February 11, 2020/Skin Care & Beauty

5 Ways to Exfoliate Your Skin Without Irritation

Techniques to polish dull skin

A woman doing her skin care routine.

When you exfoliate, you whisk away dead skin cells that can dull your complexion, cause your skin to appear splotchy and can also clog your pores.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

“The change of seasons is a great time to refresh your skin, especially after long winter months or a hot season when you’re sweating a lot,” says aesthetician Christina Smith.

In fact, she says regular exfoliation gives you a beautiful glow all year long, especially when the environment and stress can affect the health of your skin and its appearance.

How does exfoliation work?

Experts refer to the natural shedding of the skin’s epithelial layers as desquamation. As we age, the rate of desquamation slows down (boo!), which can cause a variety of complexion issues, depending on your age and skin type.

“You may notice things like dry patches, fine lines and wrinkles, as well as hyperpigmentation as you get older,” says Smith.

Regular exfoliation helps the skin shed the outermost layer that has been subject to environmental damage. This will renew your skin’s surface and can alleviate many common skin problems.

How often should I exfoliate?

Smith says you should exfoliate your entire body, but especially your face, in some manner each day.

What should I use to exfoliate?

Several options are available, including some you can do yourself and others an aesthetician or dermatologist can do for you:

  1. Alpha or beta hydroxy acid cleanser. As the name implies, these cleansers use a mild acid compound to slough off dead skin cells and even out skin tone.
  2. Ultrasonic cleansing brush. These battery-driven brushes move in a circular motion using a cleanser of your choice to gently exfoliate skin cells.
  3. Retinols. These topical creams are derived from vitamin A, which your skin converts to retinoic acid. You’ll need a prescription to obtain true retinol cream. Use it anywhere from three nights a week to every night, depending on your skin’s tolerability and your doctor’s recommendation.
  4. Mechanical exfoliation. These in-depth exfoliation treatments can be done on a periodic basis through your dermatologist or other skin care professional. This involves the use of a specialized tool or a granular-based product. Examples of this type of exfoliation procedure include: microdermabrasion, microneedling, dermablading, or use of a specialized cleansing brush. These more aggressive modes of exfoliation manually slough off the outermost layer of skin cells, revealing a smoother, more even texture, and allowing for improved product absorption. Some experts even claim that these periodic, deep exfoliations stimulate collagen production.
  5. Chemical exfoliation. For this, your dermatologist or aesthetician may use one of a variety of acids to aid in shedding unhealthy cells and forming new healthy skin cells. Examples of chemical exfoliants include salicylic, glycolic, or blended acid peels, as well as enzymes and retinols. “Each type of chemical peel works in a different way, but each will improve skin tone, texture and acne issues,” explains Smith.


If you have the following skin concerns, here are some suggestions for treatment:

  • Overactive oil glands with frequent acne breakouts: Go for salicylic acid peels, which work well for penetrating through the hair follicles to exfoliate deep in the pores.
  • Desire to improve your skin’s natural water barrier: Try lactic acid peels, which gently exfoliate while increasing ceramides in the skin.

Your doctor or skin care professional will recommend a chemical peel based on your current skin concerns and the outcome you want.

“It’s important to discuss all of these options with your dermatologist or skin care specialist because too much exfoliation can cause sensitivity or irritation for certain skin types,” says Smith. “There is a proper exfoliation treatment protocol for even the most sensitive skin.”

Taking care of your skin, your body’s largest organ, is an important part of staying healthy. See your dermatologist or aesthetician regularly to stay updated on the latest products and techniques that can help you enjoy fresh, healthy skin for years to come.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person holding jar of moisturizer, with moisturizer on fingers
May 15, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
7 Tips for Treating Dry Skin on Your Face

Deal with dry skin by preserving your skin’s moisture, using moisturizing products and taking preventive action

female examining neck wrinkles
April 29, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Neck Wrinkles? Here’s What Can Help

Give the delicate skin on your neck some TLC by wearing sunscreen every day and trying a retinoid or topical antioxidant

Acrylic nails being filed by manicurist
April 24, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Are Acrylic Nails Bad for Your Nails and Skin?

Before your next manicure, weigh the reward against the risk of infection, irritated skin and damaged nails

Fingers with globs of petroleum jelly above container
April 18, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Slugging: Does This Skin Care Trend Work?

Go ahead and get goopy to help boost hydration and repair damaged skin

Salmon over lentils and carrots
April 15, 2024/Nutrition
Psoriasis and Diet: How Foods Can Impact Inflammation

A well-balanced diet with anti-inflammatory foods can help reduce flare-ups and severity of psoriasis symptoms

Healthcare provider holding bottle of prescription medication
April 12, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
These Common Triggers Likely Cause Your Psoriasis Flare-Ups

Stress, infections, skin injuries and environmental factors can trigger an onset of psoriasis symptoms

Person sitting in a yoga pose with calming vegetation behind them
April 8, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
10 Easy Steps To Prevent and Manage Your Psoriasis Flare-Ups

Stick to your treatment plan, but keep your provider updated on any new symptoms or triggers

Wet plastic loofah hanging on shower knob
April 2, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Is Your Loofah Full of Bacteria?

This puffy shower accessory can become lodged with skin cells (and other gross things), so make sure you dry it daily and clean it once a week

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey