Everything You Need To Know About Types of Exfoliants

In case you haven’t heard, exfoliating is essential for a good skincare routine. It minimizes the appearance of large pores by clearing the dead skin & debris out, smooths rough patches, fades dark spots on your skin, and makes you glow! Our dead skin cells slough off every 28+ days and as we age it takes even longer. Though they’re microscopic, they are the cause of many of our biggest skin complaints. Oh, and they also block your skincare products from being able to absorb into your skin and your makeup from looking smooth. Exfoliating removes dead skin cells to make room for fresh and healthier ones. So, yeah it’s safe to say exfoliating is crucial if you want great skin. In this post, I’m going to explain how to exfoliate when you should do it, and which method is best for your skin type.

How often should you exfoliate your face?

For most skin types I say 2-3 times a week but this varies on your skin type. The goal is NOT to turn bright red, sting, or tingle—it’s to gently help along your body’s natural exfoliation process so that your face glows. Below are some common skin types and how best to exfoliate for each. I’ll go into my favorite products later on in this post.

Sensitive skin: You should be extra gentle and exfoliate with a warm, wet washcloth or a mild chemical exfoliant with lower active ingredient percentages once or twice a week, max. Scrubs will likely just irritate your sensitive skin type but if you find one that works, great!

Oily skin: Your skin has a higher tolerance for all types of exfoliants and you can treat your skin up to five times a week. You can exfoliate with a scrub, shaving, serums, masks… etc.

Normal to combination skin: You can use either of these methods with optimal results up to three times a week.

Now, onto the types of exfoliants. There are 2 “main” methods of exfoliating- Physical and Chemical. But within those two there are many ways that can fit your skin’s needs depending on your skin type.

Physical Exfoliate

Physical exfoliation is done with the use of grainy scrubs, brushes, masks, dermaplaning, shaving, microdermabrasion, or any other method to manually remove your dead skin cells.

Lately, physical scrubs have gotten a bad rep because they can be abrasive and can potentially cause more harm to your skin. I actually LOVE a good physical scrub, but I can see how people may take it too far. Use scrubs with tiny grains and don’t push hard! Gently rub in tiny circles all over your face and lips and rinse. Viola!

The easiest way to incorporate them into your routine is a face scrub when you’re already washing your face. I like to cleanse with my normal cleanser then come back with a scrub and lightly rub in circular motions.

My favorites physical exfoliants are:

There are also amazing masks that have scrubs in them. When you remove the mask your skin looks and feels incredible!

Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical exfoliation has become super popular because it is more gentle and can be done on even the most sensitive skin types. Chemical sounds scary but really it’s just the use of gentle acids that dissolve the “glue” that binds your dead skin cells to your face. 

Essentially, there are two types of chemical exfoliants: alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). Let’s break them down:

Alpha Hydroxy Acid- AHA

AHAs, such as lactic or glycolic acid, dissolve dead skin cells and debris from the skin’s surface and don’t penetrate very deep into your pores. These are beneficial if you have sensitive, dry or sun-damaged skin. They’re best for  “ungluing” dead cells to make skin brighter and smoother.

AHAs come in a few forms, like lactic, mandelic, and glycolic acid.

If you have sensitive skin or are new to chemical exfoliants, start with lactic acid, which is the most gentle of the acids. Apply it every three nights on clean, dry skin, and wait 10 full minutes before applying the rest of your skincare. If your skin is pretty normal with no real sensitivity issues, try glycolic acid since it’s a bit stronger.

My favorite AHA products:

Beta Hydroxy Acid- BHA

BHAs are oil-soluble, meaning they break down oil-clogged pores and treat blackheads, whiteheads, and zits. They’re also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, which will help soothe any irritation from exfoliating, or from acne. The most popular BHA is salicylic acid, a longtime favorite acne spot treatment.

Here are some that I’ve tried and love:

Can you combine AHA and BHA Exfoliants?

Yes, if your skin is resilient, but they can be irritating and drying. So stick with only one chemical exfoliant at a time at first, and see how your skin reacts.

Here’s an example of a combo- The Ordinary AHA 30% BHA 2%- it’s one of the most deeply exfoliating products on the market. It’s definitely not for beginners, so start with a more mild exfoliant and move upwards—what’s mild to me, might be too intense for you.

How do I include exfoliation into my skincare routine?

Don’t be scared to incorporate it into your routine! Your dead cells re-accumulate every day, so regular exfoliation is a must. I suggest using exfoliants at night. If you’re using a scrub, wash your face with your normal cleanser first, then cleanse again with your scrub. If you have a mask, apply it after you cleansed your skin. Serum- Apply after you cleanse and tone.

No matter what, you must always moisturize after you exfoliate and wear SPF during the day. Exfoliants increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. But since you’re already diligent about wearing sunscreen and reapplying throughout the day, you’re good!

Can you over-exfoliate?

Yes! Exfoliating too often can damage your skin’s barrier and make it dry, red, flaky, itchy, breakout, cause premature fine lines, and overproduction of oil. So just remember, when exfoliating: less is more and start slow.

Don’t worry if you’ve over-exfoliated. Just stop all exfoliation and just layer on a super-rich lotion with anti-inflammatory ingredients like aloe, cica, or calendula. My current fave is Laneige’s Cica Repair Sleeping Mask.

Now go on and get to exfoliating already. 🙂




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