Exfoliating is an essential step in any skincare routine. It sloughs off dead skin cells and unclogs pores while leaving your skin fresh and glowy. You could be using the nicest skincare products in the world, but if you're not exfoliating on the regular, those fancy serums and creams might not be living up to their potential because you've got a lot of dead skin cell buildup.
Not to mention, starting your exfoliating routine early will have your future self thanking you. "Exfoliating young skin serves mostly to keep skin glowing and blemish-free," says Suneel Chilukuri, MD, of Refresh Dermatology. "As a teenager and young adult, your body naturally has more cellular turnover and often greater sebum production. Natural cell turnover slows with age, which results in pigmentary changes (sunspots), fine lines, and dryness. Some would say exfoliating becomes even more important at this stage to keep stimulate new cell growth and healthier skin."
But that doesn't mean it's just for those with youthful skin. It benefits everyone, regardless of age. For those with "mature" skin, Chilukuri says that regular exfoliating will promote cell turnover and prevent a sallow appearance over time. Women with mature skin might be afraid to exfoliate because they're wary of damaging or drying out their skin, but it's still an important step if you're doing it correctly and using the right products.
So what are some signs that you're not exfoliating enough if you're over 40? Chilukuri gave us a few watch-outs:
1. Your skin is dull: Chilukuri says if you're not exfoliating enough, you might experience flaky, dull, more yellowed skin. Thank you, dead skin cells.
2. You're using more products: This goes back to your products not being as effective when you have a buildup of dead skin cells. "People may find that they are using more products like moisturizers because the skin surface allows more water loss," Chilukuri explains. You could be slathering on that expensive moisturizer or cream for nothing. Who knew exfoliating might be able to save you a buck or at least reduce your need to restock so much?
3. Your skin is drier and more irritated: "With each birthday, there is a cumulative effect of pollution and sun exposure," Chilukuri says. "The upper layers of the skin (epithelium and upper dermis) are thin, and the cells have more space between them at a microscopic level. As a result of the skin barrier disruption, there is greater water loss, called transepidermal water loss (TEWL)." When the barrier is compromised, you might experience annoying skin irritations or issues.
How to Choose an Exfoliator If You Have Mature Skin
It's important to note that all exfoliants are not created equal, and if you have mature skin, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. "Most mature skin tends to be a bit drier, so enzymes are a good choice," Chilukuri explains. "Some mature skin can experience menopausal acne, but it can't be treated the same way we treat teenage acne. Gentle exfoliants, retinols, and peels are still a good choice for them." He also recommends chemical peels and fine-grain mechanical exfoliants.
If you go for an in-office treatment, Chilukuri says many of his patients come in monthly for a gentle superficial chemical peel, like Ultra Peel by PCA Skin, which he says contains a higher percentage of lactic acid to improve the surface and hydrate the skin.
What you want to avoid are overly aggressive mechanical exfoliants, which can cause damage no matter your skin type or age. "Any scrubs with large particles like apricot pits should be avoided, as they can cause micro-tears in the skin at any age," Chilukuri says. "Anything that is too drying or used too frequently should also be avoided."
As for how to use these exfoliants at home, not much prep is needed—just make sure your skin is clean and makeup-free. "Do not use a washcloth to apply the exfoliating product," Chilukuri says. "Either use your fingertips or use the Clarisonic sensitive brush head. After rinsing off the exfoliating agent, immediately apply a hydrating moisturizer. When using the proper exfoliating product, you should not have to stop your retinol. Always use an excellent mineral sunscreen every day." And you don't want to overdo it. You don't want to exfoliate every day, but a few times a week or once a week will help, depending on your skin.
Ready to try some at-home exfoliating products? Take a look at some of our recommendations below.
Shop the Best Face Exfoliators
Chilukuri recommends weekly at-home enzyme masks, and this one from PCA skin is one of his picks. Its ingredients include papaya, honey, vitamin E, and green tea. Those with dry, oily, and combination skin types can use it.
A two-in-one product, this is both a foaming cleanser and a gentle enzymatic peel. It's recommended to use it two to three times per week, or if you have oily skin, you can use it daily.
These face pads contain mandelic acid (from bitter almond) to exfoliate and willow bark extract to reduce inflammation. It's ideal for all skin types. All you have to do is apply to clean, dry skin in circular motions—no rinsing required.
Formulated with hydrated silica, this scrub will delicately slough off dead skin cells without the irritation. Other ingredients include glycerin to hydrate and aloe leaf extract to refresh.
This exfoliator from Paula's Choice is a leave-on product, meaning you don't have to rinse it off and it will work throughout the day. Made with beta hydroxy acid, it unclogs pores, exfoliates dead skin cells, smooths wrinkles, and evens out your skin tone.
Beauty editor Erin Jahns's 73-year-old mom is obsessed with this exfoliator from Tatcha. She said, "It's one of the gentlest, least-irritating exfoliating products I've tried, and no other product has ever left my skin so smooth or glowy after just one use." The powders come in four different varieties based on your skin type: Classic (normal/combination/dry skin), Deep (combination/oily), Gentle (dry), and Indigo (sensitive).
This peel contains fruit ingredients like açaí berry, noni fruit, grapefruit, and sweet pea to destroy free radicals, reduce inflammation, tone and tighten skin, and improve firmness and elasticity. The glycolic acid and lactic acid in the formula exfoliate and hydrate. You don't have to rinse after using—just apply to the face and neck with cotton or reusable rounds.
This brightening scrub has naturally derived granules that won't irritate or damage your skin. It also contains jojoba and castor oils, and soy extract to brighten and hydrate. The best part is that it's okay to use for sensitive skin.
This enzyme powder works to clear pores and even out the skin tone. Just put half a teaspoon in wet hands, rub together to create a paste, massage over skin for a minute, and rinse. Ingredients include salicylic acid, colloidal oatmeal, and ginkgo. Plus, it works on pretty much all skin types.
Drunk Elephant's popular Babyfacial is like getting an in-spa treatment. It always leaves my skin feeling so tingly (in a good way) and refreshed. In addition to AHA, the product also contains gram/chickpea flour and pumpkin ferment extract to balance complexion and gently exfoliate.
Jahns's mom also tried this solution from The Ordinary and said she was surprised that it didn't dry out her skin. "Because this is a peel, I was concerned that it would be too harsh or strong for my drier, sensitive skin, so I was a bit reluctant to use it, however, I had no negative skin reactions and only felt a slight tingling sensation in one small area on my cheek where I'd had a blemish that was in the process of clearing up. It was easy to apply and not the least bit messy or cumbersome like some peels I've seen."
Good for pretty much all skin types, this face mask contains sweet cherry purée, which is supposed to reduce the signs of aging. Additionally, lactic acids and a complex of alpha-hydroxy fruit acids will smooth and refresh.
This scrub cleanser smooths dull skin and also reduces the appearance of pores without leaving your face dry. Ingredients include glycerin, salicylic acid, and vitamins B5 and E.
With four treatments in one—cleanser, scrub, peel, and mask—this product gets the job done. Natural AHAs, lactic acid, and fruit enzymes work to exfoliate without leaving your skin dry.
NeoStrata's glycolic peel system is unique in the way that you pour the entire bottle of solution onto the pads before using any of them. It's an easy way to just pick one up for use later to quickly exfoliate after cleansing.
This article was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated.
Sarah is lifestyle writer and editor with over 10 years of experience covering health and wellness, interior design, food, beauty, and tech. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she attended New York University and lived in New York for 12 years before returning to L.A. in 2019.
In addition to her work on THE/THIRTY and Who What Wear, she held editor roles at Apartment Therapy, Real Simple, House Beautiful, Elle Decor, and The Bump (sister site of The Knot).
She has a passion for health and wellness, but she especially loves writing about mental health. Her self-care routine consists of five things: a good workout, “me” time on the regular, an intriguing book/podcast/playlist to unwind after a long day, naps, and decorating her home.