In general, exfoliation is good for acne, however, your technique and the products you use really matter.
When you think of exfoliation you might think of scrubs or exfoliating brushes. But, these physical exfoliation techniques might exacerbate acne. When you’re acne-prone you might consider the switch to chemical exfoliation.
So, yes, exfoliation is good for acne, but, not all exfoliation methods are created equal. Keep scrolling through to learn more about how to effectively exfoliate your skin if you have acne.
Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cell build-up on the skin. Dead skin cells can linger on the skin and clog up skin pores and may create comedonal acne.
Exfoliation is also key to boosting skin cell turnover rate which is essential for keeping your skin looking its best. Increased skin cell turnover rate helps reduce signs of aging and helps treat acne-prone skin.
There are actually two types of exfoliation (one is better for acne than the other). These two types are physical and chemical exfoliation.
You’re probably most familiar with manual or physical exfoliation. Examples of manual exfoliation include using gritty scrubs, konjac sponges, rough loofahs, electric scrub brushes, and professional microdermabrasion procedures.
For acne-prone skin, these methods are not recommended as the friction involved in rubbing and scrubbing can cause existing acne breakouts to worsen. Manual exfoliation may irritate the skin, especially if you’re acne is of the inflammatory kind.
Chemical exfoliations do not require scrubbing as the chemical compounds of the product do the heavy lifting for you. These can leave your skin immediately brighter and smoother.
Chemical exfoliants loosen the bonds that hold old skin cells onto the surface of the skin. These acids or enzymes lift and dissolve dead skin cells and pore blockages by penetrating the skin.
Even if you’ve never heard of chemical exfoliation, you might be using this method without even knowing it. Many acne cleansing products use beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that helps dissolve dead skin cells, excess sebum, and pore blockages. Here are some common chemical exfoliants:
In those with acne, the natural skin shedding process called desquamation can be disrupted or inefficient. Causing skin cell turnover to be “sluggish.”
Acne-prone skin also produces more dead skin cells than non-acne-prone skin, and since these cells do not shed properly it can increase acne occurrences. This is why it’s so important to exfoliate and increase skin cell turnover when you’re experiencing acne.
Chemical exfoliants like OTC salicylic acid and prescription-strength retinoids are effective acne treatments because they chemically exfoliate the skin, increase skin cell turnover, clear pore blockages, and are anti-inflammatory.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to exfoliating acne-prone skin.
Chemical exfoliation can achieve the same end result as manual exfoliation but with less skin friction and deeper skin penetration.
Unlike physical exfoliation, chemical exfoliating products can penetrate deep into the skin allowing for a more profound effect on clogged pores under the surface. Arguably, the biggest benefit of using chemical exfoliants for acne is the increased skin cell turnover.
Those with acne might have slower skin cell turnover, so increasing the rate at which your body creates new skin cells is excellent news for anti-acne efforts. For example, the chemical exfoliant tretinoin increases skin cell turnover, unclogs pores, and keeps them from getting clogged in the first place.
When you have acne, it’s best to err on the side of frictionless exfoliation. Face scrubs contain gritty micro material such as walnut shells, apricot kernels, and ground pumice.
These create friction on the skin that can slough off dead skin cells very effectively but might cause further inflammation. Abrasive scrubs can be very irritating to acne-prone or inflamed skin.
If you do use a micro material scrub you might irritate already inflamed skin, causing acne to get “angrier”. As a rule, skin scrubs are not all bad when used in moderation with blemish-free skin. However, with acne, it’s best to skip this abrasive option.
There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” When you over-exfoliate you can disrupt the protective skin barrier which might make matters worse for acne. So, be aware of how your skin is reacting to your exfoliation schedule.
How often you need to exfoliate is entirely determined by your personal skin type. For some, once a week is enough while others might need exfoliation 3 times a week. For acne-prone skin, it’s recommended to exfoliate 2 to 3 times a week if your skin can handle it.
Pull back on exfoliation if your skin becomes irritated.
The chemical exfoliant tretinoin is renowned for its ability to unglue old dead skin cells, unclog pores, smooth over fine lines, decrease hyperpigmentation, and increase skin cell turnover rate.
This topical chemical exfoliator retinoid has been proven to reduce acne, and reduce acne recurrence. It’s so effective that researchers have said this prescription retinoid should be considered as the foundation of all acne therapy.
If you’re stepping up your skincare game and are looking for proven effective acne treatments and skin exfoliants, consider prescription-strength tretinoin. Tretinoin is an all-in-one.
Here at Strut, we have formulated our acne treatments to include tretinoin along with other prescription-strength active ingredients.
Learn more: Does Tretinoin Work for Acne?
If you’re ready for clear skin, complete a questionnaire-based online doctor's consultation to see if our acne treatments are right for you. If our doctors find you’re a good candidate, we’ll ship your prescription right to your doorstep.