For dry skin, exfoliating helps remove ashiness or buildup of dead skin cells that leave the complexion looking dull. For women with oily or acne-prone skin, exfoliation removes the excess dead skin that can clog pores and cause acne. Combination skin reaps double benefits. Those with sensitive skin need not be wary of exfoliants, but more on this below.
As with sunblocks, there are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants include anything from a washcloth with a slightly rough texture to a facial scrub, to a cream or lotion with tiny granules in the formula that help to remove excess dead skin. Both accomplish the same thing: They remove the dead cells from the top layer of skin. Washcloths are generally used while cleansing the face; facial scrubs can be used in addition to or in place of regular cleanser. Any type of exfoliation should be done gently. Never tug or pull at the skin or scrub roughly. As with cleansing, your skin should feel soft and pampered afterward, not rubbed raw. Exfoliating in this manner should be done up to three times a week. Doing it every day can be excessive and won't really make a difference in the appearance of your skin.
Chemical exfoliants come in the form of lotions or creams or toners that you apply to your face after cleansing. The ingredients in these exfoliants are usually some type of acid: alpha hydroxy (AHA) and beta hydroxy (BHA) acids are the most common. These acids work by gently sloughing off dead cells from the surface of the skin throughout the day. Some of the creams are gentle enough that you can apply them daily, but monitor your skin to see whether that is really necessary. One bonus of AHAs: In cream form-which tends to be slightly more moisturizing, depending on the skin type they are made for-its repairing properties work to minimize wrinkles by ultimately affecting the deeper layers of the skin. Since the top layer of excess skin cells are being removed, fresher, younger skin is being uncovered, diminishing the appearance of fine lines. Chemical exfoliants are not a cure for wrinkles-the best weapon against arrugas is and always will be sun protection-but many women who use them notice a nice "plumping" effect on the skin.
As with moisturizers and cleansers, the range of exfoliating creams has broadened beyond the targeted categories of oily, dry, or combination skin. There are exfoliating creams for the hands, undereye area, lips, body, and feet. When it comes to the face, the general rules outlined above are the most helpful: Stick to a formula that matches your skin type.
Sensitive skin types should incorporate exfoliation with a very gentle facial scrub or with a soft washcloth massage. Stay away from chemical exfoliants altogether.