How to Safely Exfoliate Without Damaging Your Skin

Most of the time, your skin is perfectly able to keep itself healthy. New skin builds up under the surface, and old skin dries out and flakes off in an almost unnoticeable process. Still, sometimes it could use a little extra help. Maybe it's the middle of winter, and dry air is increasing the dry, flaky nature of your skin. Maybe you're prone to oily skin and want to give yourself a little help clearing your pores. Maybe you just enjoy how freshly scrubbed skin feels.

In any case, this is where exfoliation comes in. Exfoliation is the process of cleansing your skin, either chemically or mechanically, to remove the built-up oils, dirt, and dead skin that builds up over the course of your day or week.

Exfoliation has a range of benefits. Whether you have dry skin or oily skin, you can still get something out of it.

  • Exfoliating helps unclog pores, which helps reduce the incidence of blemishes and skin inflammation that can be unsightly and painful.
  • Exfoliating can help reduce acne. Not all scrubs are created equal, and some are better for acne than others, but it always helps to clean your skin.
  • Exfoliating helps other skincare products work more effectively. You're essentially removing a barrier between your product and your skin, so it can penetrate deeper and work harder.
  • Exfoliating can help reduce blemishes. A regular exfoliating routine can even minimize or remove old acne scars and spots.
  • Exfoliating boosts blood flow to the skin, which helps it heal, maintains a healthy glow, and makes it more radiant.
  • Exfoliating may help boost natural collagen production. Collagen is important for the health and resilience of your skin, especially as you age, so keeping up your natural production is a good idea.

Of course, you don't need me to tell you. You already know you want to exfoliate, you just have one concern. Doesn't exfoliation risk damaging your skin?

The Risks of Exfoliation

Yes, it's possible that you can damage your skin when exfoliating. There are a bunch of different concerns you need to keep in mind when you're looking into building a new routine.

What kind of skin do you have? Oily skin is going to respond differently to different kinds of treatments than dry skin. People with naturally oily skin probably don't need an exfoliating product that adds oil to the skin, but people with dry skin don't want to use a product that further dries out their skin. 

Additionally, people with sensitive skin – or people with certain chemical sensitivities – need to be careful with the products they choose. You don't want to use an exfoliating product only to wake up swollen and stinging the next day!

How often are you exfoliating? The average person's skin turnover rate is around 28 days for a young adult, and it gets much longer the older you get. If you exfoliate too often, you risk stripping good, healthy skin rather than dry, older skin. This reduces the barrier between you and the elements. Dirt can clog pores more easily, skin gets red and inflamed more easily, you face more risk from sunburn and environmental exposure, and more. 

Worse is the insidious low-level chronic inflammation. A small amount of inflammation might not be noticeable, or you might even think your skin looks younger because of how the inflammation is reducing wrinkles. Unfortunately, that damages your skin, and prematurely ages it.

What kind of product are you going to use? There are both mechanical and chemical exfoliating treatments. Mechanical treatments use some mild abrasive to scrub the surface of your skin, but they don't tend to penetrate too deep. Chemical exfoliation products penetrate much more deeply, but can damage skin, potentially even severely. Always know the nature of your product, test it before you use it, and make sure you don't over-use it.

Tips for Safe Exfoliation

You're aware of the risks and you're willing to be safe with your skincare treatments, so how can you stay safe? Here are our best tips.

Learn your skin type. One of the most important parts of exfoliation is learning what type of skin you have, so you can buy products – or DIY scrubs – that work best for what you have and what you want. As we mentioned above, if you have dry skin, a product that dries out your skin is just going to make your problems worse.

There are a handful of different ways to determine the oil levels in your skin, but partly it just comes down to experience. Dry skin is usually pretty noticeable, but skin that's a bit on the dry side of normal might be trickier to identify. Even people with normal skin can experience some dryness, so it's not always the best indicator.

You also want to know if you have sensitive skin. Sensitive skin tends to get red when exposed, even just to air or sunlight, and tends to be combined with dry skin, though not always. Sensitive skin is also more likely to sting or become inflamed after exfoliating. You always want to be as gentle as possible with sensitive skin.

Prepare your skin before exfoliating. You don't paint a wall without primer, you don't eat a fruit without washing it, and you shouldn't exfoliate your skin without cleansing it first. Exfoliating is meant to strip oil, dirt, and dead skin from your skin's surface, yes. However, the more you get off your skin before applying your treatment, the better the treatment will work.

A simple cleanse with soap and water is enough for most cases, but you may also want a more thorough cleanser if you're particularly active, if you've been outside for a long period of time, or if you've gotten rather dirty today. You don't want to strip everything from your skin – that's the point of the exfoliating product – but you want to help it get started. This is where gentle brushes, cloths, and other products can help.

Be gentle when applying and using an exfoliating product. Always be gentle with anything related to your skin. With mechanical exfoliating products, you're using physical force to exfoliate. The more force you apply – whether it's a gentle scrub or a stiff brush – the more damage you can potentially do to your skin. You want to apply your product in small areas with gentle rubbing, and avoid being too forceful with both application and removal. Scrubbing too hard breaks down the proteins in your skin and can lead to sagginess over time.

Chemical exfoliation relies on a chemical reaction to dissolve and eat away at the substances that hold dead skin and dirt to your fresh, healthy skin. In this case, you want to avoid anything too harsh or too concentrated, to avoid damaging the skin below. In fact:

Avoid harsh products. It's so important to avoid harsh products that it's worth reiterating. 

Some products include very harsh abrasives in them. You're not going to find plastic microbeads much anymore – and with good reason, due to their environmental damage – but you still find scrubs with sharp crystals, very abrasive particles, or brushes that are too stiff and sharp. In terms of chemical peels, you might encounter some that are very concentrated forms of light acids. Harsh chemicals are, of course, dangerous for your skin.

With chemical-based exfoliating products, you also want to avoid leaving them on too long. They don't have a natural stopping point, so if you leave them sitting on your skin too long, not only do they eat away at the dead skin layer on the surface, they can damage the skin below it. Err on the side of caution and remove your chemical products sooner rather than later.

Don't exfoliate too often. The more you expose your healthy skin to the environment, the more you force your skin to cope with damage. Additionally, exfoliating is primarily beneficial to remove the dirt and dead skin that doesn't fall off naturally or with cleansing. 

Mechanical exfoliation, as mentioned, can damage healthy skin if it's done too harshly or too frequently. Many of the best scrubs are soft enough that you can use them once a day, but if you have sensitive skin, you might want to dial back on that. 

Chemical exfoliation, even with the least harsh products, can still be damaging to the skin, especially sensitive skin. Most products should be limited to once a week at most, and often should be restricted even more than that. It depends on what's in the product and how your skin reacts to it, of course, but again; err on the side of caution.

Give your skin a rest period occasionally. Opinions vary on the idea of a resting period for your skin when you're exfoliating. Remember that mention up above about minor damage leading to chronic inflammation? That's the primary risk that a resting period can help alleviate. 

A resting period is essentially just taking a break from exfoliating for a bit. Do your daily cleanse and scrub, do your weekly chemical scrub, and keep up that routine for a month or two. Then, once you've gotten into the habit, break it off for another month or two. These alternating periods of on-and-off exfoliation give your skin time to heal and restore its luster, while avoiding the long-term build-up of dead skin and dirt that leads to blemishes. 

If you're gentle with your exfoliation, use very light products, and are careful with how often you exfoliate, you probably don't need a rest period. If you tend to like a deeper cleanse with harsher, stronger products, it's probably a good idea to give your skin a rest periodically to avoid long-term damage. 

There's no firm set of conclusions or even a consensus amongst dermatologists here. There are far too many products and different skin types react to them in different ways. The real key is just to find the right balance that works for you.

Always test your products in a small, inconspicuous area. This applies to pretty much anything cosmetic, but it is doubly important for something like a chemical exfoliating agent. 

The most obvious reason to test a product is to make sure that it's not going to irritate your skin. You don't want to use a new chemical peel on your face, only to find you have to spend the next week of your life looking like you got a ferocious sunburn.

The other reason is to make sure you don't have any sort of allergic reaction to a product you use. There are a lot of different ingredients in various exfoliating products, from natural honey to salicylic acid, and unless you've used them before or gotten a robust allergy test, you won't know if you're allergic to them.

Do more than just exfoliate. Exfoliation is good, but it's just one part of a robust skincare routine. At the very least, you need to moisturize after exfoliating. Using other forms of skincare on a regular basis is always a good idea as well.

Don't use salicylic acid while pregnant. At least, don't use high concentrations of it, and don't use it more than once a day. Higher concentrations of salicylic acid can penetrate the skin, make its way into the body via subcutaneous fat, and can affect a developing baby. Be careful with the chemicals you use!

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