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How Should I Exfoliate Dry Skin?
Both physical and chemical exfoliation can treat the symptoms and appearance of dry skin. Learn how to choose the method that will dramatically improve the condition of your own complexion.
Dry skin makes everything from skincare to makeup application challenging. Whether you’re experiencing flaking or your makeup cakes into fine lines, effective exfoliation goes a long way towards the treatment and reversal of dry skin.
Whether you have a chronically dry skin type or your skin has become temporarily dehydrated, we recommend choosing one of the following two types of exfoliating products:
- Moisturising, cream-based physical exfoliants
- Chemical exfoliants containing glycolic acid or lactic acid
Of all the types of exfoliants, these two specifics offer standout benefits to dry skin. Let’s take a deeper look at why and how.
Moisturising, Cream-Based Physical Exfoliants for Dry Skin
Cream-based scrubs use tiny grains or microspheres to gently buff away dead skin cells. There are two reasons why these types of exfoliants are very effective at treating dry skin types:
- They instantly remove visible flakes.
- They moisturise in the same way as a hydrating mask or night-time moisturiser.
Creamy exfoliants tackle dry skin on two levels whilst also providing instantly noticeable results.
We’ve selected three of our favourite cream-based exfoliants for you to choose from:
- Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant, featuring papaya and pineapple enzymes
- KORA Organics Exfoliating Cream, combining oat flour and bamboo powder
- Alpha-H Balancing Moisturiser & Gentle Exfoliant, rich in moisturising actives
When using a cream-based exfoliant, it’s important to remember that these products don’t replace cream cleansers. You should cleanse before exfoliating so that impurities aren’t encouraged to penetrate more deeply into your skin.
Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid Exfoliants for Dry Skin
In contrast to physical exfoliants, chemically based exfoliants continue to work long after application. If you’re looking for both instant and long-lasting results, you’ll need to integrate physical AND chemical exfoliants into your routine.
However, you should only use one type of exfoliant at a time. Alternate your physical and chemical exfoliants to prevent over-exfoliating your skin. We’ll explain more about this after we’ve listed the benefits of chemical exfoliants for dry skin:
- Soften and hydrate skin
- Treat layers of skin not yet visible to prevent dryness in mature skin
- Increase the skin-cell turnover rate, which inhibits the formation of dry patches and flakes
Two kinds of chemical exfoliants are perfect for dry skin:
- Glycolic acid
- Lactic acid
Water-soluble glycolic acid is especially effective at penetrating and treating dry skin. Although dry skin is dehydrated, the root cause of this skin type is a lack of naturally protective barrier oils. When compared with normal or oily skin, dry skin actually has a higher proportion of water to barrier oils.
These glycolic acid products are perfect for dry skin types:
- Alpha-H Liquid Gold, containing 5% glycolic acid
- SkinCeuticals C + AHA Serum, with a combined 10% concentration of both glycolic and lactic acid
- Pixi Glow Tonic, featuring glycolic acid and horse chestnut seed extract, a powerful antioxidant
Some of our recommendations feature both glycolic and lactic acid. These two ingredients complement each other perfectly in the treatment of dry skin. While glycolic acid is quite effective alone, lactic acid adds a significant benefit.
Lactic acid is the most hydrating of all chemical exfoliants. While it may sound contradictory that a product formulated to remove dead skin can also hydrate skin, this phenomenon has been proven time and time again. Lactic acid is so effective that it’s used in the only FDA-approved dry skin treatment: LacHydrin.
We recommend the following lactic acid exfoliants for the treatment of dry skin:
Now that you know which exfoliating products are best at treating dryness, you can design a skincare routine that gives both instant and long-lasting results. To do this, you need to integrate both kinds of products into your routine:
- Cream-based physical exfoliants provide instantly noticeable results.
- Glycolic or lactic acid exfoliants provide long-term results by affecting layers of skin not yet visible.
When you combine both of these products into a skincare routine, you should never use them on the same day and certainly not one right after the other! Continue to another Ultimate Guide article, ‘How Often Should I Exfoliate My Face?’, to learn how frequently you should use your exfoliating products.
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What Should I Look For In An Exfoliating Product?
Exfoliating products come in different concentrations and delivery methods, and require different applications. Choose the perfect exfoliant by simply following these three steps.
With so many exfoliating products to choose from, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. ‘Where do I start?’ ‘Which item is right for my skin concerns?’ ‘Can a cream really exfoliate?’ If you’ve been trapped in this thought-circle, we’re here to set you free.
Exfoliating products are segmented by three factors:
- Their mode of action
- The skin type they’re formulated for
- Their concentration
1. What’s the exfoliant’s mode of action?
Exfoliation is a simple process: it increases the rate at which your skin cells shed by giving them a nudge. Every exfoliant can be classed as either physical or chemical.
Physical exfoliants smooth skin instantly by treating the visible layers of skin, requiring interaction and a level of abrasion. Physical exfoliating products include facial scrubs, muslin cloths, facial brushes and konjac sponges.
Chemical exfoliants treat both the visible layers and deeper layers of skin. After they applied to the skin they are left, and require minimal interaction. With regular use their effects build and increase the skin’s natural rate of exfoliation, in addition to providing antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and collagen boosting benefits. Chemical exfoliating products include exfoliating toners, Salicylic acid masks, Glycolic acid moisturisers, chemical peels and exfoliating cleansers.
If you want a quick and easy exfoliation step, then a chemical exfoliant is for you. On the other hand, if you want the instant result of smooth skin, a physical exfoliant should be your go-to product.
2. Choosing an exfoliating product based on your skin type
While exfoliating products usually aren’t labelled ‘normal’, ‘dry’, ‘sensitive’, or ‘oily’, certain ones are more appropriate for certain skin types. Oil-soluble ingredients are best for oily skin, and water-soluble ingredients are best for dry skin. Some exfoliants specifically address ageing and/or acne as well. Knowing your skin type can help you pick the right exfoliant for you, and help you to avoid overdoing it.
- Normal skin: those with normal skin can enjoy gentle physical exfoliants, as well as chemical exfoliants like Glycolic acid and Enzymes. These do a great job of sloughing away dead skin cells away from the top layer of the skin.
- Dry Skin: those with dry skinrespond well to chemical exfoliants like Glycolic acid and Lactic acid, which boosts moisture and improves skin tone. On the other hand, chemical exfoliants like Salycilic acid can have a drying effect on this skin type.
- Sensitive Skin: those with sensitive skin types respond well to Lactic acid, as it tends to be more gentle than other chemical exfoliants. If you have sensitive skin try to steer clear of Glycolic acid and Physical exfoliants, which can easily trigger irritation, as they are quite harsh.
- Oily/combination: those with oily/combination skin types may be prone to acne and blackheads due to the overproduction of sebum in their skin. This means they can use something a little more harcore like Salycilic acid or Physical scrubs to exfoliate the skin.
- Mature: those with mature skinmay use exfoliants for a number of reasons, which can include fighting pigmentation, sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles. This means they can use a combination of Physical and Chemical exfoliants several times a week to combat these problems.
3. Choosing an exfoliant based on concentration
Just like coffee, every exfoliant has a strength—even the physical ones. If you have sensitive skin, you’ll want a mild product. If you have maturing, tolerant skin, you’ll want a stronger exfoliant.
The concentration of a physical exfoliant is determined by two factors:
- The type of exfoliant—crushed pumice is strong; perfectly spherical jojoba wax beads are mild.
- Your application—how much product you use, how vigorously you scrub, etc.
The concentration of a chemical exfoliant is a little more straightforward and is very similar to that coffee we mentioned. The more coffee you use for a pot of water, the stronger the coffee will be.
- Salicylic acid, for instance, can be found at strengths of up to 2%. At this level, this Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are able to penetrate the skin deeply. We recommend The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque – 50ml, which balances oil production and features Charcoal and Kaolin clay to clear up blemish prone skin.
- Glycolic acid can be found at strengths of up to 30%, but most commonly at 14% or less. At this level, Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), like Glycolic acid, works by clearing the surface of the skin, and can improve acne and acne scarring.
Want to experience the benefits of Glycolic acid? We recommend Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub 14%, which combines Physical and Chemical exfoliants to improve the skin’s texture. This Glycolic acid product contains Jojoba Beads and Tea Tree oil, which help to clear, brighten and decongest the skin.
Choose the perfect concentration based on your skin type, usage habits, and desired results. Keep in mind that highly concentrated exfoliants are intended for infrequent use, and to always use SPF after sensitizing the skin through exfoliation. Read our guide ‘Should I Exfoliate Before, During or After Cleansing?‘ to learn when the best time to exfoliate is!
A Detailed Guide on How to Exfoliate Your Skin
Buff away those dead skin cells on your face to reveal smoother, more radiant skin. Just don’t go on a scrubbing frenzy.
By Moira LawlerMedically Reviewed by Ross Radusky, MDLast Updated: February 11, 2020FacebookTwitterPinterestCopy LinkRegularly exfoliating, but not too much, can reveal brighter, more glowing skin.iStock
Think of exfoliation as the deep-cleaning aspect of your skin-care routine. Your daily cleanser helps rid the skin of the makeup, oil, and surface-level dirt that accumulate over the course of the day, while an exfoliator really gets in there and sloughs away dead skin cells that have piled up over time. “Exfoliating helps buff away dead skin cells and leaves skin looking smoother and more radiant,” says Patricia Farris, MD, a New Orleans–based board-certified dermatologist with Sanova Dermatology.
That’s not all — exfoliating can also make creams and serums soak in more effectively, Dr. Farris says. Once that top layer of skin is removed, the products will be able to penetrate the skin more deeply, which over time can give the skin a youthful glow, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Which Types of Skin Exfoliators Are Available?
There are two types of exfoliators: physical exfoliators and chemical exfoliators. They both get the job done, but they go about it in different ways.
How Physical Exfoliators Work
Physical exfoliators work by physically removing the cells with visible scrubbing agents. “Physical exfoliators contain finely ground grains or nuts that when rubbed on the skin help remove dead skin cells,” Farris says. You might exfoliate with these using a cleansing brush, a mitt, an at-home microdermabrasion device, or just your fingertips, she says. “It increases circulation and gives your skin a bit of a glow,” Farris says. “It also leaves skin feeling smooth and silky.” She recommends U.SK Under Skin Perfect Rice Scrub (Farris is a board member for the line), Philosophy Microdelivery Exfoliating Facial Wash, and St. Ives Gentle Smoothing Oatmeal Scrub & Mask.
How Chemical Exfoliators Work
Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, work by dissolving the dead skin cells with acid, Farris says. There are two main acids to look for in the chemical exfoliator category: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
AHAs — like glycolic acid, the most common one — work by disrupting the bond between dead skin cells to make them easy to scrub away, according to an article published in April 2018 in Molecules.
AHAs are water-soluble, while BHAs are fat-soluble, meaning they can cut through oily follicles to penetrate deep into the skin, according to an article published in the Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products. This makes BHAs a good choice for oily skin types and people with acne-prone skin. Look for salicylic acid, the most popular BHA, in particular. A small study published in Skin Research & Technology found a topical salicylic acid with a 1.5 percent concentration applied two times a day for one month improved facial acne in 95 percent of the study participants.
You can also use a product that combines the two acids (Farris likes SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser). Farris says the benefits of these chemicals go above and beyond exfoliation. “These multitaskers lighten pigmentation, reduce the appearance of pores, soften fine lines and wrinkles, and even improve breakouts,” she says.
How Do You Properly Exfoliate Your Skin?
It depends on which exfoliator you choose to use, but know that a little goes a long way. Also, you don’t want to exfoliate your skin every day (more on this later).
Using a Physical Exfoliator
If you’re using a physical exfoliator, wet your face first, then apply a nickel-sized amount of the scrub. Massage it into the skin using circular motions, then rinse with water. Check your product’s instructions, too — some advise leaving the product on for 30 seconds or a minute before rinsing.
Using a Chemical Exfoliator
Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, are generally leave-on treatments with no rinsing required, unless it’s a peel or a mask. Apply one or two pumps to clean and dry skin and you’re set. Again, read the product’s instructions to make sure you’re using it properly.
Then slather your moisturizer and other skin-care products on top to take advantage of the increased penetration benefit. And don’t forget sunscreen. According to a study published in the Journal of Dermatological Science, AHAs in particular can make skin more sensitive to the sun.
Is It Possible to Exfoliate Your Skin Too Much?
Though exfoliating is generally well tolerated once you find the right product and frequency, it’s not safe for people with inflammatory acne or rosacea, according to the AAD. These people should consult with a dermatologist before starting an exfoliating regimen because certain exfoliators can make these conditions worse.
Everyone else should be careful, too, as over-exfoliating can be harsh on the skin and cause irritation, says Zain Husain, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of New Jersey Dermatology and Aesthetics Center in Marlboro, New Jersey. In short: Don’t exfoliate every day. “Daily exfoliation can be quite irritating and drying to the skin,” Dr. Husain says. He recommends exfoliating once or twice per week, though he adds you can increase that frequency in the summer months when the air isn’t as dry.
There’s no exact limit on how much exfoliation will be too much because it depends on your skin type and the exfoliator you’re using. Farris says that people with oily skin may be able to tolerate daily exfoliation, for example. Be ready for some trial and error, and pay attention to how your skin responds. Is it red after exfoliation? Overly sensitive? Accompanied by a burning sensation? Those are signs you need to cut back.
Farris recommends that people with sensitive skin steer clear of cleansing brushes and exfoliating mitts when using physical exfoliators. Acids aren’t entirely safe for sensitive skin types either. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), AHAs could cause burning, rashes, and swelling, and the safest concentrations are less than 10 percent AHA. BHAs tend to be less irritating, according to the FDA.
If your skin doesn’t respond well to either of these, look for polyhydroxy acids and bionic acids. Farris says these are the newest generation of hydroxy acids, and a study notes they’re similar to AHAs but less irritating, making them a good choice for people with sensitive skin. She likes the exfoliating cleanser Neostrata PHA Facial Cleanser, which is gentle enough for most people to use daily.
So Exfoliating Is Important — You’ll Just Need to See What Your Skin Can Handle
Exfoliating with a physical or chemical exfoliator is a worthwhile addition to your skin-care routine if smoother, more glowing skin is your goal. You’ll want to choose your exfoliator based on your skin type. If you struggle with acne, BHAs may be right for you, while AHAs are known for fighting signs of aging. If you don’t have sensitive skin (lucky you!), you should be able to tolerate a physical exfoliator (using your fingertips to apply it will be more gentle than a cleansing brush).
No matter which you choose, be careful not to overdo it, since over-exfoliation can lead to redness and irritation. Different skin types react differently, so test a few products to see what your skin can tolerate, or consult your dermatologist to see what they recommend for you.