7 Signs Your Skin Is Just Begging for Exfoliation

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As your skin works hard to regenerate, it leaves behind dead skin cells. Over time, dead cells accumulate as they mix with natural skin oils, makeup, and sunscreen. And when your skin is desperate for a good sloughing, it will let you know.

First things first, you want to ensure that your exfoliation quest won’t just make things worse. Any stinging, burning, or redness signals that exfoliation is a no-go, says Deirdre Hooper, MD, a board-certified dermatologist from Louisiana.

“We do lasers and chemical peels in our office and they do sting, short-term, while you’re doing it,” says Dr. Hooper. “But that’s where you are dealing with a dermatologist who knows how to manage your aftercare and what to do. At home, if something is causing your skin to hurt, you should probably not be doing it.”

If you’re not dealing with any of the above but know your skin needs some assistance, you’ve got the green light to exfoliate. Read up on the signs you need to exfoliate below.

The signs you need to exfoliate your face

1. You’re not using a retinoid

Dermatologists will never stop recommending retinoids. These vitamin A derivatives ramp up cell turnover and boost your skin’s production of collagen. “When you’re on a retinoid, your cells are dividing more rapidly and not having time to buildup on your skin, because the turnover is faster,” says. Dr. Hopper. Retinoids also encourage your skin to build more collagen which makes your skin smoother. “So, you’re kind of treating the problem from the root.”

Retinoids are the most effective way to smooth your skin “because you build collagen, so, not only are you smoothing the surface, you’re decreasing your chance of wrinkles,” says Dr. Hopper. “I think of exfoliation as an add-on–some people need it, some people don’t. Everyone needs a retinoid.”

2. Your products aren’t absorbing

Sometimes you can feel like your skin-care products just sit on top of your skin rather than sinking in. “That’s a very good sign that you do need to exfoliate,” says Maral Skelsey, MD, a board-certified dermatologist from Maryland. “Exfoliating does allow you to absorb these topicals better.”

3. You’ve spent a lot of time in the sun

“It’s really typical to see that you might need an exfoliation after the end of the summer because in response to exposure to the sun, there is a thickening of the skin,” says Dr. Skelsey. “It’s uneven, so it’s not thicker in all of the areas.” As long as you’re not sunburnt, a bit of exfoliation can help even things out.

4. Your skin is dull

“The top reason that I would recommend an exfoliation is when the quality of the skin is dull and you don’t see the light-reflective quality,” says Dr. Hooper. Think of shiny lacquered furniture–when things are smooth, there’s better light reflection. And when things are rough, there’s not good light reflection. “When you feel like your complexion is not luminous, then that could be a sign that you need a smoother skin surface.”

5. Your skin feels clogged

On those days when washing your face just doesn’t feel like enough to get clean, exfoliation can help. “If your skin’s been feeling oily, and you’re wearing a mask, and you’re clogging up, you’re wearing a lot of makeup, and you feel like you’ve just accumulated debris on your face,” Dr. Hooper says doing a once-a-week scrub can be helpful as long as you’re not pigment-prone and/or redness-prone.

6. You’re seeing scaly patches

If you’re seeing patches of peeling, scaly skin, Dr. Skelsey says exfoliation can help. “Even though you’re trying to peel with exfoliation, when you see that there is a little bit of skin peeling, that can be a sign that you need to exfoliate.”

7. Your skin is bumpy

“If you have textural changes where the skin is not smooth, where it is rough or bumpy, then exfoliation can help you,” says Dr. Hooper.

What to use for exofoliation

There are two ways to exfoliate, mechanically and chemically. Mechanically exfoliating works by manually polishing the skin with scrubs, brushes, and more. Chemical exfoliation uses hydroxy acids like glycolic acid and salicylic acid to break the bonds between cells and thus smooth the skin. Some products include both. Whichever method you use comes down to personal preference and what your skin can handle.

“The big problem with exfoliation is it can irritate your skin and lead to redness and tenderness,” says Dr. Hooper. “People with sensitive skin should not purchase physical exfoliators. Because chemical exfoliants don’t involve a ton of rubbing or scraping of the skin, they can be better tolerated than physical exfoliants. Additionally, chemical exfoliants are able to work at a deeper level than mechanical ones.

Plus, you want to make sure you’re using an exfoliant that’s made for the body part you’re targeting. “A body exfoliant is going to be usually too irritating for the face,” says Dr. Skelsey. Shop a few options below.

Aveeno Positively Radiant 60-Second In-Shower Facial — $12.00

The Aveeno facial combines moisture-rich soy lemon-peel extract, kaolin clay, and glycolic acid to provide baby soft skin in just 60 seconds. It’s designed to be used in the shower where it’s warm and steamy. The steam makes the ingredients come to life, leaving you feeling totally refreshed.

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Murad Vitamin C Triple Exfoliating Facial — $79.00

The Murad Vitamin C Triple Exfoliating Facial comprises vitamin C to promote cell turnover; hydroxy acids to break down dead skin; and enzymes to dissolve oil, debris, and dead cells to reveal bright and dewy skin.

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The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA — $7.00

The Ordinary Mandelic Acid also contains hyaluronic acid to gently exfoliate while providing some hydration.

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Dr. Loretta Micro Peel Peptide Pads — $60.00

Use the Dr. Loretta Micro Peel Peptide Pads to swipe on exfoliating glycolic acid, moisturizing and collagen-supporting marine peptides, and skin-calming plant extracts.

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Bogavia The Exfoliating Facial Scrub — $20.00

The Bogavia Exfoliating Facial Scrub keeps things strictly mechanical, using biodegradable Jojoba beads to remove away dead skin while also soothing the skin with a blend of aloe vera, sea kelp, fennel, ginseng, and avocado oil.

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Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment — $85.00

The Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment is a much-loved exfoliating serum because it marvelously targets the look of pores, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, and dark spots.

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Learn more about exfoliating your face:

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