How to Exfoliate for Smoother, Softer Skin

Wendy Rodewald
How to exfoliate for smoother, softer skin

Get a glow with these targeted exfoliators.
Photo: Luca Cannonieri/

Like instant gratification? Exfoliation — that is, sloughing off the top layer of dead skin cells by scrubbing or via chemical means — is just about the quickest way to give your skin a noticeable glow. But depending on your skin type and concerns, not just any old scrub will do. Here’s how to exfoliate your unique skin type for smoother, softer skin that (yes!) needs less makeup.

Normal to oily skin

Beneath that layer of dead skin, a baby soft complexion is just waiting to be revealed. If you don’t have acne and your skin isn’t particularly sensitive, try a mechanical method of exfoliation, such as a home microdermabrasion kit or a cleanser with scrubbing beads. “Right away your skin feels softer and smoother” with these methods, says Dr. Oscar Hevia, founder of Hevia MD Skin Science, The Hevia Center for Research and Hevia Cosmetic Dermatology in Coral Gables, Florida. The new Pro-X by Olay Microdermabrasion + Advanced Cleansing System ($39.99, features a crystal polisher and rotating foam head that, when used together in a two-week study of 41 women, exfoliated as effectively as a professional microdermabrasion treatment.

Prescription retinoids and over-the-counter retinols are another form of exfoliation that work well for this skin type. “I’m particularly fond of retinoids for aging,” Dr. Hevia says. “Retinoids not only exfoliate, but they’re also attacking aging signs like blotchy skin, uneven color and collagen breakdown.” Your dermatologist can write a script for a retinoid such as Renova or Retin-A. Over-the-counter retinols such as RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream ($17.99, work well, too, and are gentler on sensitive skin than prescription formulas, though it can take a bit longer to see results.

Whichever method you choose, don’t go overboard. If you’re already using retinol, mechanical exfoliation will be too harsh for your skin, so pick one or the other.

Acne-prone skin

Step away from the scrub! Never exfoliate acne-prone skin with a brush or grainy cleanser, since these methods can make inflammation worse. Instead, head off clogged pores with products containing glycolic or salicylic acid — Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Overnight Repair Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Pads ($39, have both. Dr. Hevia recommends making exfoliation a consistent part of your routine, since the results won’t be immediate.

Want to bring in the big guns? Your dermatologist can treat acne with a stronger acid peel, and he or she can adjust the concentration to your specific needs (read: stronger than what you can score at Sephora). A peel helps shed dead skin cells which can clog pores and cause pimples, and can even help reduce the look of scars and dark marks from past breakouts.

Best exfoliators

Skin prone to dark spots

“The best methods for uneven pigmentation tend to be retinoids or the chemical peel class,” Dr. Hevia says. With these methods, “You’re going to get a deeper and more thorough exfoliation.” Try a treatment targeted to dark spots specifically, such as Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution ($85, which contains bearberry extract and azelaic acid to brighten skin. And don’t forget your sunscreen; exfoliation makes skin more susceptible to sun damage, which worsens hyperpigmentation.

Dry or sensitive skin

Think you can’t exfoliate dry skin? Think again. “People with dry skin benefit from exfoliation because it forces the top layer of the skin to restructure itself in a way that you’re actually losing less water through the skin,” Dr. Hevia explains.

Dry skin types should exfoliate with a gentle peel, either at home — try Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Sensitive ($39, — or administered by a professional. It’s absolutely essential to follow exfoliation with a rich moisturizer, Dr. Hevia says. “If you just exfoliate dry skin [without moisturizing], you’re going to make it dryer.” Try a souped up formula such as Lierac Paris Hydra-Chrono+ Intesne Rehydrating Balm ($52,

The do’s and don’ts of exfoliation — for all skin types

Consider your cleanser. If you’re exfoliating regularly, “You can be much more sensitive to certain cleansers,” explains Dr. Hevia. A harsh cleanser that foams and strips skin’s natural oils will dry you out. “If you’re on a retinoid treatment you shouldn’t use a scrub cleanser or brush.” Use a gentle cream cleanser such as Clinique Comforting Cream Cleanser ($19.50, to avoid irritation.

Don’t double up. Choose one method of exfoliation and stick with it. For example, if you cleanse your skin with an exfoliating brush, then apply a product with glycolic acid, you’re doing too much. Overexfoliating skin can actually worsen issues like acne, dryness and blotchy color.

Avoid harsh scrubs. Scrubs that use salts, crushed seeds (like apricot or strawberry) or nut shells are too rough to use on your face. The particles in these scrubs have jagged edges, which can create microscopic tears in your skin and damage its protective barrier.

Slather on moisturizer and sunscreen. Exfoliation removes the top layer, which leaves skin less protected from sun and water loss. Always moisturize after exfoliating, and apply SPF before stepping out. Your soft, smooth complexion will thank you!

Read more: Skin Mistakes That Make You Look Older

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