If You’re Using a Physical Exfoliant, the Biggest Grain Isn’t Always Best

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When you think of physical exfoliants, your mind probably goes to the ones you can clearly see in your scrubs, like sugar and salt. Sure, they do a great job buffing away dead skin, but when it comes to getting silky-smooth skin the safe way, experts say smaller grains are a much better choice. Plus, they're just as effective if not more so.

While larger, more coarse grains are great for pedicure soaks or scrubs where you're dealing with hardened layers of skin on your feet, they're too harsh to use on the rest of your body, says Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist in North Carolina. In fact, they can even cause damage to your skin.

"When it comes to the body, especially the face, finer grains cause the least amount of irritation to the skin while efficiently exfoliating. They're less harsh on the skin while helping polish the epidermis and clear the dead skin and dirt at the top," she says. "Coarse, large, or irregularly-shaped grains, on the other hand, can cause microtears in the epidermis. Over time, these minuscule cracks in the skin will affect the protective barrier found in the epidermis."

Those tiny cracks won't just leave you with chronic inflammation and dry or flaky patches. They can also open your skin up—literally!—to other problems as well. "Our skin is designed to provide a protective barrier for us from the outside environment," says Caren Campbell, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist based in San Francisco. "Abrasions or tears in the skin let bacteria and the outside environment past our important barrier and can cause irritation or infection."

Here's what a dermatologist's daily skincare routine looks like:

Beauty brands are picking up on the major downsides to large exfoliating grains. Nécessaire's Body Exfoliator ($30) is gentle with much smaller grains than you'd typically find in comparable scrubs. Tatcha's Rice Polish ($65) is a non-abrasive face exfoliant uses Japanese rice bran to gently smooth away dead skin. DIYing your own small-grain exfoliant at home can be an easy and safe method of buffing away dead skin, too—as long as you use the right ingredients. "An effective and inexpensive physical exfoliator is baking soda in water. It's mild and gentle," Dr. Campbell says.

As far as how often you should be using small-grain exfoliators, it all depends on your skin type and condition. According to Dr. Solomon, normal or combination skin types with a healthy texture can exfoliate two to three times a week—never more. And anyone with sensitive skin types, or conditions like psoriasis or dermatitis, should stick to exfoliating once a week or once every other week depending on how their skin responds.

"You want to be gentle. Use fine grains with uniform shapes, preferably orb shapes," she says. "A good tip is doing a patch test of a product on the skin on the back of your hand to experience the feel of the exfoliant."

So swap those rough large-grain exfoliants for gentle, teeny-tiny options your skin will love. It won't be long before you have the silky-smooth complexion of your dreams.

Have you been exfoliating your skin wrong? Here's what a derm says. Then find out why exfoliation is the key to happy, healthy nails.

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