, prescription retinoid creams or products that contain retinoids or benzoyl peroxide are strong and can cause your skin to peel or become more sensitive. If you're using these products, check with your healthcare provider or dermatologist (skin care doctor) before using a face exfoliator.

Types of face exfoliators

Face exfoliators are available in mechanical or chemical methods. Chemical exfoliators use chemicals, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), to dissolve dead skin cells. Mechanical exfoliators are scrubs or physical tools, such as facial brushes, sponges or loofas, that work by gently sloughing away dead skin cells.

Face brushes

Face brushes stimulate the surface of the skin and offer gentle or more vigorous exfoliation. Face brushes are available in a variety of styles. Prices vary greatly and depend on the face brush's brand, features and refill brushes needed.

Face scrub

Face scrubs are available in several different formulas. Facial scrubs exfoliate dead skin with tiny granules made of sugar, for example, that are mixed into the product. Fortunately, you can find a face scrub that best suits your skin type and specific needs. For example, if you have sensitive skin, look for a mild face scrub that won't irritate your skin.

Face wash

If you prefer to use exfoliation in your daily skin care routine, face wash exfoliators offer a wide range of options. Facial wash exfoliators may be gentle enough to use daily. Look for a face wash that is best for your skin type.

Exfoliation tips for everyone

The following skin care tips can also help you use face exfoliators safely:

  • Do not use strong chemical or mechanical face exfoliators if you have a darker skin tone or notice dark spots on your skin after burns, bug bites or breakouts. For people who have darker skin tones, aggressive exfoliation might cause dark spots on the skin.
  • When using a scrub or chemical face exfoliator, apply the product gently with a small, circular motion. Rinse off your skin with warm water and avoid rinsing the skin with hot water. Use short, light strokes if you use a brush or sponge.
  • Don't use a face exfoliator if you have open cuts, wounds or if your skin is infected or sunburned.
  • Moisturize your skin after you exfoliate. Exfoliating can result in dry skin, so be sure to apply moisturizer immediately after exfoliating to keep skin hydrated.
  • If you experience skin irritation, red skin or skin that stings, stop using the exfoliator. If your skin doesn't improve, contact your dermatologist or healthcare provider.

Your skin is your body's largest organ. Make it a priority to take good care of your skin with a consistent skin care routine to help your skin look healthy and radiant. Talk to your dermatologist or healthcare provider about your skin and ask if face exfoliators can help you.

Clinically Reviewed by Nora Laberee, Medical Writer, March 2022. 

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