How to Exfoliate Skin Properly

Whether you swear by face scrubs or prefer alpha hydroxy acid-based action, you’re already ahead of the game if you’re regularly exfoliating. Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells in order to reveal the brighter, healthy skin underneath, keep pores clear, and fade dark spots — which should be all the convincing you need to make it a non-negotiable in your skincare routine.

That said, exfoliation isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal. It can be accomplished via fruit enzymes, powders, acids, and other ingredients, all to varying degrees of success. Here, a breakdown of the most common types and why they might be worth pairing.

What is exfoliation?

Your skin naturally turns over roughly every 28 days — and over time, this process slows down. (It’s just a matter of age.) As your skin begins to shed fewer and fewer dead skin cells, these can start to pile up on the surface of the skin, where they may contribute to dullness and potentially clog pores if left to their own devices. Not only that, but that layer of dead skin cells could also prevent your skincare products from fully penetrating skin.

That’s where exfoliating comes in. Exfoliation uses either chemicals (such as enzymes or acids) or physical materials (such as granules or powders) to remove those dead skin cells. When done properly, it leaves your fresh, healthy skin cells — and your all-important skin barrier — intact.

How to exfoliate skin

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants actually break down or unglue the bonds between these dead skin cells, allowing them to peace out. “They are quick, easy to use, and offer great benefits for problem skin, whether it’s from acne, eczema, rosacea, dryness, or sensitivity,” says Patricia Wexler, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Wexler Dermatology in New York City. The most common are alpha-hydroxy acids (also known as AHAs) — which include glycolic and lactic acids — as well as beta-hydroxy acids (a.k.a. BHAs, a solid choice for those with acne), and fruit enzymes.

BHA and retinol is a go-to combo for anyone with oily skin, breakouts, or clogged pores. Here’s why you should use them together, stat.

In sloughing away the top layer of skin, these ingredients boost radiance, smooth texture, and can even increase your skin’s natural exfoliation rate over time. For that reason, we harnessed two types of acid — polyhydroxy acid (PHA) and BHA— in the Watermelon Glow Pore-Tight PHA+BHA Toner. Inspired by the Korean Aqua Peel Facial, it aims to bring you the best of both worlds: exfoliation and hydration. PHA resurfaces and smooths skin, and its large molecular size keeps it close to the skin’s surface (making it a winner for sensitive skin types). BHA, meanwhile, is oil-soluble, which gives it the unique ability to dive into pores and clear out clogs. In our toner, they’re paired with hyaluronic acid — a true hydration queen — to refresh and balance skin.

In fact, we’ve been using them since day one. Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask, our OG product, is formulated with powerful AHAs — plus amino acids derived from watermelon and hyaluronic acid to give skin a protective cocoon of hydration that protects your delicate complexion from any possible irritation. 

Fruit enzymes are another go-to for Wexler. “Enzyme exfoliation is generally better for sensitive skin and is a good example of why I like chemical versus manual exfoliation,” she explains. “Enzymes digest only the dead skin cells attached to the upper layer of the skin, which means that you will not damage the healthy skin underneath.”

That’s one of the big reasons our Papaya Sorbet Enzyme Cleansing Balm uses papaya-derived papain enzymes to visibly brighten dull skin and even out skin tone, while Watermelon Glow Hyaluronic Clay Pore-Tight Facial is packed with watermelon enzymes (among other exfoliants, which we’ll get to shortly). They’re effective enough to make dead skin disappear, but gentle enough that it won’t scratch or agitate the fresh, naturally glowy skin underneath. 

Physical exfoliation

Never going to quit scrub life? No problem: If you still can’t resist the deep-clean feel of face scrub, Wexler recommends using a very fine exfoliant to do it. “Sugar, with its tiny particles, can give a gentle exfoliation,” she suggests. Most exfoliating powders are also a safe bet, as they have been broken down into micro-grains which are much too fine to cause any major, damaging scratches on the skin.

Speaking of damage: Avoid harsh, abrasive granules, while effective at removing dead skin cells, can lead to micro-tears in the skin. (Looking at you, walnut shells.) “If you look under a microscope, it looks like sandpaper on wood,” says Wexler. “There are rough, etched tears made in the epidermis. Manual exfoliation can be inexact and aggressive,” she says. The chances of creating micro-tears can vary according to your skin type, level of sensitivity, and experience using it — which is why your best bet is not to use sharp particles in the first place. In addition to sensitizing the skin, those micro-tears can lead to skin inflammation and free radical damage, which are two big causes of premature aging.

That’s why we created our Watermelon Glow Hyaluronic Clay Pore-Tight Facial with blueberry seed powder; this super-fine powder has tiny granules that offer mild exfoliation and a scrubby feel when you rinse. It’s also paired with PHA, BHA, and watermelon enzymes for that chemical exfoliation — proving that more is not less, but can, in fact, be just the right amount. The combination together is super-effective without being overenthusiastic.

We had to think outside the box to create a clay mask that doesn’t dry out skin. That’s where hyaluronic clay comes in.

How often should you exfoliate?

It depends on the formula and what your skin can handle. We’re fans of daily exfoliation, but it’s important to use a gentle method to do it without irritating or inflaming skin. We’ve designed our exfoliating products so that they can be used in the same routine on a daily basis without harming skin, thanks to the addition of comforting, skin-replenishing ingredients like botanical oils and hyaluronic acid. (We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: It’s not the individual ingredients that count, but the whole formula.)

We recommend exfoliating via your cleanser, as with our Papaya Sorbet Enzyme Cleansing Balm, or after cleansing in the form of a toner or mask. Doing so on a daily basis helps ensure clear pores and an overall glow.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember: Exfoliators are meant to be a gentle way to remove dead skin cells at the surface. Scrubbing harder won’t make the exfoliation any more effective; if whatever you are doing to your skin makes it hurt, cease and desist immediately or risk causing permanent damage.

A more strategic approach that brings together the best of both chemical and physical exfoliation — and does so gently — will get you a lot closer to a 24/7 glow.

Keep reading about how to keep skin radiant:


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