Exfoliating your Face – Best Method, Do’s and Don’ts

Why Exfoliate your Face?

The whole point of exfoliating is to gently remove the naturally occurring build up of dead skin cells, bacteria and debris which accumulates on the surface of the skin.

This build up can lead to clogged pores, blackheads, ingrown hairs and pimples as well as leaving the skin looking dull and dry, especially as it gets older and the skin's cells take longer to rejuvenate.

So what exfoliating aims to do, in fact, is to make the skin softer and smoother so it appears more attractive and youthful, as well as helping to prevent break-outs of acne by keeping the skin's pores clear.

Woman Face

What to Use?

You can use either mechanical (physical) or chemical exfoliants and which you choose will depend largely on your skin sensitivity and/or personal preference.

Mechanical exfoliants e.g. scrubs, brushes or cloths use mild abrasion to gently remove the surface layer of dead skin cells, whilst chemical exfoliants contain ingredients such as Glycolic or Salicylic acids and fruit enzymes to achieve the same result.

Chemical exfoliants act to break down the keratin protein in the skin, causing the surface dead skin cells to be shed.

Mechanical vs Chemical Exfoliants 

The table below provides a brief summary of the relative benefits and downsides of mechanical versus chemical exfoliation for the face:

Mechanical Exfoliation

Chemical Exfoliation

Cost Effective - wash cloths, mitts and brushes last a long time and can be relatively inexpensive if you are on a tight budget.

Can be Costly - depending on the product you choose, and needs to be replenished regularly.

Abrasive - can be rough on the skin so care needed to avoid damage.

More Gentle Action - no need to scrub the skin.

No Chemicals - if you prefer not to use chemicals on your skin, or are allergic then mechanical exfoliation is your best option.

Chemicals Used - typically includes alpha or beta hydroxy acids to remove the top layer of skin.

Stimulates Circulation - by the process of gently rubbing the skin in a circular motion. 

Not Applicable

Can Cause Damage - use of abrasives can cause microscopic tears in the skin, so care is needed to avoid excessive pressure.

Allergic Reaction Possible - patch test required prior to use, but providing there are no adverse reactions and product is used as per instructions, problems are unlikely.

Strict Cleaning - of reusable brushes, cloths etc. required after each use to avoid build up of bacteria.

Not Applicable

As you can see, there is not a clear-cut case for the use of either method, but whichever you choose be aware that facial skin is delicate and needs to be treated with care.

Using Mechanical Exfoliants

The key here, whichever mechanical exfoliant you choose to use, is to be gentle.

The last thing you want to do is cause damage or irritation to your skin - don't forget, the top layers of your skin are also a barrier to protect the deeper layers from the elements and infection, so you do not want to go mad!

You simply want to remove the outermost, dead skin cells to keep your pores from clogging.

Cloths, Mitts and Brushes

Probably the simplest method is the most old-fashioned - using a flannel washcloth.

First dampen the cloth with warm water, and fold into a pad.  Then all you need to do is gently rub over the skin in circular movements.

Be thorough - start with the forehead and move slowly downwards, paying particular attention to the areas either side of the nose, above the mouth and even your lips.

Finish with the jawline and upper neck areas.

Mitts are used in the same way - be sure to purchase exfoliating mitts that are not too harsh for the face and be very gentle.

Our Product Picks
Evriholder soft weave home spa exfoliating face and body wash cloths, dual-sided

Set of 3 double sided washcloths - exfoliating scrub one side, soft terry the other, face or body.  Online $10.

Baiden Exfoliator Glove Mitten

Natural product, free from chemicals, fine sandpaper texture for face or body use.  Online for around $49.

Exfoliating brushes can be manual or electrically powered and there is a growing popularity for using electric brushes as part of the daily cleansing routine.

Pixnor exfoliating brush

Electric brushes come with various different heads, for cleansing or exfoliating, but key is to take it easy at the beginning so that your skin gradually becomes used to the action.

Exfoliating too rigorously or too often with these very effective devices can cause irritation and redness and may even lead to break-outs at first.

Don't use pressure and only exfoliate once a week.

Whatever you decide to use, it should be cleaned and dried properly after each use and never shared.

Our Top Picks
Skylab - The perfect Face Brush - dual sided exfoliating cleansing and massaging facial brush

Silicone pad one side and large soft bristle brush the other - cleanse, massage and exfoliate.  $17 online.

Pixnor Facial Cleansing Brush with 7 Exfoliating Brush heads

Waterproof battery operated cleansing brush with 7 exfoliating heads for facial use. Total face care kit for $18 online.


Scrubs contain tiny abrasive beads to rub the dead skin cells from the surface as you gently apply in circular motions.

Rinse skin well after use and pat dry. 

I would always look for natural, biodegradable ingredients - we are all well aware nowadays of the damaging effect of plastic microbeads on the environment.

There are many different scrubs available, so choose one specifically for use on the face, more suitable for sensitive skin and avoid the delicate skin around the eyes.

Here are a couple of recommendations:

Facial Scrubs - Our Picks
Microdermabrasion facial scrub and mask

2oz tub natural sugar scrub and face mask with Manuka Honey and Aloe Vera for sensitive skin. $17 online.

ACURE Brightening Facial Scrub

Vegan, sulfate and paraben free, 4oz tube.  With organic sea kelp and lemon peel. $20 online.

Using Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants are easy to use and can be less harsh for sensitive facial skin, although you need to carry out a test on a small area prior to use, to check for any possible allergic/adverse reactions.

You can make a very simple chemical exfoliant from baking soda mixed with either water or a cleanser, or there are numerous options available to buy.

If using baking soda, apply and leave for around 10 minutes before rinsing off and patting dry.  Finish with a good moisturizer.

Chemical exfoliants typically contain either AHA's (alpha hydroxy acids), BHA's (beta hydroxy acids) or a mixture of both.

They are applied to the skin after cleansing and some can be left on overnight, or removed after the recommended time specified.

Bear in mind that your skin will be more susceptible to sun damage and make sure that you use suitable protection (at least SPF30).

Chemical Exfoliants - Our Picks
Anti aging exfoliating pads Beauty Facial Extreme

60 easy to use pads with Glycolic, Lactic and Salicylic Acids - cleanses and exfoliates the face.  Use 2 - 3 times per week at night. $25 online.

Paula's Choice 2% BHA Gel Exfoliant

100ml (3.3oz) bottle 2% BHA Salicylic Acid exfoliant for facial use after cleanser and toner.  Leaping Bunny Certified.  Online for $28.


The Importance of Moisturizing

It is always important to keep skin moisturized, but this is even more the case after exfoliation.

The outer layer of skin not only protects from damage and infection but also controls water loss.

Applying moisturizer to the new skin cells exposed after removing the outer dead layer will soothe and hydrate them and keep them supple and smooth.

Moisturizers actually become more effective after exfoliating as they are absorbed more readily into the skin.

Protect from the Sun

The new skin is more susceptible to burning and sun damage, so avoid sunbathing, sunbeds etc. for at least 24 hours.


I would recommend that you use a daily moisturizer such as Aveeno Positively Radiant which includes broad spectrum SPF30 as a matter of course.

How Often to Exfoliate?

This will depend a little on your skin type and its reaction to the exfoliation process, but rule of thumb would be once or twice a week.

Personally, I exfoliate my face once a week, and I would not recommend exfoliating more than 3 times a week, regardless of what the directions state.

Over exfoliation can cause redness and irritation, dry, tight skin, flakiness or even a mild burning sensation and in fact, can prematurely age it.

If you are just starting to exfoliate, try once a week and increase to twice only if you feel it is necessary and you have had no adverse effects.

Don't forget to be very gentle with whatever you do and testing a small area first is always a good idea.

Summary of Do's and Don'ts

Exfoliating Do's
  • Be gentle and take time to choose the best exfoliant for you
  • Test a small area first
  • Use circular motions
  • Pick a product specifically for facial use
  • Moisturize regularly, especially after exfoliating
  • Make sure skin is clean first
  • Use sunscreen
  • Make sure mechanical exfoliators are cleaned thoroughly after each use

Exfoliating Don'ts
  • Exfoliate too often - start at once a week and see how it goes
  • Expose exfoliated skin to the sun for at least 24 hours without good protection
  • Rub hard - the key to avoiding irritated skin is to be gentle
  • Share mechanical exfoliators with anyone else

For the past 12 months, I have been testing and playing with all sorts of hair removal products for Hair Free Life. My goal is to provide the most accurate and up-to-date hair removal consumer information on the internet. When I'm not photographing, reviewing and researching hair removal products I play the drums in a samba band and am a volunteer for the Swindon Lions! Got any questions? Write to us below: