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Do We All Really Need to Exfoliate?

By Elsa de Berker, she/her

There’s a psychological element to enjoying the notion of sloughing away dead skin cells to reveal a sparkly clean surface underneath. But do we all really need to exfoliate, and if so, by what means and cadence?  

“How often you should exfoliate depends on your age, the overall condition of your skin, and the type of exfoliant you are using,” says Jennifer Chwalek M.D., a board-certified dermatologist who practises at Union Derm in New York City. 

Dr. Chwalek adds that while most people are at a greater risk of over- than under-exfoliating, (which can lead to damage to the skin’s natural protective barrier), the positives of exfoliation in a healthy routine should not be overlooked. Among other things, a moderate approach can help unclog congested pores, boost collagen synthesis, and improve the absorption of other products unlike anything else in your skincare toolkit.

For those feeling overwhelmed or unsure of what a balanced approach looks like in real timethis story is for you. Read on for Dr. Chwalek’s no-frills guide to all things exfoliation.

Do I need to exfoliate?

“Our skin naturally exfoliates on its own by desquamating or turning over every 27 days, so while you don't technically need to exfoliate, it can be helpful if it is done carefully. For instance, acne-prone skin can benefit from exfoliation because it helps to open up clogged pores. Also, as we age, our skin turnover slows resulting in a duller complexion, so exfoliating can improve the radiance of our skin. Most importantly, exfoliation can help to improve the absorption of active skincare ingredients.”

At what age should I start?

“Younger, acne-prone skin may tolerate and benefit from more regular exfoliation. As we age, our skin becomes drier, and over-exfoliating can cause redness, flaking, and irritation. For sensitive, drier skin, it is key to avoid mechanical (i.e. physical scrubs) and harsh chemical ingredients, and to balance exfoliation with appropriate moisturization.”

What happens if I don’t do it?

“Depending on your skin, you might not notice any difference. However, a lack of exfoliation can contribute to acne breakouts, in particular blackhead or comedone formation (i.e plugged pores). In the case of dry skin, under exfoliating can also hinder the absorption of active ingredients in moisturizers. So, products will often feel like they are just sitting on the skin and not doing much in terms of hydration.”

I have blemish-prone skin. Can I exfoliate?  

“Yes, acne-prone skin often benefits best from regular exfoliation. Products with BHAs (salicylic acid) can help to dissolve skin debris and unclog pores (which helps to prevent blackheads and cysts).”

I have sensitive skin. Can I exfoliate? 

“You can still exfoliate if you have sensitive skin. The key is to use gentle exfoliants with larger molecule AHAs, (like lactic or mandelic acid) and to avoid ingredients which may exacerbate dryness, like glycolic acid.”

Should I exfoliate more in the summer or the winter? 

“Depending on your skin [editor’s note: and your environment], you may benefit from some exfoliation throughout the year. In summer, exfoliation can help to prevent clogged pores and diminish the appearance of pores. In winter, exfoliation can remove dry skin and help the absorption of humectants which aid in holding water in the skin.”

I’ve never exfoliated before. How do I begin?  

“Start slowly, like once or twice a week to see how well your skin tolerates the product. Ideally see a dermatologist or aesthetician to create a skincare regimen. There are many different types of exfoliating products and which ones are best for you will depend on your individual skincare needs.

Written by Elsa de Berker for Youth To The People