Exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the skin’s surface to make way for new cells. Though the body naturally sheds these cells, sometimes it needs a bit of extra help, which is where physical or chemical exfoliation comes in.
Exfoliating products and treatments can help take your skin from dull, congested, and rough to bright, clear, and resurfaced.
How To Exfoliate the Face
You can exfoliate your face with a variety of agents, both chemical and physical, as well as by professional treatment.
There are two main types of exfoliants. Chemical exfoliants dissolve dead skin cells using gentle chemicals, including the following:
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic or lactic acid are commonly used to reduce the appearance of fine lines.
- Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid, are commonly used to unclog pores and decrease the amount of oil on the face.
- Chemical peels are commonly used to resurface the skin, such as a light-duty peel, safe for at-home or medical spa use; or a stronger peel applied at a doctor or dermatologist’s office.
- Retinoids (a form of vitamin A) such as prescription Differin (adapalene) or tretinoin or over-the-counter (OTC) retinol are commonly used for acne or antiaging purposes.
Chemical exfoliants can be found in cleansers, toners, creams, masks, or chemical peels. The strength of the chemical exfoliant will depend on whether it’s available over-the-counter, by prescription, or as a treatment done at a dermatologist’s office or reputable medical spa.
All types of chemical exfoliants should be applied as directed to a clean face and avoided on the delicate skin around the eyes and lips. To reduce the risk of irritation, redness, and peeling, experts recommend testing out a chemical exfoliant once a week and increasing usage to two or three times a week if your skin can tolerate it.
Your doctor or medical spa professional will be able to help you determine how often to get a chemical peel. People with sensitive skin or skin conditions like psoriasis and rosacea should definitely ask a doctor before trying a potentially harsh chemical exfoliant.
Physical exfoliants work with the use of an abrasive ingredient or tool to manually remove dead skin cells. Also called manual exfoliants, examples include:
- Gritty scrubs with beads, grains, or other ground-up material
- Cleansing brushes or tools
- Washcloths or cleansing pads
- Microdermabrasion procedures
Physical exfoliants provide an “instant” result, revealing a smoother, softer, or brighter complexion after the product or tool is massaged over the skin in small circular motions. It’s best to physically exfoliate after cleansing the skin and it may be helpful to apply a moisturizer afterward to lock in hydration.
Try a physical exfoliant once a week. If your skin tolerates it, you might eventually increase to two or three times per week.
Exfoliating Acne-Prone Skin
It’s important not to go overboard with physical exfoliants, as the friction can irritate already inflamed or breakout-prone skin. People with more severe inflammatory acne, for example, should avoid physical exfoliants unless recommended by their doctor.
Microdermabrasion is a treatment done by a dermatologist or other skin care professional. It involves the use of a minimally-abrasive instrument that removes dead skin cells to resurface your skin.
During this treatment, a professional will gently “sand” your skin with a hand-held instrument shaped like a wand and attached to a machine. Powered with microfine crystals or microencrusted tips, the microdermabrasion instrument buffs away the dead skin particles, and vacuums them up through the wand.
The treatment can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, and typically ranges from $75 to $300 or more per session. Often, experts will recommend a series of microdermabrasion treatments for more noticeable results that can improve the skin’s texture, and reduce fine lines, sun damage, acne, age spots, and enlarged pores.
Your skin may appear a bit pink for a day or so after the treatment, and you may feel like you’ve got a minor sunburn. Tenderness, bruising, and swelling can happen, but those side effects are rarer.
Remember to use sunscreen following microdermabrasion, as it can increase sensitivity to UV light. People who are pregnant or taking the acne medication isotretinoin may not be good candidates for microdermabrasion, so be sure to check with your doctor or dermatologist.
How to Exfoliate the Scalp
Over time, residue from hair products, natural oils, dandruff, and dead skin cells can build up on the scalp, so exfoliating can make this area less itchy, flaky, and dry. Physical and chemical exfoliants made from ingredients like charcoal, apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, and salicylic acids are options for the skin on this part of the body.
Experts recommend starting on wet, shampooed hair and applying the product with your fingertips or brush. Gently rub in a gentle, circular motion, and rinse and dry as directed. Start by using a scalp exfoliant once a week to avoid over-drying and increase as needed.
People who have open sores or infestations like lice should avoid exfoliating their scalp unless you’ve discussed with your doctor.
How To Exfoliate the Lips
Just like the skin on the rest of your body, the sensitive skin on your lips can also become dry, flaky, and in need of some physical exfoliation. Options include using a lip exfoliation product from the drugstore or mixing up a few ingredients at home for a do-it-yourself scrub.
For an at-home scrub, experts suggest choosing a small amount of a gentle base ingredient (such as coffee grounds or sugar) and mixing it with several drops of coconut or olive oil.
Lightly massage the paste over the lips with your finger or a toothbrush, and remove excess product gently with a damp washcloth. Applying lip balm afterward will help lock in moisture.
Just be careful not to scrub too hard, especially on chapped lips, to avoid irritation. Any burning, stinging, or tingling sensation is usually an indicator of irritation.
How to Exfoliate the Body
To remove dead skin from the body, you can use scrubs and various exfoliation tools.
Many different physical exfoliant products are available over the counter that are made specifically for the skin on your body, which tends to be thicker than the skin on your face. That said, body skin usually has fewer pores and oil glands, making it more prone to drying out.
When selecting a body scrub at the drugstore, look for ingredients like glycerin, shea butter, jojoba oil, and argan oil for hydration. Also, plant enzymes like papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate work well as natural exfoliant ingredients, especially for sensitive skin.
You can also choose to mix up a scrub at home by combining a small amount of sugar, salt, or coffee grounds with several drops of coconut or almond oil.
Body scrubs typically work best in the shower before shaving. Gently massage the product in small circles, rinse with warm water, and follow up with a moisturizer to keep the skin hydrated. Keep in mind that rougher areas like the elbows and knees can usually take a bit more pressure, but be careful with sensitive areas such as the chest and neck.
There are a few types of tools that can help step up your body exfoliation game:
- Loofahs are a staple in many peoples’ showers for applying body wash, and they can be used more intentionally for gentle daily physical exfoliation. Rub the loofah in small circles across the skin, concentrating on areas that tend to be drier, like the elbows and knees. Let the loofah air dry and replace it every month, as they can harbor bacteria and mildew.
- Dry brushes can be used to exfoliate the skin outside of the shower or bath. Dry brush bristles on the end of a long handle can offer manual exfoliation with short, light strokes across the skin. It can make the skin feel dry or potentially slightly pink, so make sure not to brush too hard or too often. Once or twice a week is probably a good starting point.
- Exfoliating mitts or gloves are made of textured fibers to allow for manual exfoliation that’s easy to control with your own hand. While it can be tough to reach certain areas, like your back, they can be handy to use in the shower with or without a body scrub or wash. Rub the mitt in small circles, paying attention to the elbows, knees, and feet.
How To Exfoliate the Feet
Dead skin can build up on the feet, even forming tough calluses.
Foot peels are a form of chemical exfoliation for the feet. These products are found at your local beauty product or drug store. They are usually made up of AHA ingredients.
Similar to a sheet mask, the process involves placing plastic socks or booties on your feet for up to an hour, allowing the chemical exfoliant to soak into the skin. After removing, dead skin cells will continue to shed off of the feet or “peel” for the next several days.
Exfoliating acids in foot peels may cause sensitivity in some people, so keep an eye out for side effects such as swelling, inflammation, and blistering. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor or dermatologist before trying out a foot peel, and definitely avoid this option if there are any cuts, sores, or open wounds on your feet.
Calluses (hardened, thick skin accumulated in one spot) are commonly found on the feet due to repeated friction from shoes or activity. Callus-removing tools for this area include:
- Pumice stones are natural lava stones that are gentle enough to be used a few times a week, as long as you’re not applying too much force or pressure. After the shower, rub the callused areas with a pumice stone to help sand down unsightly or uncomfortable dead skin accumulation.
- Shavers look similar to a cheese grater and can be a dangerous tool if used too aggressively. On damp skin, gently rub back and forth on the callused skin a few times. You’ll see dead skin cells flake off like grated cheese. Take extra caution when using this tool, as it can cut or irritate the skin. It’s best used on extremely thick calluses.
- Foot files look like larger nail files and are meant to sand down any calluses or dry areas of the foot. Use after the shower on damp skin, and lightly file back and forth on areas with accumulated dead skin.
Even if you’re extra careful, it’s best not to use any of these tools on areas of the feet that are injured, cut, or sore. See a podiatrist or skin care professional for assistance with stubborn calluses.
Foot scrubs are a physical exfoliant with an abrasive ingredient. They’re often made with slightly more heavy-duty ingredient s, as the bottoms of the feet can usually withstand more scrubbing than other areas of the body. For example, salt may be used as a base ingredient instead of sugar, and products may include more cocoa butter of vitamin E as a thicker moisturizer for dry feet.
Just because you can use a stronger hand in applying a foot scrub, it’s still a good idea to avoid using it multiple times a week or rubbing too hard. Make sure to apply on damp skin.
Always check with your doctor or podiatrist if you’re dealing with an excessive amount of calluses or cracked skin that doesn’t seem to improve with at-home care.
A Word From Verywell
Selecting the right exfoliant with the best ingredients for your skin can involve some trial and error. Remember that it’s always an option to ask your doctor or healthcare professional for a referral to a dermatologist, who can evaluate your skin and recommend a personalized exfoliation plan that’s both safe and effective.
This is especially true for people with acne or other skin conditions, particularly if you’re using any medications like isotretinoin or topical retinoids.