The Crucial Skin Care Step You Shouldn’t Skip

Woman applying face cream Do you ever wonder what’s missing from your skin care routine? The answer is exfoliation. It’s one the most important steps you can take toward healthier skin, but I too have been guilty of skipping scrubs and peels altogether. Not only does proper exfoliation reveal a fresher complexion, but it also allows all those powerful anti-aging treatments you’re using to penetrate better. However, getting the exfoliation bug can become both addictive and counter-productive. So let’s go back to the basics to understand why exfoliation is critical and how to best incorporate the right method for you into your regimen.

Why you should exfoliate regularly

The turnover rate of our cells slows down with age. Cells turn over at an average rate of 28 days in our teen years; at my age (55), this has slowed to every 60 days. This is the rate at which cells reproduce in the epidermal junction and where they are held together by lipids, ceramides and long chain fatty acids. The young cells gradually migrate to the skin surface where they die.

Thing is, they don’t just quietly die. They hang around like poltergeists to cause discomfort and even damage. The buildup of dead cells results in dryness and loss of radiance. Dead cells even hang around in the skin’s pores, blocking them, clogging them and even preventing proper turnover of new cells. Proper exfoliation rids the skin of dead cells and speeds the process of skin cell turnover. It stimulates cellular rejuvenation.

Choosing the right method of exfoliation

Exfoliation covers a wide range of methods from a simple brightening cleanser to a treatment in a doctor’s office. The right one for you will depend on your skin type and goals. Most of us should consider incorporating more than one for different times, as our skin can tell us when to switch things up or dial down.

Exfoliating cleansers

I’m a broken record on this one, but cleanser is the foundation of good skin care. An exfoliating cleanser might not be needed every day, but it will certainly be valuable a few times per week, especially if your skin is oily, acne-prone or combination.  An exfoliating cleanser may incorporate witch hazel, alpha hydroxy acids or enzymes that actually break down cells while you suds up.

What to use: Dr Dennis Gross All-in-One Cleanser and Toner ($30 in the shop) has witch hazel and retinyl palmitate;LiftLab Purify + Clarify ($65 in the shop) uses a unique marine-sourced ingredient to speed cell renewal and red caviar-derived Aqualumine with exfoliating enzymes.


Facial or body scrubs are turbocharged cleansers that help remove dead cells, excess oil and improve circulation. Depending on the ingredients in a particular product, they may also deliver some nutrients and can be used as a mask before rinsing off. Scrubs usually contain some (gentle) abrasive ingredient, such as jojoba beads, sugar, salt grains, ground nutshells and the like.

Scrubbing is not for every day. Twice a week is probably enough for most, but the right exfoliating scrub can be a huge boost to any anti-aging regimen.

What to use: Your Best Face Prep Microdermabrasion ($80 in the shop) is an exfoliating scrub that doubles as an anti-aging face mask; Simyskin Exfoliating Scrub ($35 in the shop) uses natural crushed amber and nourishing oils; Lifeline Stem Cell Skin Care Dual Action Exfoliator ($65 in the shop) lives up to its name with glycolic acid as well as sloughing microcrystals.

See more of our curated selection of exfoliating scrubs and masks.

Alpha and beta hydroxy acids

Alpha hydroxyl acids (acids such as glycolic, lactic, citric, malic, mandelic and tartaric) exfoliate the surface of the skin, accelerate cell turnover and some, such as lactic acid, act as humectants. Beta hydroxy acids, including willow bark, go deeper and actually exfoliate dead cells hanging around in the skin’s pores.

If you are trying to repair dull and age-damaged skin, I suggest using a glycolic-based product two or three time a week — or even every day for a short period of time. It is important to start to decrease as your skin looks better and ultimately get to the point where a once a week glycolic mask is enough. Sensitive skin types should approach with caution.

What to use: La Vie Celeste Restorative Exfoliating Gel Mask ($60 in the shop); Dawn Lorraine’s Acai & DMAE Firming Serum ($67 in the shop) has an AHA blend of organic bilberry, cranberry, sugar cane (the source of glycolic acid), and citric extracts; Mad Hippie Exfoliating Serum ($35 in the shop) also boasts glycolic acid in its gentle yet effective serum.


Retinol is vitamin A in its whole molecule form, which can be broken down into thousands of smaller components, including retinoic acid (or Tretinoin, the active ingredient in Renova and Retin-A). Vitamin A itself does not have a direct effect on skin, but is only effective after specialized enzymes in the skin cells convert it into retinoic acid (tretinoin). Retinol is considered a thorough exfoliator and the repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer forces the skin to produce new cells.

There are several reasons to go slow on retinol. The repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer will make the skin thin and dry over time (sensitive types will find the process irritating as well). These days, however, there are more retinol-based formulas that are gentle yet effective and are rounded out with good antioxidants.

What to use: Skinfinite Platinum PM Cream 1% Retinol ($79 in the shop); Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic & Retinol Wrinkle Recovery Peel ($88 in the shop).


Microdermabrasion is a form of exfoliation that removes the top layer of dead skin cells and uneven, thicker layers of skin. Professional machines use crystal and diamond microdermabrasion tips. The crystals are sprayed and the machine follows by vacuuming them. The suction or vacuum action also serves to pull the skin closer to the sandy disc in order to abrade the skin and remove dead cells. Home devices do not spray and use crystal or diamond tips. It can treat superficial scarring, fine lines and hyperpigmentation, and all it takes is about five minutes a few times a week.

What to use:  Trophy Skin Rejuvaderm MD ($199 in the shop). There are four controls for the suction and it is the suction power that is changed up for areas where the skin is thicker and less delicate.


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