How to exfoliate your face: all the do’s and don’ts

It's the secret to a glowing complexion

Exfoliate Face

by Emma White |
Updated on

Navigating the complex world of skincare is something we all face on the daily, but knowing how to exfoliate your face? Well that can be tricky.

An important step in any skincare routine, exfoliating is key to a smooth and glowing complexion. Just like learning how to get rid of blackheads or how to remove fake tan, perfecting the art of exfoliation will take your skincare to whole new level. Not sure how to exfoliate, or how often you should be exfoliating? We’ve broken down all the do’s and don’ts to help you unlock your best complexion yet.

What is exfoliation?

The first step to successfully incorporating exfoliation into your skincare routine is knowing what exfoliation is in the first place. Exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin, which results in overall brighter skin that will leave you glowing. Who doesn’t want that?

Different types of exfoliation

There are two main types of exfoliation, physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation. We chatted to Faye Purcell, Skincare Formulation Expert at Q+A to understand the differences between the two methods.

Physical exfoliation

Also known as mechanical exfoliation, this technique involves using a skincare tool, such as a wet washcloth, sponge, or brush along with a scrub or polish to buff away dead cells. Faye Purcell explains that “just like the name suggests, physical exfoliators contain physical particles that scrub off dead skin through friction. Physical exfoliators have an immediate skin smoothing effect.” Think baby-soft skin. Popular ingredients to look out for are fine sugar or salt, ground nut shells, oatmeal or beads made from a natural ingredients like silica or jojoba. Some scrubs and polishes combine chemical ingredients with natural ingredients to deliver glow-getting results.

Chemical exfoliation

The key chemical exfoliators are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid and malic acid, while BHAs include azelaic acid and salicylic acid.

“These ingredients chemically dissolve the ‘glue’ that holds dead and damaged skin cells together, allowing them to be easily lifted away. Alpha-hydroxy acids are more commonly associated with surface-level exfoliation, as they help to even out fine lines, brighten skin tone, and generally smooth skin. They are water-soluble, which helps increase our moisture levels, making them a good choice for dry and stressed skin. Beta-hydroxy acids are oil soluble meaning they can penetrate deeper into our skin helping to improve blemishes, fight breakouts, rebalance the skin and protect the skin barrier. You can also get chemical exfoliants in the form of gentle enzymes that are derived from fruits like pineapple and papaya.”

How to exfoliate face step by step

Now we’ve covered the basics of what exfoliation is, what is the best way to exfoliate your face? We’ve called in reinforcement from Faye Purcell, Skincare Formulation Expert at Q+A to help explain how to incorporate the step into your skincare routine.

“It’s generally more beneficial to exfoliate in the morning as skin repairs itself at night. Start with a thorough face cleanse as this helps wash out any dirt and oil in your pores and provides a clean surface. Exfoliation comes next. If using a physical exfoliator like a scrub, use a small 10p size amount and apply to damp skin in circular motions. Massage lightly so not to drag or tear the skin and avoid the eye area. Rinse with warm water and pat skin dry with a towel. If using a chemical exfoliator like a toner, apply this to dry skin with a reusable cotton pad and wipe along the areas you need it most – avoiding the eye area – and no need to rinse off. Always finish with a moisturiser as exfoliation can be a bit drying and if it’s the morning, apply your SPF.”

How often should you exfoliate your face?

The million-dollar question we all want to know the answer to. Thankfully Faye Purcell has given us her expert advice.

“Exfoliation is brilliant for achieving skin clarity and radiance, however, it’s important not to over-exfoliate. How often you exfoliate will depend on your skin type, you need to listen to your skin. For people just starting off with exfoliants, I’d suggest using a gentle formula, once, or twice a week. Exfoliating no more than three times a week is recommended to avoid stripping the skin of its essential natural oils. If your skin is dry, you may need to exfoliate just once a week, but if oilier you could benefit from exfoliating up to three times a week.”

The best exfoliant for your skin type

Not sure which type of exfoliant is best for skin type? Faye breaks it down for us.

“Gentle physical exfoliants are generally good for dry or sensitive skin and they can improve texture without causing inflammation. Combination skin can use both chemical and physical exfoliants, but just start slow and use sparingly until you have gauged your skin’s level of tolerance. Oiler skin types can benefit from chemicals exfoliants with BHAs as they can help with clogged pores and breakouts. Mature skin types should look for chemical exfoliants with AHAs as these are great at targeting wrinkles and help boost tone, texture, and radiance.”

What are the benefits of exfoliating?

Besides leaving you with skin like a glowing goddess, Faye explains that exfoliation actually “improves the health of your skin”. “It removes dead skin cells which can make our skin appear dull, and can also reduce blocked pores, prevent spots and blackheads and uneven skin texture. Regular, gentle exfoliating helps stimulate collagen to improve skin texture and keep complexions looking plump and bright.”

Ever feel like you’re having a bad make-up day and you just can’t pinpoint why? Well maybe you need to whip out your AHAs and BHAs and give your face an exfoliate. Sometimes when dead skin cells build up on your face, it can cause make-up to cling to this dry dead skin, leaving your make-up looking cakey. So, ensuring you regularly exfoliate your face, helps your make-up apply better and last throughout the day. Similarly, if you notice your fake tan clinging to dry skin give your limbs and pins some tlc with a homemade body scrub.

Aftercare after exfoliation

Exfoliating your skin can dry it out, so don't fall at the last hurdle. Make sure you go in with a moisturiser afterwards to help lock in that moisture. This will help to leave your skin looking silky smooth. At the end of your morning skincare routine, always apply SPF as your final step to your keep your complexion protected.

What not to do when exfoliating

Is your complexion feeling irritated or sore? Listen to it.

As Faye Purcell explains “if you’ve spent a bit too much time outside and skin feels sensitive or sunburnt, skip the exfoliation until it has calmed down. It’s also a good idea to stop exfoliating if you are having a treatment like a chemical peel or microdermabrasion or a skin flare up so take a break for a few days. If you use retinol, this can sensitize skin so don’t exfoliate while using that ingredient.”

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