Your Go-to Guide to Facial Exfoliation: When, How, and What To Do

Written by: Rebecca Eaton



Time to read 10 min

From removing dead skin cells and improving circulation to encouraging skin turnover and enhancing product absorption, the benefits of skin exfoliation are endless. 

The harsh reality? When it comes to skincare, you can have too much of a good thing. And more often than not, the “less is more” approach is generally the secret to happy, glowing skin. As such, knowing what, when, and how to properly exfoliate your skin is often the difference between smooth and radiant-looking skin and a dull and textured appearance. 

Whether you’re new to skincare or aren’t sure if your exfoliating ritual is doing more harm than good, this is your ultimate guide to skin exfoliation. Keep reading to learn all about its benefits, how to know if you’re overdoing it, tips to exfoliate safely, and what type of exfoliation suits each skin type. Let’s get started! 

What is facial exfoliation — and why does everybody love it?

First, what on earth is facial exfoliation, and why do dermatologists and skincare enthusiasts rave about it? 

Every day, your skin cells renew, resulting in the cells from your outer skin layers dying and being replaced by new cells. Without exfoliation, the dead skin cells build on the skin’s surface, potentially clogging pores and giving the appearance of dull-looking skin. 

Simply put, facial exfoliation plays a fundamental role in removing dead skin cells from the outer layers of your skin and speeding up skin cell turnover. By removing this layer, facial exfoliation can help to improve skin brightness and complexion, blood circulation, and give the appearance of more radiant and healthy-looking skin. Plus, it helps to ensure your skincare products can penetrate your skin deeper, improving efficacy. 

There are two primary skin exfoliation methods: 

  • Physical exfoliation: Treatments and products such as scrubs, cleansing brushes, sponges, gloves (i.e., the Dr Tanya NuSonic Facial Exfoliator), microdermabrasion, and dermaplaning, which help to remove dead skin cells through physical motion. 
  • Chemical exfoliation: Treatments and products like face peels, cleansers, toners, masks, serums, and moisturisers that contain acids and enzymes that help to loosen the bonds between dead skin cells to remove them. 
A facial scrub smeared on a flat surface using an applicator

Three clear signs your skin may need exfoliating

While all skin is unique and should be assessed by a skincare professional first, there are a few tell-tale signs that your skin may be crying out for a proper exfoliating routine. If you’re regularly experiencing the following, we recommend booking a consultation with our skincare experts to help set you up for success with a proper skincare ritual. 

1. Your skin doesn’t appear to be absorbing your products

If your pores are clogged with dead skin cells, your serums and moisturisers likely won’t have anywhere to go — resulting in them sitting on the skin’s surface and having little to no positive effect. As such, exfoliating your skin properly may be the difference between seeing all-around better skin health or washing money down the drain on products that cannot penetrate the skin’s surface.

2. Your skin’s appearance looks a little tired and dull

If you aren’t effectively removing the dead skin cells from your skin’s outer layers, you may notice your skin looks a little more lifeless than usual. Wondering why? Dead skin cells aren’t reflective or vibrant like live skin cells, giving off the appearance of duller and older-looking skin. 

3. You’re experiencing regular breakouts 

If you’ve read our acne guide, you’ll know that acne occurs when your hair follicles are clogged with oil and dead skin cells. As such, an exfoliator is an effective way to rid your skin of dead skin cells, to reduce the likeliness of them getting trapped in your pores, causing a breakout. 

A man with a facial scrub mask on

How regularly should you exfoliate your skin?

The question on everyone’s mind, and perhaps the most debated topic, is how frequently you should exfoliate your skin.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. Truth be told, how often you exfoliate is dependent on your skin type and the chemical or physical exfoliant you’re using. For example, as some physical exfoliants are stronger than others, they may do more harm than good by doing it too frequently. Likewise, oily skin may benefit from more regular exfoliation than dry skin. 

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend prioritise facial exfoliation  one to two times per week, and when in doubt, always remember that less is more. However, where possible, we recommend opting for a tailored solution, so you have absolute peace of mind your specific skin type is getting the goodness it needs to thrive and glow — book in with our expert skin specialists today to start your skincare journey. 

Here is a general guide to exfoliation based on different skin types. Please use this merely as a guide and always consult your skincare professional before starting a new routine. 

Skin Type: Facial Exfoliation Routine:
Sensitive skin type Aim for once per week using a chemical exfoliant, such as an enzyme. 
Dry skin type Aim for once per week using a chemical exfoliant, such as glycolic acid. 
Oily or acne-prone skin type Aim for 1-2 times per week using chemical and/or physical exfoliants, such as salicylic acid or BHA.  
Combination skin types Aim for twice per week using chemical and/or physical exfoliants, such as scrubs, acids, and enzymes. 

Not sure what your skin type is? Check out our AM to PM skincare ritual guide for more information!

But how much facial exfoliation is too much — and should you be skin cycling?

When it comes to skincare, we’ve all fallen into the trap of thinking more is always best. Yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth for facial exfoliation. Just like exercise, your skin needs downtime to recover from active ingredients to ensure it’s getting the most out of your skincare products and ritual. 

Whether it’s physically harsh ingredients that scratch the skin or an overuse of active ingredients that leave the skin irritated, over-exfoliating your skin can lead to inflammation (stinging, burning, redness, and hyperpigmentation). Unfortunately, it can also jeopardise the skin’s barrier, resulting in a more aged appearance. 

If you’ve noticed these symptoms, you’re likely exfoliating too frequently, not allowing your skin any downtime to recuperate. So, how can you ensure the perfect balance between skin recovery and results? Short answer: skin cycling. 

Skin cycling is a relatively new skincare routine popularised by Dermatologist Dr Whitney Bowe. Skin cycling is designed to minimise over-exfoliation and any consequences as a result. As per Dr Bowe’s method, she recommends a four-night cycle that alternates between active ingredients and rest days. The routine consists of one night of exfoliation, one night of retinoid, and two recovery nights, on repeat. 

According to Dr Bowe, your evening skincare routine should look like this:

  • Night one: Use a chemical exfoliant (i.e., AHA or BHA) to exfoliate your skin. She recommends a chemical exfoliant over a physical scrub. However, we recommend consulting your skincare professional first for a tailored solution. 
  • Night two: Use retinol to help increase cell turnover. Once you’ve cleansed your skin, apply a small amount of retinol to your face and décolletage (if you’re new to retinol, start with a smaller amount). Give it time to absorb and then lock in the goodness with a quality moisturiser.
  • Night three and four: These are your recovery nights. It’s important to note that just because you won’t be applying active ingredients doesn’t mean you’re to ignore your skin completely. Instead, wash your face with a gentle cleanser (we recommend a double wash to ensure all make-up and excess oil is removed). Then, add a hydrating serum like hyaluronic acid, followed by a nourishing moisturiser (ensure there are minimal irritants). 

While skin cycling has seen some fantastic benefits, it’s important to note that it may not suit all skin types. Those with oily or combination skin are likely to have more luck with this method than dry or sensitive skin, which may require a bit of trial and error to find the right balance. Additionally, it’s a great option for those just starting with their skincare regime, as it’s easy to follow and attainable for everyone. As always, please consult your skincare professional before trialling any new products or regimes. Expert knowledge translates to exceptional results! 

A bowl with exfoliating salts and a foot scrubber

How to exfoliate based on your skin type

As mentioned, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to skin exfoliation. What works for your best friend may not work for you; it all comes down to your skin type. Here is a general guide to understanding what type of exfoliation method may work for your skin. As always, please use this merely as a guide to better understand how your skin works and what it requires to feel and function its best. 

General tips:

When using a face scrub, always apply the product gently in small circular motions. 

When washing off products, ensure your tap water is lukewarm and never too hot. 

When applying a liquid chemical exfoliant, use a washcloth or cotton pad.

Don’t exfoliate if your skin has open wounds or sunburn. You’ll cause further irritation and pain! 

Skin Type: Facial Exfoliation Method: 
Dry skin Chemical exfoliation, such as AHAs and glycolic acid are generally beneficial for dry skin. Where possible, it’s recommended to minimise the use of physical exfoliation, which can further dry out the skin, leading to microtears. 
Sensitive skin As a general rule, apply a mild chemical exfoliator with a gentle washcloth for the best results. With sensitive skin, physical exfoliation (i.e., scrubbing) may irritate and upset the skin; as such, a gentle approach is best for this skin type. 
Oily skin Physical exfoliation is often most beneficial for this skin type. For example, exfoliating brushes and scrubs may be effective in removing the additional build-up on the skin’s surface, helping to remove dead skin cells more effectively. As always, ensure you’re being gentle when applying a scrub. 
Normal skin This skin type has hit the exfoliation jackpot — enjoy the best of both worlds and opt for chemical or physical exfoliation… or alternate between the two. We recommend experimenting with different options to find a solution that best suits your skin and lifestyle. 

Chemical vs. physical: what should you be looking for?

While exfoliating may sound simple in theory, it’s important to acknowledge how many methods, ingredients, and tools are available to help remove that unwanted layer of dead skin cells. What once seemed like an easy process of applying a scrub and hoping for the best has evolved into a much more sophisticated process, with incredible benefits and options for all skin types. Let’s take a closer look at chemical and physical exfoliation ingredients and tools. 

Chemical exfoliation

As mentioned earlier, chemical exfoliation refers to products and treatments containing acids and enzymes to help loosen the bonds between dead skin cells. While the name might sound a little intense, funnily enough, chemical exfoliation is actually the most gentle form of exfoliation. Chemical exfoliation includes:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acids — Most beneficial for dry to normal skin, AHAs refer to glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid. Essentially, these key ingredients play a fundamental role in dissolving dead skin cells on your skin’s surface.
  • Beta hydroxy acids — most beneficial for oily, combination, and acne-prone skin, BHAs help to remove deeply rooted skin cells from within your pores. The most popular BHA is salicylic acid. 
  • Enzymes — Enzymes are a little different to AHAs and BHAs. They help to break down the keratin found in your skin’s outer layers by digesting the dead skin cells. 

Physical exfoliation 

Unlike chemical exfoliation, which works to remove dead skin cells by dissolving them, physical exfoliation works by physically removing dead skin through motion. This exfoliation method is suggested to be more beneficial for normal to oily skin and is often avoided by sensitive or dry skin. Physical exfoliation includes:

  • Exfoliating scrub — From microbeads and small granules to natural minerals, several different types of scrubs offer varying levels of exfoliation to suit all skin types. Today, most exfoliating scrubs harness gentle ingredients that will help slough away dead skin cells without being too harsh or abrasive on the skin. Yet, this form of exfoliation won’t suit all skin types. 
  • Facial exfoliating brush — There are many forms of facial exfoliating brushes, but our favourite is, without a doubt, the Dr Tanya NuSonic Facial Exfoliator. This patented facial exfoliator acts as your very own at-home dermatologist, buffing away dead skin, fluff, daily dirt, bacteria, sunscreen, and more. This pocket-sized exfoliator is compact and easy to transport, making it the perfect travel companion or everyday at-home device. Unlike many alternatives on the market, NuSonic uses ultrasonic vibrations to gently massage the skin, which helps to stimulate collagen growth and reduce fine lines.
  • Dermaplaning  — Dermaplaning is an extremely popular and effective treatment used to safely scrape your skin’s surface to remove vellus hair and the build-up of dead skin cells. At Dr Tanya, our gentle 30-minute dermaplaning treatment is performed by trained clinicians using a medical-grade, sterile scalpel to provide a 100% safe procedure that will leave your skin feeling smoother and more radiant. 

The recap

Facial exfoliation is one of the most fundamental skincare steps for removing unwanted dead cells from your skin’s surface. And while we’re more spoilt for choice than ever before when it comes to exfoliating solutions, choosing the wrong option for your skin type can be the difference between youthful, radiant, and nourished skin… or the complete opposite. 

The secret to glowing skin and a sustainable exfoliating ritual is knowing what, when, and how to exfoliate based on your unique skin type. As such, knowing the difference between physical and chemical exfoliating tools and what your skin type will most benefit from will allow you to reap the full reward of adequately exfoliated skin. 

For a customised skincare ritual tailored to your skin, reach out to our friendly team of skincare experts today for a consultation. For more information, click here!