How to Exfoliate the Right Way (for Your Healthiest Skin Ever!)

How to Exfoliate Properly
istock/Oksana Doroshko

Sloughing is an essential component in any healthy skincare routine. It is also the step that is most often performed incorrectly. Learn how to exfoliate for healthy, beautiful, glowing skin.

Irritation, breakouts, pallor, dullness … these can all be chalked up to improper exfoliation. There are many different products, methods, and tips to doing this skincare step the right way. But let’s find out why we need to exfoliate in the first place.

Why Exfoliate?

When dry, dead skin cells accumulate on top of skin it causes several issues with the complexion. Those with dry skin tend to look pale and skin can even feel like sandpaper. Oily skin types see more blemishes due to oil becoming trapped under the flaky layer. It also makes it hard for healthy skincare products to penetrate the dead skin layer and do their work.

Removing this dry top layer reveals healthy looking skin, and makes the complexion look brighter and glowing. It cuts down on debris and bacteria, promoting clear skin. The appearance of fine lines and wrinkles are also softened through exfoliation.

Yes, exfoliation is important. But, unlike other skincare steps (like cleansing and moisturizing), employing this step daily does not make for happier skin. Overdoing the sloughing results in redness, irritation, and often further dryness and acne. Those with oily or acne prone skin types have best results with twice weekly exfoliation, while dry and sensitive types should stick with once weekly.

Different Types of Exfoliation

Think a scrub is the only way to rid skin of built up cells? There are actually several types of exfoliation methods and different reasons to use them.

First there is the physical method. Loofahs, exfoliation cloths, and scrubbing tools are used to remove dead skin cells. This type of exfoliation is best for oily and acne prone skin types, and for those dealing with body acne. A light touch is best when exfoliating skin this way.

Scrubs are probably the most popular form of exfoliation and come in a variety of formulas. Sugar, sea salt, ground nut hulls, clays, and seaweed are all used to make face and body scrubs. You can find products that include astringent ingredients for use on acne prone skin types, healthy oils to hydrate dry skin, and soothing ingredients to pamper sensitive skin. As with the first method, always use a gentle touch when using a scrub on skin.

The newest and most gentle form of exfoliation is with fruit acids and extracts. No scrubbing required, the natural ingredients do the work by dissolving the dead skin cells. This method is the best option for those with sensitive skin, and is thought to be better for all skin types over time because it is least likely to cause damage.

Exfoliators come in pre-mixed scrubs, powders, and masks. Exfoliating products may be used in place of your regular facial wash or prior to washing your skin. When exfoliating the body, slough before shaving to prevent irritation and get a closer shave.

Common Exfoliation Mistakes

You exfoliate regularly and are left with dry, red, irritated skin. What are you doing wrong?

Most people exfoliate too often. We are taught to design a daily skincare routine and stick to it. And with many popular skincare lines promoting daily use of an exfoliating product (especially those formulated for acne), many are adding this step in too often.

Dry, flaky skin leads to acne, this is true. But when skin is irritated by too much exfoliating it becomes dried out and produces more oil. The result is even more redness and eruptions.

Even a gentle exfoliating product will cause irritation and inflammation if used too often. Think of exfoliation as your skin’s weekly/biweekly treat.

Best (and Worst) Ingredients for Exfoliation

Somewhere along the line exfoliation got a hardcore reputation. If it doesn’t feel like it’s removing skin it must not be doing its job, right? Wrong!

Skin should never feel irritated or worked over due to sloughing. If it does, you are being too vigorous or using a product that is too strong.

If you prefer the scrubby type of exfoliator, use a product made with natural sloughers like those mentioned above. Here’s a snapshot of what they do for skin.

Sugar scrubs made with brown sugar are finer and more gentle, good for using on the face. The chunkier raw sugar variety should be reserved for the body.

Sea salt is another natural ingredient commonly used as an exfoliant, but this one does more than slough. It clears pores, balances oil, and firms and tones the skin.

Ground nut seeds and hulls (usually apricot kernels and walnut hulls) are finely ground and added to products as sloughing agents. Effective, yes. But these sloughers can cause tiny tears in the skin and are best used on the body, not the face.

Clays and seaweed have a slightly gritty texture that make them excellent for removing dry skin. They are very fine and gentle, good for absorbing oils and toxins, and help to rehydrate skin. Ideal for exfoliating all skin types and giving a healthy glow.

Fruit acids and extracts are often used in exfoliators. These beauties gently dissolve and remove dry, dead skin cells. Sweet! But that’s not all. They give skin a youthful, revitalized look, and healthy glow.

Now that we’ve covered the healthy ingredients often used in exfoliation products, let’s talk about what you want to avoid.

There is no shortage of facial washes, exfoliators, and body cleansers that contain microbeads. These tiny plastic beads probably do some sloughing, but are believed to damage skin and pollute our environment. President Obama issued a ban on microbeads in rinse-off products by mid-2017. Until then, don’t fall for the pretty looking botte of soap. Microbeads don’t do your skin or our enviro any good.

How to Exfoliate for Healthy Skin (Plus 7 Products to Get You There)

Time to put a healthy exfoliation plan into action. When setting up a skincare regimen the first thing you take into account is your skin type and that goes for exfoliating, too. Choose products that are right for your complexion and, if you experience irritation, discontinue until skin has healed. It is important to never exfoliate broken or irritated skin.

Herbivore Botanicals Pink Clay Exfoliating Mask

1. Herbivore Botanicals Pink Clay Exfoliating Mask

An exfoliator that is sure to please all skin types, this mask uses pink clay and rosehip powder to gently remove dead skin cells and clear pores. Skin is left bright, soft, and smooth.

Saison Beauty Cleansing Grains Winter

2. Saison Beauty Cleansing Grains Winter

For a sloughing that brightens dull skin, and heals dryness and irritation, try this product made with baking soda, clay, and honey. Good for very dry skin but the pineapple extract may be too strong for sensitive skin types. Saison also makes cleansing grains for spring, summer, and fall.

Pangea Organics Facial Mask

3. Pangea Organics Facial Mask

Like an instant nap for skin. Packed with acai and goji berries, this mask revitalizes the complexion and makes skin look youthful and radiant. Just the thing for a skin slump.

Mahalo Petal Mask

4. Mahalo Petal Mask

Having an upset skin moment? If your face is irritated, inflamed, or broken out, use this mask pronto. It is soothing, healing, and gently reveals happier skin. The lovely scent and texture doesn’t hurt, either.

Living Libations Green Papaya and Lime AHA Mask

5. Living Libations Green Papaya and Lime AHA Mask

This product puts those fruit extracts into action. Fruit-derived Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) comes from papaya, pineapple, lemon, and lime enzymes that gently exfoliate skin, resulting in a smoother, brighter complexion.

Little Barn Apothecary Jasmine + Geranium Body Scrub

6. Little Barn Apothecary Jasmine + Geranium Body Scrub

Get body smoothed and moisturized with this luxurious sugar scrub. Coconut oil and meadowfoam oil hydrate dry, rough skin, and jasmine delights the senses.

Soul Sunday Cool Down Sugar Scrub

7. Soul Sunday Cool Down Sugar Scrub

Perfect for smoothing callused feet. Peppermint essential oil gives a fresh, cooling sensation that puts a spring in your step.

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Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson is an organic beauty expert who has been researching and writing on the subjects of natural beauty, health, and wellness for over 10 years. She specializes in sharing safe beauty products and her knowledge on healthy ingredients with her readers, and helping organic beauty brands and shop owners share their message and products with the world through her writing services. Read more of Liz’s work on her blog, Organic Beauty Source, and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.