Buffing your complexion to a smooth sheen is often touted as an indispensable part of an effective skincare regimen. But given the fact that all skin cells naturally renew themselves, is scrubbing away the top layer of skin really essential to your weekly routine?
Here’s the deal: Fresh skin cells are born in the skin’s deepest layer and take approximately 28 days to be pushed up to the surface and fall off as dead skin. However, as you get older, this process takes longer. “[Cells] will all turn over eventually; [exfoliation] is just a matter of speeding up the process,” says Kelly Bickle, MD, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist at Gina Marí Skincare. And one of the quickest and most traditional ways to make this happen is via physical exfoliation, like using face cloths, brushes (e.g., Clarisonic) and scrubs with exfoliating agents (just avoid the newly outlawed polyethylene microbeads).
The advantages of exfoliating are immediately clear: Once you slough off the dead (and dulling) cells from the visible surface, you instantly look more radiant, according to dermatologist Gary Goldfaden, MD, founder of Goldfaden MD Skincare. “Think about an onion, which is dry and brown outside. If you go deeper, [the layers] are greener and soft. That’s really the rationale of why the skin looks good—you’re getting to the newly formed skin.” Consider exfoliation the fast track to a more youthful appearance.
But before you get scrub happy, consider this: People who live in cold and dry climates should minimize use of abrasive brushes, sponges and polishes, all of which may irritate dry skin, cautions Bickle. Those with active papulopustular (inflammatory) acne and cystic acne (the painful kind that forms underneath and takes weeks to go away) are also best left untouched by scrubbing, since it can spread bacteria.
Those with rosacea, eczema or sensitive skin should also forgo physical exfoliation, since these complexion types should avoid “anything where inflammation or irritation would play a part in worsening a dermatological condition,” explains Goldfaden. And sun-damaged skin needs to be handled with extreme caution, according to Los Angeles aesthetician and L’Oréal ambassador Vanessa Hernandez, who also warns against manual exfoliation for older, thin skin. For all of these groups, physical exfoliation isn’t just unnecessary—it should generally be avoided altogether to prevent sensitivity and further damage.
The good news is that if physical scrubbing isn’t for you, you can still enjoy the benefits of exfoliating. Chemical peels, which loosen and/or dissolve dead skin cells, are a milder alternative. “You can taper chemical exfoliants a bit easier [than mechanical ones],” says Bickle. “And you can do these things at home as long as they are very weak concentrations,” she says, referring to ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (e.g., lactic and glycolic), beta hydroxy acids (e.g., salicylic) and enzymes (e.g., papaya, pumpkin).
The chemical you choose should depend on your skin concerns. “This is all contingent on percentages, but usually, a salicylic acid tends to be the weakest and is most appropriate for acne skin types. Glycolic acid tends to be the strongest and is good for [treating] pigmentation and wrinkles,” says Goldfaden, who is also a proponent of lactic acid for sensitive skin types concerned with pigmentation. The best way to figure out which ingredient and percentage you should use is to consult a skincare professional. Don’t experiment when it comes to your face!
Considering the benefits—not to mention the abundance of options for all types of skin—you’d think exfoliating would be necessary for your skin’s optimum health (if you’re not in one of the aforementioned groups who should avoid it). Goldfaden strongly advises some form of exfoliation for acne-prone and oily skin types to prevent clogged pores (as long as there aren’t active blemishes), and for anyone who wants to fight the signs of aging. That covers a lot of us. But ultimately, when you find the best fit for you, it’s purely optional (unlike, say, cleansing, which is non-negotiable for healthy skin). “No one must exfoliate. None of us have to do it or need it, per se. But it can be useful and a nice thing to do for your skin,” Bickle says. “It’s a way of helping the body.”