What to Know About Skin Exfoliation

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on July 23, 2023
3 min read

Your skin is your largest organ, so taking care of it is an important part of good health. Sunscreen, cleansers, and moisturizers are obvious ways to keep skin healthy. But you might want to add exfoliation to your routine. 

Exfoliating is the process of scrubbing away dead cells that gather on the uppermost layer of your skin. These cells would fall off naturally after a while. But a scrub or chemical exfoliant can clear them away and improve your skin's appearance. 

Skin is a complex organ with multiple layers. The outermost layers form the epidermis, the part of the skin we can see. The very top layer of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum. It’s made up of 10 to 30 layers of dead skin cells. 

These cells are constantly sliding off and being replaced with new ones. A complete cycle of cell turnover takes about 28 days in younger people. As you age, the turnover process slows, and it takes about 45 days to complete. 

Exfoliation is any process that takes off the top layers of skin cells before they come off naturally. Some people find that the top layers of skin look dull or dry, and removing them improves their skin's appearance. ‌There are some exfoliation methods you can use at home, and a dermatologist or trained aesthetician can help with others.  

It's very easy to include exfoliation in your skincare routine at home. Experts recommend starting with gentle exfoliants to see how your skin reacts. Some methods can be too harsh for some skin types.

Manual exfoliation is when you use a tool to remove the dead cells on the surface of your skin. Skin scrubs with a gritty texture are one type of manual exfoliant. Textured cloths, sponges, and loofahs are another. You can also buy mechanical brushes that scrub skin to provide even deeper exfoliation.

Chemical exfoliation. Some products have ingredients that dissolve dead cells. Check labels for alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids include ingredients like glycolic and citric acids, and beta hydroxy acids include salicylic acid.

‌You can exfoliate any part of your body, though experts recommend using gentler tools and ingredients for your face and neck than for the skin on the rest of your body. If your skin gets irritated or starts to break out after you try a new product, stop using it. Too much exfoliation can damage your skin.

If you want a bigger change in your appearance, some procedures can resurface your skin. Dermatologists and aestheticians offer chemical and manual exfoliation procedures in their offices. These procedures are more intensive than home exfoliation and may include downtime afterward.

Microdermabrasion. Microdermabrasion is a process in which your doctor uses a handheld device to deeply exfoliate the skin on your face and neck. You won’t need downtime after the procedure, but you may feel like you have a mild sunburn afterward. And you might need several treatments to see a difference. Some people report that their skin tone looks more even and that dark spots are lighter after microdermabrasion.

Chemical peels. Doctors use a chemical solution to remove multiple layers of dead skin. It can improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and discoloration. Some peels are mild, and you can leave the office with no obvious sign that you had a skin treatment. Other peels are more intense. They can require 1 to 3 weeks of healing time.

Laser resurfacing. Several laser procedures can resurface the skin. Doctors use intense pulsed light (IPL), fractional lasers, or CO2 lasers to target skin with discoloration, scars, or sun or age damage. The lasers remove the top layers and trigger new collagen in the lower layers to make the skin look smoother. There is some redness and peeling afterward. You may need more than one treatment to see full effects.

Your doctor or aesthetician should tell you how to care for your skin after any resurfacing procedure.