The Easiest, Laziest Way To Get Ridiculously Smooth Skin

Written by Alanna Martine Kilkeary

Getting smooth skin has been one of my goals ever since I started a skin-care routine. I’m talkin’ skin that’s calm, soft, and smooth as butter. But despite my many attempts to even out my skin texture throughout the years, my dream has been cut short by breakouts, acne scars, and patchiness—that is, until I learned how to properly exfoliate. In a sea of harsh scrubs, cleansing brushes, and peels, learning how to remove dead skin from my face without the irritation has been an absolute game-changer for my smooth-skin dreams.

But, as with all good things, it took time to get my skin to where it is today with fewer clogged pores, minimal dark spots, and maximum glow. So to help you avoid my same trial and error, I spoke with four board-certified dermatologists—Hadley King, MD; Rachel Nazarian, MD; Carmen Castilla, MD; and Dendy Engelman, MD—about how to remove dead skin from the face, how to choose the best exfoliation methods and products for your skin type, and how to not only achieve ridiculously smooth skin, but to maintain it, too.

Experts in this article

What are dead skin cells?

Dead skin cells are cells that have reached the surface of your skin and then matured to the point of dying, says Dr. King. Dead skin cells are typically the culprit of rough, uneven skin texture, which is why exfoliants are typically so effective at smoothing skin, especially as we get older. “Cell turnover slows as we age, which can then lead to a slower shedding of dead skin cells, leaving them to accumulate at the surface of your skin,” says Dr. King.

Photo: Getty Images/ Svetlana Borovkova

What does dead-skin buildup look like on the face?

A buildup of dead skin on the face looks like uneven skin texture, dullness, and potentially even acne due to clogged pores. Ever spend a few minutes in the mirror thinking, “Wow, I could probably use a facial”? It’s often due to a buildup of dead skin cells leaving your face feeling dull and blah, rather smooth and radiant.

Do I need to remove dead skin from my face?

No, you don't need to remove dead skin from your face; your body will naturally shed it on its own. But there are benefits to speeding up the process, especially for the efficacy of your skin-care routine. A buildup of dead skin on the face can actually prevent your products from working to their full potential.

Active ingredients that you might be using daily (think: retinol, vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, etc.) actually penetrate the skin better when there’s less grime and buildup to pass through. “Thick layers of dead skin cells can prevent topicals from absorbing properly,” says Dr. Nazarian. Active ingredients will always penetrate exfoliated skin more efficiently.

How to remove dead skin from the face

The only way to prevent dead-skin buildup is by removing dead skin cells from the face through exfoliation (or through time, but who wants to wait that long?). Exfoliation—whether chemical or manual—helps shed the outermost layers of the epidermis (the superficial layer of your skin) to reveal newer skin beneath. Exfoliating can help "unclog pores, keep skin smooth and polished, and reduce acne breakouts,” says Dr. King.

Of course, if you’re new to the world of exfoliation, you may be wondering…

What is exfoliation?

“Exfoliation involves using tools or ingredients to remove the outermost layer of dead skin cells,” says Dr. Nazarian. There are two primary types of exfoliation: chemical exfoliation (which uses acids to dissolve the "glue" that holds your dead skin cells together) and physical exfoliation (which uses physical force to remove dead skin cells from your face via gritty scrubs, abrasive brushes, and sharp tools). Both types of exfoliation have the same goal—to rid dead skin cells—but get there using different mechanisms.

Though exfoliation isn’t a requirement, Dr. King says exposing a fresh layer of skin will help smooth its texture, ultimately making your skin appear softer and healthier. “Over time, regular chemical exfoliation can also increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production,” she says.

What is chemical exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliation is exactly what it sounds like. “Chemical exfoliants use ingredients that loosen bonds between skin cells, dissolving them to slough the cells off,” says Dr. Nazarian. Chemical exfoliants include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), poly-hydroxy-acids (PHAs), and fruit enzymes. “[These acids or enzymes] act to loosen the glue-like substance that holds the cells together, allowing them to slough away,” says Dr. King.

One of the most notable BHAs is salicylic acid, which works to clear pores and remove excess oil, making it ideal for preventing acne and breakouts. AHAs, like glycolic acid, gently slough off dead skin cells to reveal smoother, brighter skin underneath. PHAs, like gluconolactone, work similarly to AHAs by breaking down the glue that holds dead skin cells together, but they tend to be less irritating due to their larger molecular size. Fruit enzymes, like those found in pineapple and papaya, also loosen dead skin cells and are considered the least irritating of all AHAs.

Photo: Getty Images/ TorriPhoto

What is physical exfoliation?

Physical exfoliation, on the other hand, is a type of exfoliation that removes dead skin mechanically by sloughing off dead skin cells with a scrub or tool. “Physical exfoliants use mechanical mechanisms to slough away dead skin cells on the surface, ‘physically’ removing skin,” says Dr. Nazarian (think: brushes, scrubs, razors, and dermaplaning).

Because of its abrasive technique, physical exfoliation poses more risks than chemical exfoliation. “The potential risk with physical exfoliation is that if you use a product with particles that are large, rough, or have sharp edges, you can create micro-tears in the skin that can lead to irritation, inflammation, and possibly even infection,” says Dr. King.

If you do want to try physical exfoliation, look for an exfoliant with super-fine particles and hydrating ingredients (like squalane, ceramides, and aloe vera) “that can help offset potential irritation that can occur from exfoliating,” says Dr. Nazarian. It’s also important to gradually build up frequency when it comes to incorporating a physical exfoliator into your routine. The experts recommend starting physical exfoliation once a week and building up to three times per week max, based on your skin’s type and tolerance.  

Exfoliation and skin types

Because exfoliation can happen either chemically or physically, it might take some trial and error to discover the right method for you, which may even be a combination of both. “Exfoliators can be abrasive for the skin, which is why it’s so important to find one suitable for your skin type to avoid causing damage such as redness, irritation, and micro-injuries,” says Dr. Engelman. The good news is that certain exfoliators are often better for certain skin types, whether you’re working with sensitive, dry, combination, oily, or acne-prone. 

How to exfoliate sensitive skin

All the experts agree that sensitive skin types, especially those with rosacea or eczema, tend to do better with chemical exfoliants, particularly formulas with PHAs. “Polyhydroxy-acid molecules are larger so they cannot penetrate as deeply,” says Dr. King, “which ensures that they work on the skin's surface without affecting the layers underneath, making them less irritating.” PHAs can still help you achieve the benefits of exfoliation but with less risk of irritation, making them a particularly good fit for those with sensitive skin who cannot tolerate traditional AHAs or BHAs. 

How to exfoliate dry skin

Dry skin types also do well with chemical exfoliation but should stick to exfoliating once weekly for the most part (again, this will vary by person, but once weekly is a good baseline). If you have dry skin, you should also look for moisturizing, acid-based exfoliators "to help lock in moisture and protect your skin barrier during exfoliation,” says Dr. King. She recommends humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid to hydrate your skin, emollients like triglycerides or ceramides to boost your skin barrier, or occlusives like petrolatum or oils to lock in moisture.

How to exfoliate combination skin

Combination skin types will benefit from a gentle and balanced exfoliation routine that can address both oily and dry areas. “Those with combination skin may need to exfoliate more often on the oily T-zone areas—forehead, nose, and chin—and less frequently on dry areas,” says Dr. Engelman. “They should look for gentle chemical exfoliants that are effective on oily zones, but won’t irritate dry or sensitive skin.” She recommends trying AHAs like glycolic acid or lactic acid that will help remove dead skin gently.

How to exfoliate oily skin

If you have oily skin, look for chemical or physical exfoliators with BHAs like salicylic acid, which can sink beneath the skin’s surface to help clear excess oil. “While AHAs are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin, BHAs are oil-soluble so they can penetrate pores and work on the surface of the skin as well as inside the pore,” Dr. King notes. Look for a salicylic-based chemical exfoliator or BHA-filled physical exfoliator to help mattify oily areas, and work your way up to using it three times per week, depending on tolerance.

Photo: Stocksy/ Marilar Irastorza

How to exfoliate acne-prone skin

Similarly, acne-prone skin can benefit from both chemical or physical exfoliators with BHAs and can exfoliate 2-3 times per week. “BHAs, like salicylic acid, are most often preferred for normal to oily skin prone to acne and clogged pores, since they can help reduce blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and milia,” says Dr. King. Acne-prone skin types can also tolerate a combination of AHAs and BHAs to help address dead skin cells at the surface and underneath.

Because acne begins underneath the surface, an exfoliating product with both AHA and BHA can be incredibly effective. Dr. Engelman suggests using at-home exfoliation pads which usually come soaked in AHAs and BHAs to help resurface the skin. While it may be tempting to generously use exfoliation pads and wipes on oily skin, it is important to err on the side of caution to avoid overdoing it.

Can I over-exfoliate my skin?

Yes, you can easily over-exfoliate your skin, which “will lead to redness, eczema-like patches, and irritation,” says Dr. Castilla, “and will also likely leave your skin worse off than when you started.” Over-exfoliation can come from using too strong of a formula, going too hard on physical exfoliators, or using exfoliators too frequently. If your face stings or burns after application, that’s a big sign you’ve over-exfoliated and need to take a step back asap. 

What to do if you over-exfoliate

If you do over-exfoliate, it’s important to give your skin a break for a few days before returning to an exfoliation routine. “If you remove the skin faster than it has time to accumulate, it'll be raw and sensitive, so you need to take it slow,” says Dr. Nazarian. Stick with a creamy cleanser, a bland and hydrating moisturizer, and a gentle SPF in the interim. Once your skin barrier is no longer irritated or damaged (which typically takes at least seven days, but often up to two weeks depending on the severity of the initial irritation), then it's safe to increase exfoliation frequency and strength as tolerated.

What to do after exfoliating your face

After exfoliation, apply a gentle, calming moisturizer and avoid other active or irritating ingredients like retinoids or products that contain alcohol or fragrances. Finish with sunscreen if you’re exfoliating in the morning, or apply your sunscreen the next day if you’re exfoliating at night. And no, this isn’t just because sunscreen is the most important step to any skin-care routine—it’s also because SPF “will protect your newly revealed surface skin cells,” says Dr. King, which is incredibly vital for minimizing skin damage.

Final takeaway

Yes, ridiculously smooth skin is possible with a regular exfoliation routine that is tailored to your skin type. But the reality is: Dead skin has to go in order for your glowy skin to shine through. Sensitive, drier skin types should opt for gentle chemical exfoliators with PHAs or fine-particle scrubs, while combination, oily, and acne-prone skin types can better tolerate both chemical and physical exfoliators with AHAs and BHAs. 

Start by exfoliating once per week to gradually build up your tolerance, and if you over-exfoliate, give your skin a break for a week and stick with a gentle routine. After exfoliation, you should always follow up with a hydrating moisturizer and sunscreen to best protect your face, and by putting the right exfoliating methods into practice regularly, plumped, healthy skin will be at your fingertips.

Hero Illustration by Janet Mac