Whether you exfoliate your skin weekly, aren’t sure how to exfoliate or fall somewhere in between, exfoliation can be a topic of confusion. So just what is it, what should you use, and how often should you do it?

“Exfoliation is the shedding or peeling of dead skin cells from the upper layer of your skin. It occurs naturally in healthy skin but, like all body processes, it slows down as we age and if our skin cells aren’t getting enough of the proper nutrition to function well,” says Mariga Sheedy, an aesthetician in Wexford, Ireland.

As we age, it becomes necessary to help the process along. The new, smoother skin looks clear, radiant and younger, which is the reason many people think more exfoliation is better.

“But by overexfoliating, you’re actually removing the only protective barrier that your skin has," says Dr. Ben Johnson, founder of Osmosis Pur Medical Skincare. "If you remove the barrier, then your skin is exposed to environmental toxins — not to mention the sun, which causes the most damage to your skin. So the key is to use products that encourage a natural cell turnover and keep skin hydrated.”

Cell turnover in healthy skin occurs, on average, like this:

  • In your 20s: 14-25 days
  • In your 30s: 30 days
  • In your 40s: 40 days
And so on, slowing down by a few days for every decade.

“So, assuming that you exfoliate on the first day of the month and you are in your 30s, then there is a fresh layer of skin on the surface that won’t turn over completely for around 30 days,” Sheedy says.

There is no benefit to exfoliating the next day or even the next week. Actually, if you do so, you will only damage the already exfoliated new skin. “It is plenty to exfoliate healthy skin once per month — more often if you are in the early stages of correcting a skin condition,” Sheedy says.

What should you use?

“In my opinion, the only safe home exfoliator is an enzyme-based product,” says Sheedy. These work by triggering the cells' own process of breaking down in the right conditions and therefore won’t harm the “cement” between cells that are still healthy. Never use grainy scrubs; they’ll scratch.

For acid peels, microdermabrasion or other peels, Sheedy recommends having them performed by a skin care professional trained in the procedure. Microdermabrasion is a popular form of deep exfoliation available from salons. Avoid their overuse. Two or three times a year is enough to boost a home routine.  

“A Clarisonic is a good way to exfoliate with sonic technology. It has different brush heads for different skin types,” says Dr. Debra Jaliman, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “You can also exfoliate with a washcloth, which you need to change daily, or even with cotton pads. Another one of my favorites is rice-based enzyme powder.”

Jojoba beads are a good way to exfoliate mildly, says Cindy Jones, Ph.D. at Sagescript Institute and Colorado Aromatics. There are also many homemade scrub recipes to try.

Other all-natural ways include:

Honey. Honey helps to speed up the natural exfoliation process and has humectant qualities, which help attract moisture, making it great as a hydrating facial scrub. Squirt a nice sized dollop into clean hands and scrub face gently, washing with warm water.

Yogurt. Yogurt contains lactic acid, the same alpha hydroxy acid found in skin care treatments, only milder. It soothes, smoothes and evens skin tone. Apply plain yogurt to face and let sit 20 minutes, then rinse.

exfoliate naturally with a homemade sugar scrub

Sugar. Sugar cane is a natural source of glycolic acid, another alpha hydroxy that can boost new skin cell production as well as smooth and soften the skin. Mix a half-cup white or brown sugar with enough olive or grapeseed oil to make a paste and apply to face in circular motion. Let sit for 10 minutes and wash away with warm water.

Lemon juice. Lemon juice is another natural alpha hydroxy acid that removes dead skin cells. Mix one-quarter-cup each of lemon juice, apple juice, grape juice and cane sugar until sugar dissolves. Then apply the mixture to your face with a cotton pad, and leave it on for 10 minutes before rinsing off.

Papaya. Papaya contains the enzyme papain, which dissolves dead skin cells. Papain may also heal skin and cause fine lines and age spots to lighten. Papain is most potent in young fruit, so select green papayas. Mash the fruit into a smooth paste and apply to face, leaving on for 15 minutes before rinsing with warm water.

Follow exfoliation with a good moisturizer for best results.

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Inset photo of sugar scrub: Becky Striepe/Flickr