How To Exfoliate: A Guide To Properly Exfoliating Your Skin

Here’s your guide on exfoliants, including what they are, what options are out there, and how to exfoliate your skin properly.

Dylan Mustapich

Esthetician at Atolla

Dylan Mustapich

Dylan Mustapich is a NYC-based lead esthetician who has been featured in New Beauty, Teen Vogue, Wired, and The Huffington Post. With a lifelong love of all things skin, he is incredibly knowledgeable about skincare ingredients, routine refinement, and personalized skincare, and follows emerging technology closely.



Here’s your guide on exfoliants, including what they are, what options are out there, and how to exfoliate your skin properly.

Exfoliation has seen ebbs and flows in popularity, but a lot of that is due to a misunderstanding of what it is and how to do it properly. 

While no one is advocating for you to just scrub at your skin with a loofah (especially your face), using proper exfoliation techniques can really make a difference in both the look and appearance of your skin. As with most things in life, the more we know, the better we can do,  and exfoliation is no different. 

If you’ve been hesitant to make exfoliation a part of your daily skin care routine, we’re here for you. Here’s a guide on how to safely and effectively exfoliate your skin, so that you can boost your results and live your best skin.

What Is Exfoliation, Exactly?

Let’s start by cleaning up some misconceptions.

Exfoliation is simply the process of helping the body — and, for our purposes specifically, the face — to more efficiently remove the dead skin cells that can build up on the surface of the skin. 

When it comes to skin care, exfoliating can be done in one of two different ways:

Mechanical (also known as physical) exfoliation: This is the old standard of exfoliating, which involves using a scrub or a tool to get rid of the dead skin cells. Common examples of mechanical exfoliation include exfoliating brushes (dry brushes), sponges, and even gloves. When it comes to facial scrubs that use mechanical exfoliation techniques, think of the ones you see at the grocery store about a decade ago with the exfoliating “beads” or “pearls.” There are less on the market now with the microbead ban signed into law in 2015, which was a reaction to how much potential these beads have to damage and clog the nation’s waterways.

Chemical exfoliation: Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, is less about physically scrubbing away the dead skin cells, and more about letting specific chemicals “dissolve” them. This includes treatments like peels, and a specific category of skin care ingredients known as hydroxy acids (we’ll dig deeper into this in the next section). 

How Exfoliation Can Help Your Skin

Although it sometimes gets a bad reputation, when you learn how to exfoliate your skin properly, you can experience a whole variety of different potential benefits, such as:

  • Dull skin looking more radiant
  • Increased blood circulation to the skin on the face
  • Brightened skin’s appearance
  • More even-looking complexion
  • Supported skin cell turnover 
  • Unclogged pores

Even with these benefits, it’s not to say that exfoliation is without its flaws. For people with more sensitive skin or a diagnosed skin condition like eczema or rosacea, it’s best to seek advice from your healthcare provider or dermatologist before exfoliating. 

Jumping in too quickly or aggressively can increase skin sensitivity, redness, and irritation even in those without sensitive skin or dermatological concerns, which is why learning how to exfoliate properly is so essential.

The Hydroxy Acids

The darlings of the chemical exfoliation world are collectively referred to as “hydroxy acids.” But don’t let the “acid” label scare you — they have been extensively researched and tried to verify their safety for skin care products. However, the higher concentrations are reserved specifically for application and use by trained professionals, so even if you can find them online, you shouldn’t use them without a professional esthetician. 

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are made up of naturally occurring acids that can be found in the world, mostly in plants and fruits. 

Some common examples of AHAs that you’ve likely already heard of are glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (from milk), citric acid (from citrus fruits like oranges), and mandelic acid (from almonds). 

All AHAs are considered water-soluble, meaning they are easily dissolved in water. They have been found helpful with mild hyperpigmentation (dark spots), fine lines and wrinkles, enlarged pores, and uneven skin tone.

Beta-Hydroxy Acids

The difference between a beta-hydroxy acid and an alpha-hydroxy acid is a single carbon and where they are sourced. Just like AHAs, BHAs are naturally occurring acids that are sourced mainly from plants and fruits. You’ve probably heard of these before, too. 

One common example of a BHA is the popular salicylic acid, which comes from willow bark.

Instead of being dissolvable in water, like AHAs, BHAs are considered oil-soluble. This is why BHAs can penetrate further into the pores than AHAs can. It’s also why they are so helpful at helping reduce the likelihood of breakouts. 

BHAs are also considered less irritating on the skin than AHAs, while still being just as effective.

Poly-Hydroxy Acids

Occasionally, you may see poly-hydroxy acids (or PHAs) on an ingredient list. Technically, PHAs are AHAs with larger sized molecules, which is why they get their own, unique label. Because of their larger size, they stay more on the surface of the skin instead of penetrating deeper into the epidermis. 

Lactobionic acid is a good example of a PHA. It is sourced from lactose, and used to help hold hydration in the skin. It can also help to repair skin and reduce the appearance of skin damage, just like the other hydroxy acids on the market. 

There’s a reason these are the up and coming skin care ingredients! 

How To Exfoliate Your Skin Safely

No matter what exfoliant you use, it’s important to use it in a safe and skin supportive way. Jumping into exfoliants too quickly can lead to discomfort, redness, sensitivity, and even damage to the all-important moisture barrier that keeps the skin healthy and hydrated. 

With any new product you’re incorporating into your routine, it’s always recommended to start with something known as a “patch test.” Patch tests include placing a small amount of the product on a small, easy to see area of your skin. Some people will leave it for 24 hours, while others reapply daily for a few days to make sure nothing changes with repeated exposure. Keep an eye out for redness, peeling, itching, blistering, burning, and/or swelling. If any of those occur, consult with a dermatologist and discontinue use. 

When you’re ready to start using an exfoliant, it’s best to simplify your skin routine down to the bare essentials first so you can keep a close eye on how your skin will react to your existing skin care products. 

You generally don’t want to start more than one new product at a time; also, make sure that you’re using plenty of hydration (some exfoliants can be very drying). 

And finally, once you’ve passed your patch test, start by using as little of the exfoliant as possible, just once or twice a week at most. This gives your skin a chance to adapt to it — as some people say, exfoliants really are “controlled trauma” to the skin, regardless of how amazing the results are. 

It’s also important to make sure to let your exfoliant dry completely before moving on to the next step of your skin care routine, to allow it as much time as possible to soak in.

And remember, lukewarm water is always best!

A Warning About Chemical Exfoliation

Regardless of the type of chemical exfoliant you choose, the vast majority of exfoliation routines increase your skin’s sensitivity to the UV radiation emitted by the sun. 

While it is always important to make sure that you’re protecting your skin from sun damage by using an appropriate sunscreen, it’s even more essential if hydroxy acids are part of your skin care routine. Aim for a sunscreen that offers broad spectrum protection (i.e., protection from both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30. Water resistance is even better. 

You should generally apply sunscreen every time you leave the house, and reapply at least every two hours, more frequently if you’re out in the sun constantly, are in the water, or are sweating. You’ll help to fight off sun damage, which has the potential to also impact the physical aging process of your face. You’re not only helping your skin out in the present, you’re also helping your future self out as well!

In Summary

When it comes to learning how to exfoliate your skin safely, always listen to the professionals. It can be tempting to jump in feet first, but that can lead not just to frustration but also to irritation and discomfort. 

Atolla has just the skin care routine for your unique skin, whether you choose to incorporate exfoliants or not. You deserve to love the face looking back at you in the mirror. 


Text - H.R.1321 - 114th Congress (2015-2016): Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 

Lactobionic acid in a natural alkylpolyglucoside-based vehicle: assessing safety and efficacy aspects in comparison to glycolic acid | PubMed 

Breaking Down Broad-Spectrum Protection | The Skin Cancer Foundation

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