How to Exfoliate Your Face for Smooth, Healthy Skin
Are you stressed about having dull, rough, or bumpy skin with acne scars, or hyperpigmentation? Here is a detailed guide on how to choose the right exfoliator for soft, glowing skin.
Exfoliation can be one of the best ways to get rid of all these unwanted problems, such as pimples, dull complexion. Have you crossed paths with the famous term—’10-step Korean skin care routine’? Exfoliation is one of the critical parts of the Korean women's beauty regimen, and it's something that each of us can easily do at home.
If you use the right product for exfoliation, your skin will experience a faster rejuvenation process, making it look more youthful and feel smoother.
Still unsure how to do it right? Here is the K Beauty World's comprehensive guide to learning how to properly exfoliate your skin, along with a list of ten of the best Korean exfoliators you can feel good about integrating into your beauty steps.
What is exfoliation?
At the most basic level, exfoliation simply means the process of removing dead skin cells or dirt from the skin's surface using a chemical, granular substance or tool as known as a scrub.
Exfoliating can help cleanse the skin, speed up the skin renewal process, smooth skin texture, even out skin tone, and prevent the formation of blackheads and whiteheads.
Skin peeling also helps unclog congested pores, which can be a cause of acne breakouts. If your skin is riddled with dead cells, a potent serum or moisturizer may not be able to penetrate deep into the skin and do its job, making these steps less effective.
Why is it important to exfoliate?
Our skin naturally sheds dead skin cells through normal daily activities and regenerates itself in a cycle of about 28 days for an adult and 3-5 days for a baby—that's why babies have such a soft complexion.
Sometimes the dead cells are not shed as often as they should due to various factors such as genetics, sun damage, environmental stressors, dryness or oiliness.
With age, the natural skin shedding process (skin turnover) and oil production also decreases. This causes dead skin cells to continue to accumulate on the skin's surface, leaving the skin dry, lacklustre, flaky and patchy.
A regular exfoliation routine can prevent these problems and give the skin on your face and body a healthy, natural glow and vitality.
What is the best type of exfoliator?
Exfoliators can be categorized into two different types, designed for different skin types and needs—physical (mechanical) and chemical. All offer equally great benefits, but for the best results, choose the one that best suits your skin type.
Physical exfoliators involve manually scrubbing or rubbing the surface of the skin with mechanical exfoliating tools or products that contain some types of rough/slightly abrasive materials or physical particles that rub against the skin to slough off the dead skin layer.
Commonly known fine granules of physical exfoliants include sugar, salt, walnut shells, sand, rice bran, clay, baking soda, pumice stone, and silica.
If you want to soften and smooth your skin texture and remove visible flakes, a physical exfoliation is a great way to get quick results.
Some mechanical examples include:
- Face scrubs/Wash-off masks
- Peeling gels, lotions, creams
- Exfoliating mitts
- Peeling pads
- Dry brushes
- Facial sponges
- Pumice stone
- Microneedling or derma rollers
⭐ 3 Best physical exfoliators
SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub
A smoothing scrub features a powerful 2% concentration that combines hydrated silica, glycerin and aloe extract to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells while softening and moisturizing the skin.
It is gentle enough for daily use and has a very mild, almost imperceptible fragrance. Free of paragons, sulfates, soap, artificial fragrances, dyes and alcohol and suitable for dry, normal, oily or combination skin.
Skinfood Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask
A skin-soothing exfoliating mask with Brazilian organic black sugar, which gently exfoliates the skin, and manuka and acacia honey, which is rich in minerals and vitamins and provides the skin with moisture and nutrients.
It is suitable for all skin types and free from microplastics, silicone, parabens, ammonia, phthalates and some other harmful chemicals.
Olehenriksen Lemonade Smoothing Scrub™
A refreshing, exfoliating facial scrub that uses AHAs, lemon peel and sugar to instantly retexturize, polish and reduce the appearance of pores.
This dual action scrub does double duty of physically and chemically exfoliating your complexion. Highly effective AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) help loosen and remove dead skin cells, while lemon peel powder and ultra-fine sugar gently sweep away rough skin.
Chemical exfoliants are acids that weaken the bonds between skin cells, making it easier for dead skin cells to break away. They can penetrate deep into the pores and extract built up dirt and impurities from the skin.
The most common chemical exfoliants added to cosmetics and skin care products are alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA), polyhydroxy acids (PHA), lipohydroxy acids (LHA), plant-based enzymes and retinols.
These leave-on exfoliators are available in various concentrations and forms, such as facial cleansers, serums, essences, toners, masks and creams.
You would benefit most from a chemical peel if your skin problems tend to stem from the deeper level of the skin, such as acne, whiteheads, or blackheads.
What are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)?
Naturally derived from fruits, nuts, milk or sugarcane. AHAs are tiny molecules of hydrophilic (water-soluble) acid. They exfoliate and dissolve dead skin cells on the surface of your skin and stimulate the renew of the skin cell process.
Alpha hydroxy acids help smooth out pigmentation spots, fine lines, wrinkles, and acne scars while brightening and even out your skin tone.
The most popular AHAs in cosmetics include glycolic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and mandelic acid.
What are beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)?
In skin care, the most common of these is salicylic acid! It is extracted from willow bark, wintergreen leaves and sweet birch bark.
As an acid exfoliant, salicylic acid is lipophilic (oil soluble) and works by softening and dissolving keratin. It easily penetrates deep into pores and clears out excess sebum and dead skin cells while preventing blackheads, whiteheads and acne breakouts.
(Related blog post: What is the difference between AHA, BHA, and PHA?)
What are retinoids?
Retinoids are the umbrella term for retinol products—a class of skin supplements derived from vitamin A. They improve skin texture, pigmentation, skin tone and reduce fine lines and wrinkles by increasing collagen production. Retinols help protect skin from free radicals and promote cell turnover, leaving skin clearer, smoother and more radiant.
There are several topical retinoids on the market, including retinol, tretinoin, adapalene, tazarotene, alitretinoin, bexarotene, retin-A, retin-A micro, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, and isotretinoin.
They differ in concentration—over-the-counter(OTC) preparations containing a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient are suitable for retinol newcomers. If they don't work, you should consult a dermatologist, as prescription retinoids have a much stronger formula.
⭐ 3 Best chemical exfoliators
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
This fast-absorbing fluid removes built-up dead skin cells, fights breakouts and blackheads for softer, more youthful skin.
This gentle, lightweight fluid contains BHA (salicylic acid), which has anti-inflammatory properties and helps reduce blackheads, blemishes and redness.
It's a leave-on formula, so all you have to do is apply and enjoy the result. You can also use it on areas of the body that are prone to breakouts, like the back or chest. It is fragrance- and cruelty-free.
Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
A gentle exfoliating product that effectively penetrates the skin, cleansing clogged pores and gently sloughing off dead skin cells to give the skin its natural glow.
It consists of natural BHA active ingredient, willow bark water, instead of plain mineral water to maximize the effect without irritation. Ideal for oily, normal, combination and acne-prone skin.
👉 Shop Now Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
This non-comedogenic formula contains 30% alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic/lactic/tartaric/citric acid) and 2% beta hydroxy acid (salicylic acid), which provide deeper exfoliation to combat visible blemishes and improve skin radiance.
It also contains hyaluronic acid crosspolymer, vitamin B5 and black carrot, which improve the appearance of skin texture and reduce the appearance of fine lines. The exfoliating fluid contains Tasmanian pepper berry to reduce irritation associated with the use of acids.
What are the benefits of exfoliating your skin?
Exfoliation helps to restore the natural process and bring fresher, healthier cells to the surface of your skin. With newer cells, your skin can retain moisture better and allow skin care products to penetrate more effectively. As a result, your skin looks ultra-dewy and feels baby-soft, with a healthy, natural glow.
Additional benefits of retinoids include:
- Unclogs pores
- Diminishes the appearance of sun damage, enlarged pores
- Increased cell turnover
- Clears out breakouts and acne
- Smooths rough, bumpy texture
- Lighten skin pigmentation, acne scars
- Enhances the effectiveness of products
- Reduces the signs of aging
- Evens out skin tone
- Stimulates collagen synthesis
- Hydrates skin
How often should you exfoliate?
The frequency of exfoliation depends on your skin type, concerns, personal preferences, and the strength of the formula.
If you have very oily skin, you can get away with exfoliating every other day or as often as needed. For skin that’s dry or sensitive, do it once or twice a week, and for normal to combination skin, it’s recommended to exfoliate two to three times per week.
Helpful tips: It is a good practice to start with once or twice a week and add more days depending on how your skin reacts!
How do you choose the right exfoliator for your skin type?
If you have oily skin that is prone to acne and blemishes, use either a physical or chemical exfoliant with salicylic acid, which can help clear out clogged pores that often lead to breakouts.
Dry and sensitive skin is already more fragile so rather than using a physical exfoliant, use a chemical exfoliant with AHAs such as glycolic acid or lactic acid.
It helps enhance the skin’s moisture-retaining ability and fade pigmentation faster by accelerating skin cell renewal process and stimulating collagen production.
(Want to know your skin type? Here's some information for you — How to identify your skin types and take care of each?)