Skin Exfoliation – The Ultimate Guide

What is Exfoliation?

Literally, exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, in order to improve its appearance

Skin is comprised of 3 layers; the outer layer is known as the epidermis; the middle layer, immediately beneath the epidermis, is known as the dermis; the lower level beneath the dermis, which is the hypodermis.

It is the outer, epidermis that provides a waterproof barrier against infections and regulates water loss through the skin.

The epidermis consists of 5 layers the topmost one being known as the stratum corneum.

The stratum corneum is made up  of many layers (15 - 20) of dead skin cells and performs several very important functions; it is our first defence against the environment,  bacteria, sun damage and water loss.

New skin cells grow continuously at the very lowest level of the epidermis (next to the dermis) and gradually move up through the levels as more grow behind them.

In turn, the tops layers of the stratum corneum are shed naturally, exposing the newer, fresher looking cells below.

As the skin ages, it renews more slowly and so its appearance may become duller and more lined.

Why is Exfoliation Important?

Exfoliation is an important part of your cleansing routine because it prevents the build-up of excess dead cells and debris which can combine with sebum, a naturally occurring skin oil, leading to blocked pores and spots.

Regular exfoliation will also keep hair follicles free from dead skin cells, oils and dirt and reduce the risk of ingrown hairs.  It is for this reason that regular exfoliation between hair removal sessions is important.

As skin ages, gentle exfoliation can make your skin appear younger and more glowing and will make your moisturisers penetrate deeper into the skin more easily.

What to Use?

What you use to exfoliate will vary depending on a number of factors, not least of which is the part of the body that you are exfoliating.

If you are looking at the thick, hard skin on your feet, a pumice stone is ideal, whereas the delicate facial area will need to be treated much more gently.

Braun FaceSpa 830 how to use

There are numerous products on the market, so how to decide?

There are two different types of exfoliant - mechanical and chemical.  In addition, some types of hair removal, such as waxing and shaving also have an exfoliant effect, although you usually still need to exfoliate between sessions.

Mechanical Exfoliants

Mechanical exfoliants are those which use abrasion to gently scrub away the surface layers of dead skin.

They can be in the form of scrubs, brushes, exfoliating gloves, loofahs, pumices or even a flannel wash cloth for delicate facial skin.

Scrubs contain tiny beads which rub against the skin to slough away the dead cells.

Always look for natural ingredients which are biodegradeable and more environmentally friendly than the contentious plastic microbeads that are still used in some cosmetics, although now banned in many States.

There are numerous scrubs on the market, we have picked out a couple of body scrubs and a couple for facial use that we would recommend:

Suggested Body Scrubs

Majestic Pure Himalayan Scrub

100% pure and natural body scrub in a 12oz tub.  Ingredients include Himalayan salt and a mix of nourishing oils, vitamin E and Aloe Vera leaf juice, combined to gently exfoliate, moisturize and hydrate the skin all over your body.

Nature Lush Greek Body Scrub

This natural scrub combines olive grains and mix of oils full of anioxidants to exfoliate your body and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.  In a 6.7 oz s tub, free from parabens, silicone and mineral oils.  A cruelty free product.

Suggested Facial Scrubs

Microdermabrasion facial scrub and mask

A 2oz tub of natural, sugar scrub which includes Aloe Vera, Manuka Honey, Walnut and vitamin C, specially developed for sensitive, facial skin.  A two-in-one treatment which is an exfoliator and also a nourishing facial mask.

ACURE Brightening Facial Scrub

A vegan, sulfate free, paraben free and cruelty free product, which comes in a 4oz tube.  All plant-based ingredients including organic sea kelp and lemon peel as exfoliators and a mix of organic oils to moisturize and hydrate the skin for a radiant and youthful appearance.

Other Mechanicals

Brushes, loofahs and mittens can be used to gently exfoliate the skin, without the need for costly scrubs, you can just use them with your usual shower creams/gels.

You can use soft brushes to exfoliate dry skin all over the body, and this has become a popular method, for those who do not wish to use chemicals on their skin.

Brushes with long handles are particularly useful for the back and hard-to-reach areas.

Loofahs and exfoliating mittens can be used in the bath or shower on softened skin, although both can harbour bacteria if not cleaned and dried properly after use.

Pumice stones are ideal for the tough, thick skin on your feet, once it has been softened by warm water in the bath or shower.

If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may find that just the use of a flannel gently rubbed over it is sufficient and less abrasive.

Here are a few more recommendations:

Our Top Picks

Body Brush Exfoliation System - Zen Me

Consists of body brushes, scrub gloves and charcoal konjac facial sponge for a complete exfoliation kit.  Brushes include one with long handle, perfect for the back and awkward areas.  100% biodegradeable, organic and natural.

Baiden Exfoliator Glove Mitten

One tool for all - suitable for body and face, with a texture resembling fine sandpaper, to remove dead skin cells and "polish" your skin.  A natural product, free from harmful chemicals.  No added products required.

Beauty by Earth Pumice Stone with string

Perfect for dealing with the tough skin on feet and hands, this natural lava pumice stone has a convenient string for hanging in the bathroom.  The larger than average size makes it easy to hold and use.

Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants typically use alpha hydroxy acids, (AHA's) such as Glycolic or beta hydroxy acids (BHA's) such as Salicylic.  They work in slightly different ways to achieve the same result - removal of the top layer of skin.

Fruit enzymes, most commonly papain and bromelain (papaya and pineapple) are also used for chemical exfoliation, as well as other fruit enzymes.

The enzymes break down the keratin protein in the skin, so that the outer dead skin cells on the skin come away.


Chemical exfoliants are often considered to be more gentle on the skin than mechanical exfoliants, as they are non-abrasive.

However, they can be expensive and you will need to test a small area of skin for reaction before going in for the kill.

Suggested Chemical Exfoliants

Naturopathica Sweet Cherry Brightening Enzyme Peel 1.7oz

Naturopathica sweet cherry brightening enzyme peel includes lactic acid, salicylic acid and fruit enzymes among its many ingredients.  Vitamin-rich and anti-inflammatory, it is animal friendly, vegan and gluten free.  Easy to use in just 3-5 minutes.

bliss that's incredi-'peel'! glycolic resurfacing pads 30

A box of 30 pads infused with exfoliating glycolic acid, as well as witch hazel, licorice extract and glycerin to soothe and hydrate the skin whilst gently removing surface dead skin cells.  Super easy, just simply apply before bed and leave on to work all night.

How to Exfoliate

The method you use for exfoliation will largely depend on what you are using and the area of the body:

Dry Brushing

The clue for this is in the title - so you brush the skin to exfoliate while it is dry, ideally prior to showering in the morning as part of your routine, although it could be done any time.

Start with your feet, move up each leg, then body front and back and finally, your arms using small upwards strokes or in a circular direction.

Exfoliating Exfoliate

Make sure that you use very light pressure and do not press too hard, exfoliation should be a gentle process to avoid irritation and red, sore skin.

To dry brush your face, use a very gentle brush or sponge which is designed to be used on the face and starting with your neck, move gently up to your forehead, avoiding the extra sensitive eye area.

In the Shower

Essentially, you should use the same basic method as outlined above, but using your usual cleansing lotion or gel applied to brush, loofah or gloves.

Once your whole body is wet, start at your feet and work upwards, using gentle circular movements.

After you have finished and rinsed your skin, if you can bear it, run the shower cold for a few minutes to help close the pores.

Always moisturize after exfoliating, as it is drying for the skin.

I actually like to simply use lovely natural coconut oil for this or you could choose something like Aloe Infusion face & body moisturizer cream.

How Often?

How often to exfoliate will vary a little depending on age, skin type, part of body etc.

Generally, rule of thumb says that dry brushing can be done every day as part of your regular routine (remembering to keep it gentle).

It helps to stimulate the lymph nodes to speed the skin's natural detoxification process, as well as boosting circulation and sloughing away the topmost dead skin cells.

You can exfoliate with scrubs etc.  once or perhaps twice a week, but do be careful not to over-exfoliate and cause irritation to the skin.

Always read and follow all usage instructions that are provided with the products and we would strongly urge you to test out chemical products on a small area first, before using all over the face or body!

Benefits of Exfoliation

So, what exactly are the benefits of exfoliation and is there any point in bothering? 

Well, there are a number of reasons why exfoliation is good for your skin, provided you don't go mad, of course:

  • Clearer Pores - clears pores by preventing the build up of dead skin, grime and excess oil (sebum) naturally produced by the skin.
  • Radiant Skin - removing the surface layer of dead skin cells reveals newer, fresher cells to make it feel smoother and look brighter.
  • Reduces Appearance of Wrinkles - removing dead skin cells makes wrinkles appear finer, moisturisers can penetrate deeper to plump up the skin and further reduce their appearance.
  • Improved Circulation - the action of gently rubbing the surface of the skin in a circular motion stimulates circulation and collagen production to increase cell turnover.
  • Detoxifying - exfoliation also stimulates the lymph nodes to speed up natural detoxification.
  • Reduced Risk of Ingrown Hairs - by clearing the surface of dead cells and dirt, keeps pores clear so that hair re-growth is not inhibited.
  • Reduced Risk of Blemishes - helps to keep the skin clear of spots and reduces acne, by unclogging and keeping the pores clear
  • Aids Absorption of Skincare Products - clear, open pores will allow all those expensive skincare moisturizers etc. to penetrate more easily and deeply into the skin in order to maximize their potential benefits.

Potential Pitfalls

The main pitfall is over-exfoliation, leading to sore, dry, red and irritated skin.

As explained at the beginning, the stratum corneum is the skin's first defence against harmful environmental effects and bacteria, so you don't want to go mad and slough too much away.

It also regulates loss of water through the skin, and over-exfoliation may have the adverse effect of causing dry skin.

Generally speaking, exfoliating once a week is sufficient, twice if you really must and don't forget that hair removal such as waxing and shaving etc. also act as exfoliants and should be factored into this equation.

Exerting too much pressure is another common issue - the key to exfoliation is to be very gentle and not be tempted to scrub away at yourself as hard as possible!

Common Questions

I have acne - should I exfoliate or will it make it worse?

If you have acne-prone skin it is good to exfoliate as it unclogs your pores, softens the skin and helps prevent break-outs from build up of sebum and dead skin cells. However, it is important not to overdo it, because the surface of the skin also acts as a barrier to infection, environmental issues, UV and loss of hydration.  The key is to be very gentle and only exfoliate once a week, at least to start with.  If you have severe acne, do take advice from a dermatologist.

Will exfoliating make my dry skin worse?

Actually, exfoliating correctly may help dry skin, but do not exfoliate too often, once a week is sufficient for anyone with dry or sensitive skin.  Use a product that is specially designed for use on dry and sensitive skin, and be sure to use a good moisturizer afterwards.

Chemical peels, acids - sounds scary to me - is it safe?

Yes, if you make sure that you follow the instructions carefully - each product is different, and always carry out a test on a small area first to check for adverse reactions.  The word acid has scary connotations, however the concentration used in at-home products is low enough to be considered safe and they should be rigorously tested prior to release on the consumer market. 

What is microdermabrasion?

Microdermabrasion is an exfoliation procedure that uses tiny crystals to remove dead skin cells.  Microdermabrasion machines only used to be available in salons for use by professionals, however there are some at-home machines available nowadays, the main difference being that they are less powerful.

Does exfoliating really get rid of cellulite?

Despite the claims of some that exfoliating can improve cellulite, there is no clinical evidence to support them, or any real reason to believe that this is the case.

How often should I exfoliate my face?

If you have dry or sensitive skin, you should not exfoliate your face any more than once a week, if you have particularly oil skin, you could increase to twice a week.  I would not recommend that you exfoliate your face more than this, at least until you see the outcome.

Why is chemical exfoliation gentler? - it doesn't sound it!

It is gentler in the respect that it does not use abrasive action to remove dead skin cells, and so does not risk causing tiny tears in the skin's surface, as is the case with mechanical exfoliants.  However, if you have sensitive skin, you still need to be very careful and carry out a patch test before applying all over your face!


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: