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An Esthetician Explains: The Right Way to Exfoliate Your Face

Each season brings a wonderful opportunity to examine your daily skin care and make any needed adjustments. Exfoliation is a key step in a typical skincare regimen.

With so many misconceptions about how and why to exfoliate, I thought a fall-themed facial scrub and a few tips and tricks would be the perfect accompaniment for a transition into autumn.

The Right Way to Exfoliate Your Face

Why Exfoliate?

Why do we need to exfoliate? Dead skin, makeup, oil, and free radicals all take a serious toll on our skin. In fact, as we age, our self-exfoliation rate changes.

When we are kids, our skin does a fabulous job of sloughing off those layers. But as we get older, it gets tougher for our skin to do the job on its own.

What happens is our pores end up getting clogged, and the upper skin layers get dull and thick, creating uneven skin tones. So we need to exfoliate to help our skin do its job!

What Do I Use to Exfoliate?

There are two ways we can exfoliate, chemical and physical. 

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation uses products containing alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic acid or lactic acid, and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid. You will often find these acids in peels, serums, and facial moisturizers.

These compounds help dissolve the bonds that hold our dead skin cells together [source]. They are used to increase the rate of skin turnover, which helps to unclog pores that would normally lead to cosmetically displeasing acne breakouts [source]. Chemical exfoliation is also used to improve skin texture, treat acne scarring, wrinkles, and the effects of aging [source]. 

Physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation can be done by your dermatologist or with at-home scrubs using certain tools to manually scrub off the dead skin and open up pores (e.g., facial scrubs). 

Both techniques for exfoliation are helpful to incorporate into our weekly routines since they serve different purposes. For my facial clients, I recommend using a physical exfoliant (scrub) about 2–3 times a week.

I also like to recommend a chemical exfoliant with alpha-hydroxy acids—depending on their age, skin type, and sensitivity—to use several times a week as well.

An esthetician explains the Right Way to Exfoliate your face

What’s the Right Way to Exfoliate?

For a physical exfoliation, you’ll want to start with a clean face. It doesn’t have to be dry if you’ve just washed your face. Take some face scrub with your fingertips, and wet your hands slightly. Using your pinky and ring fingers only, gently move in circular motions around your face, avoiding your eye area.

If you are using a scrub that is designed for the body or has salt in it, do not use it on your face. If a scrub is too abrasive, it can leave tiny scratches on your skin that you cannot see or break blood vessels.

You do not need to use any extra pressure, just moving the scrub around your face provides enough pressure to get the job done. Wash off with warm water and follow with a moisturizer.

Chemical exfoliants need to be applied carefully based on the product’s instructions. Chemical peels may be irritating and result in skin rashes, especially in areas where the skin is most delicate and thin, like around the eyes.

Be sure you’ve done a test patch either on the inside of your elbow or behind your ear to assess the product for causing any skin irritation, burning, or rashes. If the peel recommends only 5–10 minutes, don’t assume that leaving it on 10–20 means it’ll work better.

Follow the directions on your serum or moisturizer as well. Some chemical exfoliants are to be used for a few minutes and washed off; others are designed to be applied and left on, like a serum. So read your labels carefully!

Pumpkin Spice Scrub + How to Exfoliate |

Exfoliation Mistakes and Misconceptions

I have dry skin, so I’d better not exfoliate. 

Wrong! Dry skin is typically an indication you might need to up your exfoliation game. As skin cells die and shed, they sometimes create flaky, dry patches on the face. Incorporating exfoliation regularly into your routine, along with proper moisturizing, will help with dry skin immensely. 

I should exfoliate every single day. 

Not for most people. Learning what’s best for your skin is key.

For some skin types, it might be true that more frequent exfoliation can be beneficial. But sometimes, over-exfoliation will cause dryness the same way under-exfoliation can.

Start out slowly and take the time to learn about your skin. Increase the frequency after a week or so, and take note of your skin’s response.

I always encourage clients to build up their tolerance, especially to chemical exfoliants. Once a week, then twice a week, and ultimately 2–4 times a week is your goal. 

Necks don’t need exfoliation. 

Not true. Sadly, the neck area is often forgotten and needs the same attention and product that the rest of the face does. You wouldn’t skip sunscreen on your neck, so don’t skip exfoliation either!

Scrubs and chemical exfoliants shouldn’t be used on the same day. 

This is not always the case. I assure you, I regularly use a scrub and an exfoliating mask on the majority of my facial clients. The key is not to irritate the skin too much.

Light pressure is also essential when using a scrub. Just take note that some exfoliants cause tingling or stinging, and using a scrub beforehand could intensify these feelings. But if you have sensitive skin or are left with redness often, you would do best to separate the days you use a scrub and an AHA or BHA.

Now let’s get to work making our own autumn facial scrub!

Pumpkin Spice Scrub + How to Exfoliate |

Pumpkin Spice Facial Scrub

  • 1 cup brown sugar (the finer, the better)
  • 1/2 cup jojoba oil for oily skin, or 1/2 cup coconut oil for dry/normal skin
  • 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • Oil from a few vitamin E capsules, or 1/2 teaspoon vitamin E oil

Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Apply to clean skin using your ring and pinky fingertips and warm water. Gently move the scrub around your face and neck, avoiding the eye area.

Once you’ve done a few rotations over your face, rinse with warm water. Remember, the lighter the pressure, the better!

Check out this post for more facial scrubs for every skin type!

This post was medically reviewed by Dr. Rina Mary Allawh, M.D., a dermatologist who practices adult and pediatric medical dermatology, skin cancer treatment, and cosmetic dermatology. Learn more about Hello Glow’s medical reviewers here. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.


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