How to exfoliate the face and choose the best exfoliants

Want to know the best way to exfoliate the face?

Stick around!

In this article I’m going to share with you some practical advice and how to choose specific products to exfoliate the skin.


Exfoliation is the mechanical or chemical process that promotes skin cells renewal process. 

Your goal when exfoliating is to get rid of old & dead cells so that there’s room for the more lively and fresh ones.

This process is also physiological and it’s called desquamation. Through skincare we just speed it up a little 🙂

Your skin is renewing its cells quite often. Every two weeks new cells move from the basal layer (deepest layer of the epidermis) to the cornified layer, the most superficial one (aka stratum corneum).

Different skin layers

As you can see in the image as these cells progress towards the surface they lose their nuclei and tend to flatten into 20-30 layers until they’re naturally shed when they reach the last layer.

However, I still recommend to exfoliate in order to increase the speed of this turnover and to get rid of cells that are dead but for some reason stick to the surface.

In particular exfoliation is very useful when you have

  • Post inflammatory dark spots 
  • Wrinkles 
  • Areas with thick dry skin, for example feet elbows and knees or
  • Bumpy areas.
  • Dull skin.


There are two kinds of exfoliants, chemical and physical or mechanical. 

The physical kind uses mechanical force to detach dead cells from the surface  while the chemical one  breaks down dead cells components on a deeper level thus favoring their elimination.

So physical peels only work on the surface while chemical peels act on a much deeper level.

Another difference is that physical exfoliants work and give you benefits right away while chemical peels take a while before kicking in.

Physical scrubs make your skin feel softer right away after the first application.

Because of how good and satisfying this feels , people tend to overdue physical exfoliants and this leads to damages like dryness and redness. 

Furthermore among physical exfoliants there are some that are perfectly fine to use from time to time (I do that once a week) and some other that should simply be avoided.

Coffee, apricot,  salts and sugar scrubs should be avoided. 

Natural sugar scrub should be avoided.

Now I know that these scrubs look and smell amazing (at least some of them lol). They’re tempting, indeed. And if you browse the net you can find hundreds of DIY recipes for them. So you might be saying


But again these products make more harm than good especially on the delicate skin of the face and especially if you’re not in ’30 anymore.

You don’t actually see it but they literally scratch the surface of your skin because of how irregular their particles are

Are there physical scrubs that I recommend?


I use a physical exfoliant once a week and it’s alumina based. 

Here I have two options for you – both are amazing.

Alumina crystals  have almost perfectly rounded particles that gently exfoliate the skin without being too abrasive. 

BUT even alumina crystals will damage your skin if used too often. 

Exfoliating devices such as wash-clothes, sponges or brushes are on the same level of coffee scrubs.

They damage your skin and should be avoided. They can’t be used to exfoliate the face but they might be useful to exfoliate feet and elbows.

So going back to the question, how should you exfoliate your skin?

The best approach is to use a chemical exfoliant and an alumina based one 

But if I had to choose one I would pick the chemical one.

In fact as stated before chemical exfoliants act on a deeper level. Plus they are okay for all skin types, including acne prone skin. Conversely I don’t recommend physical exfoliants for acne.

Keep reading because I’m going to share with you some practical advice you can put into practice right after you’re done reading to choose a chemical exfoliant.

How often should you exfoliate?

You should exfoliate no more than 2 or 3 times a week. 

Do not exfoliate every day.

Again, do not exfoliate every day.

There are products out there that claim to be “daily exfoliants”. The truth is that they either don’t exfoliate or, if they do, they’re gonna ruin your skin.

There’s no such thing as a daily exfoliant.

When in doubt exfoliate less frequently. 

And if you think you might be over exfoliating, you surely are 🙂


Look for signs of redness or even simple discomfort right after exfoliating. If present , you’re probably using something too aggressive for your skin.

After a few weeks into this new routine , make sure your skin doesn’t look drier compared to before.

If it does, you’re over exfoliating and you should stop.

In fact overdoing it will cause damages to your skin barrier which won’t be able to retain moisture as efficiently as it should. Hence you’ll have the need to moisturize every few hours.   But healthy skin does not need to be constantly moisturized! Unfortunately I see everyday companies making super aggressive scrubs just so customers are forced into buying more moisturizers without them even knowing.

This is why I want you to master these concepts and information on proper exfoliation.

How to exfoliate sensitive skin

Unconventional advice here.

If your skin is so sensitive that it gets red easily for example by using retinoids or vitamin C, perhaps you want to consider not to exfoliate period.

Again, exfoliation happens naturally too and it’s a fine tuned process. I don’t see the point in forcing your skin to tolerate something that’s simply too aggressive.

If you really can’t live without exfoliating, there are some products that are very gentle.

I would say so gentle that you might not even a difference. But they’re worth a try if you have skin that’s super sensitive.

These super gentle enzymatic peels contain bromelain or papain. They usually come in rinse off products that you apply for approximately 15 minutes.

Another option for you would be to use a chemical peel but rinse if off after 10 minutes instead of using it as leave on product.


We have already discussed physical exfoliants. I only have a few that I recommend , the alumina based ones so it’s very easy for you to choose among those.

Moving into chemical exfoliants things get a bit more complicated because they’re more expensive, the main ingredients must be present at a certain concentration AND a certain pH for them to work.

So what should you choose?

I’m going to make things super simple for you.

The skin barrier , as the name suggests, leaves everything that doesn’t have specific features on the outside blocking access.

Only small and uncharged molecules can penetrate healthy skin. The skin barrier is literally like your front door.

For an exfoliating ingredient such as glycolic or lactic acid to penetrate the skin it must not have any charge and be relatively small.

Acids are always in equilibrium between their charged and uncharged form.

The way formulators favor the uncharged form so that it can penetrate the skin is by adjusting the ph.

Acids don’t have charge  only when the pH of the solution (the formula) Is below their pKA  which is a number that’s different for every acid.

AHA exfoliants must have a low pH to work. This pH value is theoretically different for each ingredient (because they all have different pKa) but practically as long as the product has a pH below 4 you’re fine.

If a product contains a high concentration of a certain acid but the pH of the formula is off the product won’t work very well as the acid will carry a charge and won’t penetrate the skin efficiently.

Conversely a lower amount of an acid at the right pH will be able to penetrate the skin and give you better results.

The molecular size matters as well. 

Bigger acids molecules like salicylic acid tend to be absorbed slower. 

Also because of salicylic acid particular chemical structure with the aromatic ring It is effective at higher pH levels making BHA exfoliants less harsh but still effective especially against acne.

So when you ‘re in  a situation where you must choose an exfoliant, here are some guidelines that will increase your chances of buying a product that actually works.

  1. Stick with reputable and popular brand.

You want to make sure the product you’re buying has been formulated by professionals. 

2. Buy a product that contains at least 5% of an AHA acid or at least 1% of salicylic acid. Okay if both , BHA and AHA , are present.

This implies you should buy from a brand that states the % of the ingredients in their products.

Another good indication of the concentration of an acid , when exact concentration is not disclosed, is to find the name at the beginning of the ingredients list, right after the water in the ingredients (or even before it if % is very high).

For example, something like water, glycolic acid, lactic acid, etc

3. Unless a brand discloses the pH of the product you won’t be able to know it. This is why, when possible, support brands that operate with this level of transparency.

If you’re interested in incorporating a good quality exfoliant in your routine and actually want to see benefits ,I have this 10% glycolic acid exfoliant stabilized at pH 3.

PH 3 ensures the glycolic acid can penetrate the skin but the formula is not too aggressive as it also contains soothing bisabolol and vitamin E. 

This is a product that you can use at night to wake up with a new glow on your face. 

Try it and you’ll see that I’m right.

4. Absolutely avoid products with pH levels below 3. They’re harmful and can really burn your skin.

Reddit is full of scary stories on these so please pay attention.

5. Avoid products that are dubious or misleading. For example products that claim to contain BHA but in reality they contain “willow bark which is a natural BHA” . No, willow bark is not the same as SA!

Please don’t fall for these marketing traps.

This bring us to the end of the article. If you have questions on how to exfoliate your face, leave me a comment below.

5 thoughts on “How to exfoliate the face and choose the best exfoliants

  1. Marjorie says:

    Hi Luisa! I’ve been using a sponge/scrub once nightly forever. Then skincare regimen. It has been a habit like brushing teeth. You say it damages the skin. (My skin feels less smooth if I don’t do this)…. is this damage reversible? How can I repair this. I can say that my skin is not smooth to touch. I also gave large pores.

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