Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once-a-weeker, but here’s why I’m suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

woman exfoliating

A few years ago, I wrote a story for ELLE Canada that was essentially anti-exfoliation. The inspiration was a chat I had with the VP of R&D for Burt’s Bees (Celeste Lutrario), who very convincingly argues that exfoliating is not all that good for you. (More on that in a sec.) Anyway, since then—and because I have sensitive skin—I’ve been careful not to aggravate it by scrubbing, toning or whirling my Clarisonic around more than once or twice a week.

That is, until a couple of months ago. You already know that I’m (still) EXTREMELY pleased with my results on the Miracle10 skincare system, which has a lactic acid-based AHA cream as part of the nightly regimen. Then I met Dr. Zein Obagi (if you’re familiar with his skincare products, yes, the man himself) who to my surprise is pretty much all about cleansing and exfoliating. And finally, I had a little chat with my facialist. Let me tell you all about these recent developments, and then I wanna know if you’re pro or against.

But first! What exfoliation does

You might not know that our skin has a natural exfoliation process all the time, even without our help. It’s called keratinization and it’s a 28-day cycle whereby the live cells (keratinocytes) at the bottom layer of the epidermis gradually become harder as they work their way up to the surface. Then they die (no love lost!) and flake off (good riddance!), revealing the newer cells underneath.

We can help things along by using…
a. Mechanical scrubs, which contain tiny beads or crushed shells (I’m not a huge fan of these, but this new-ish one from Aveda is nice)

Aveda Tourmaline Charged Radiant Skin Refiner Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once a weeker, but heres why Im suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

b. Mild topical treatments containing alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids (these Origins salicylic acid wipes are très handy, even if you don’t have acne)

Origins Spot Remover Acne Treatment Pads Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once a weeker, but heres why Im suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

c. Skin-buffing tools (like the Clarisonic or a hand-held skin brush)

Clarisonic1 Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once a weeker, but heres why Im suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

or d. Doctor’s office remedies such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion and various lasers.

The case for exfoliation

So according to derms I’ve talked to, you actually can’t speed up this 28-day keratinization cycle. All you’re doing by exfoliating is causing fewer dead skin cells to stick to your skin’s surface. And that, in turn, is going to help your skin look shinier, smoother and healthier. Some experts even go as far as saying that it will stimulate new collagen formation, which plumps up the skin and fades hyperpigmentation.

I don’t know about the plumping aspect, but like I said in this post, I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement in the texture of my skin thanks to Miracle10′s workhouse AHA cream, which I apply every night mixed with a vitamin C powder. I still credit my cod liver oil routine for the lack of breakouts, but if you can believe it, even the one or two I’d have during PMS time have gone MIA. I *think* my freckly sun damaged bits are improving too—and that’s probably a combo of the exfoliation itself and because the removal of the dead skin cells is helping the vitamin C penetrate better so that it can do its good work.

Dr. Obagi is pro-exfoliation and anti-moisturizer

As if my own personal results weren’t enough, a presentation the other day by Dr. Obagi helped sway me too. He’s got a new and very pricey line of prodz called ZO Skin Health, which you can buy at select derms’ offices.

ZO Skin Health Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once a weeker, but heres why Im suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

Anyway, to my surprise, the good doctor spent most of the time telling us that cleansing and exfoliating are the most important steps in your skincare routine—and that most people moisturize too much.


Apparently, our skin cells get “lazy” and we need to “wake them up” by “restoring their normal function” so they can regenerate and renew themselves. That means being diligent about removing sebum and dead skin cells… and of course, using his products (mostly retinol-based) to stimulate cellular repair. (But the jury’s still out on those since I haven’t tried ‘em yet.) There’s a good article here on BellaSugar if you want to read more about his anti-moisturizer theory.

Why my facialist says I should step up the Clarisonic action

decleorfacial Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once a weeker, but heres why Im suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

The final nail in the coffin for my exfoliation-on-ice period was a visit to Irena, the esthetician at Robin Barker in Toronto who threads my eyebrows… and who gave me a facial on the weekend. Even though I’ve been generally happy with my skin, I had these little milia things that were driving me nuts (and which Dr. Obagi totally dissed, by the way… kthxbai). Since he told me I’d have to have them lasered off or something (um: $$$$), I asked Irena for her opinion. And to my delight, she said that milia were actually her specialty.

Jackpot! It’s kind of unheard of for a beauty editor to pay for her own facial (or any beauty service, to be honest), but I happily plonked down my credit card for 90 minutes of steaming and needle-based extractions. I’ve had a lot of facials in my life, and most were pleasant enough, but I’ve got to tell you: never have I had one that produced results like this. Once milia appear, you can’t remove them with any topical products, so they have to be extracted—but you need to go to someone who knows what they’re doing. And Irena certainly does, because my complexion is now smoother than ever.

Here’s where exfoliation comes in. I think I freakin’ CAUSED the milia (or helped cause them) by not exfoliating enough for so long. And the longer you leave them, the more chance that they calcify (harden) and become next to impossible to extract. Irena says some skin types—those with small pores, like me—just tend to develop them. She told me to start using the Clarisonic every other day, in addition to my nightly AHA cream. AND she agrees with Obagi on the moisturizer (less is more).

So, double wow.

Why some peeps are anti-exfoliation

woman applying serum1 Do you exfoliate? Like, regularly? I used to be a once a weeker, but heres why Im suddenly scrubbing again (on the daily)

And now I’ll leave you with the other side of the story. Experts like Celeste Lutrario from Burt’s Bees maintain that the dead skin cell layer is there for a reason: to lock in moisture and protect you from pollution and the sun. She even told me that the benefits of exfoliation are only temporary—when you constantly remove that layer, you’re risking damage to your skin over the long term, making it drier, ashier and more wrinkled. Eeks! Another doc I spoke to says women tend to exfoliate because they’re told by people like me that they have to. HEY-O! And yet women have so many more skin problems than men, which is true. He thinks exfoliation leaves your skin open to bacteria, infection and increased sensitivity and dryness.

Then there’s this thing called the Hayflick Limit (seriously, there’s a Wikipedia page on it), which is a theory developed in the 1960s by the scientist Leonard Hayflick. In a nutshell, he suggested that our skin cells have a finite lifespan and can only be renewed a certain number of times before they become sluggish. And have you noticed how some skincare brands have introduced anti-aging products with ingredients called sirtuins that slow down—not speed up—cell renewal?

Gosh, it’s all so confusing.

The bottom line

It really just depends who you believe. If your skin is normal (you lucky B!), then you can probably get along just fine without exfoliating. However, like I said, I’ve noticed AMAZING BENEFITS from stepping things up, and I’m going to continue to do so as long as my skin behaves, i.e. I’m not burning or irritating it, obvi. And at the same time, I’m experimenting with less, not more moisture, to see if I can get hydration without drenching myself unnecessarily.

So tell me what you think:

Do you exfoliate on the regular? What’s your poison?
Are you buying the pro-exfoliation theory or the anti-exfoliation theory?
Do you get those milia things too? Gosh, they’re annoying.


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:24 pm

Dr. Haushka is also anti-exfoliation and anti-moisture. He says no moisturizer at night because that is the time for your skin to repair itself and anything moisturizing keeps it from doing it’s job. I have been doing this for months and see improvement in healing from acne scars.


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:36 pm

Interesting article! Yes, I’m a regular exfoliator, I currently use ANEW CLINICAL Advanced Dermabrasion System and I love it. It has very fine particles and works amazingly well. I use this about 3X a week as a part of my nightly routine. I’m dying to get my hands on a Clarisonic too…this will be my request for Christmas! For my skin-type, slight combo leaning towards dry, with med. pores, exfoliation is a must. Also I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older, my skin had gotten much drier and my cell turn-over isn’t what it used to be LOL Luckily no milia for me to date. As an aside, Irena threads my brows too…in fact, I went to see her on your recommendation! Thanks, Lisa


Dot & Lil
Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:39 pm

I’m sort of a skincare minimalist when it comes to my face. Exfoliate when I feel there’s a lot of dead skin going on, or I feel less bright. Moisturize enough to feel ok, and cleanse just enough to get makeup off. Less is definitely more–I don’t like to give my skin too many reasons to flip out, it does a better job if I leave it on it’s own most of the time!! But then, I have pretty calm skin, I’m blessed with good skin genes, so I can’t really say one way or the other. I have always been curious about extractions.

There are a lot of contradictory skin theories out there though, that’s for sure!


Elaine R
Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:51 pm

GOD I hate milia! I used to get them all the time when I was oil cleansing and not exfoliating, but since I switched to a cleansing water I haven’t gotten any more. I used to extract them myself once they calcified… I know that any esthetician would probably smack me upside the head for extracting with a sterilized sewing needle, but sometime’s the $$$ isn’t there for a trip to the dermatologist! Plus, I didnt even know that some facialists are experts in this.


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:53 pm

omg, did I tell you how amazing your blog is?! It’s seriously amazing! I look forward to a new blog post everyday and love read each one to the very end no matter how long it is!

I don’t exfoliate regularly but I think I’m going to try to make it a once a week habit now with a hardcore exfoliator. I do use Liz Earle cleanse and polish as my everyday cleanser though so I guess that counts as everyday gentle exfoliation?

I have no idea about which theory I side with, it’s all so confusing! Like, seriously confusing! I do remember though when I was in my early teens I pretty much had perfect skin. I didn’t use moisturiser, or a cleanser or anything else for that matter and I never had a single blemish, blackhead, oiliness or dryness. If I did it wasn’t enough to make a difference. I think when I was about 14ish I bought the Apricot Scrub from the drugstore. It was the first ever skin care product I bought. My skin felt so amazing after using it. Smoother, cleaner and just overall amazing. However, that only lasted for a day until my skin felt like it was back to normal and perhaps even a little less nicer than normal. Maybe thats because I didn’t moisturise afterwards and it dried my skin out or I aggravated it by scrubbing. Nevertheless, I kept on using it and each time I used it my skin would look amazing for a day then go bad again so I guess that means you are kind of messing with your face if you exfoliate too much especially if you don’t moisturise afterwards (or moisturise enough)!

The best results I’ve ever gotten is from the Liz Earle Cleanse & polish which requires you to exfoliate gently everyday which I think is a good balance! I notice major differences in my skin if I stop using it!

HOWEVER, and it’s a HUGE however, all these cream like textured products have given me milia underneath my chin and it is driving me insane and I don’t know what to do about!

Also, I’ve recently started using eye cream and I can see tiny little white ridges underneath my eyes and that too is driving me insane. I don’t use too much product and I stick to orbital bone area when I apply it so I don’t know why it’s happened. I was using the Creme de la Mer eye cream. I’ve stopped using it now and I’ve switched to Biotherm now, so just waiting to see what happens now! Super frustrated though!


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:53 pm

Wow Michelle I’m right there with you! My GP told me a year ago the “spots” would go away but I have one in the corner of my eye which drives me crazy. You know when old ladies get spots around their eyes? Get it OFF. After reading up on clarisonic before I bought it a few months ago I found out what milia were. I have gotten two off my cheeks with daily clarisonic and a blemish extractor. I thought I’d have to see a dermatologist for the eye one cause the esthetician I saw in the summer did nothing.

Because my skin texture has improved so much since clarisonic I am also using 10% AHA for night and 1% BHA for day because like you I came to the conclusion my skin doesn’t exfoliate well. I don’t think any of the lotions are use are “heavy” so I haven’t decided if I’ll change products.

Who can give me a shout out for a qualified esthetician in Halifax, NS?


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 3:56 pm

I exfoliate weekly, but I have dry, flaky skin, so if I don’t it looks like I’ve dumped a bag of flour over my head! I use a natural product from a local company which is essentially small flakes of oatmeal and seaweed. You mix a teaspoon of the mix with a teaspoon of water and rub over your face. It feels so gentle I can’t believe it’s doing anything (but it does!)


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 4:18 pm

Not sure about the anti-moisturizer stance (feel like I need to step things up in the winter as my skin gets dry and tight), but I’m all about exfoliating regularly – I think it’s the only thing that keeps breakouts at bay. Mind you, exfoliating has to be done gently or you risk the Samantha Jones-red-peel-face effect. I’ve tried Obagi’s exfoliating pads and they’re quite good too…


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 4:20 pm

I’ve always been a believer of exfoliation, although I did experience some over exfoliation a few years ago and have changed my routine (no more harsh mechanical scrubbers). I’m currently using Alpha-H and use Liquid Gold every other night. My skin has improved, the texture seems more plump, the colour more even and my red acne scars fade much faster and I only get 1 or 2 spot on my chin if I get any at all during that time of the month. I use DermaNew maybe once a month, perhaps twice if I remember. For me though, the winner has been Liquid Gold.


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 4:37 pm

From my experience, skin gets ashy when it’s not exfoliated – i.e. it has a buildup of dull, dry skin on top. BHAs can thin the skin over time (so you do have to use them with moderation), but AHAs only take off what’s dead. So, keep exfoliating, Gfriend!


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 4:54 pm

Very interesting points! I think my method is pretty much in the middle. Some weeks my skin is smooth and I never exfoliate, but some weeks every time I step in the shower I feel skin flakes, so I scrub them off. My skin always lets me know when it’s up for a good scrub. That, plus a very mild facial wash, and I never need moisturizer unless I’m going out and need sunscreen. I just use plain baking soda, as my skin is very sensitive and reacts badly to chemical exfoliators, or facial scrubs with a lot of different ingredients. So, I guess in my experience more exfoliation and less moisturizing is definitely a good thing to play with.


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 5:19 pm

My husband and I own a small, but growing, bath and body care company. We are pro-exfoliation for a couple of reasons:

1) Our clients see reduced amount of acne, dryness, and bumps when they use a scrub 2-3 times per week.
2) Some people renew their skin but don’t shed it from the surface of their skin. Psoriasis is this situation magnified. Scrubs help to remove the loose skin cells, creating a smoother, softer and brighter skin surface.
3) Scrubs, like everything in life, should happen in moderation. If you scrub until it hurts then the scrub becomes ‘bad’. makes sense right?

So in general using a fine scrub for the face and other tender areas, and a course grain scrub for tougher areas works well. We formulate ours using dead sea salts and veggie oils so that their is no aggravating chemicals inside. I would be very sad without my little scrub session!!


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 5:52 pm

I’m pro exfoliation all the way! If I don’t exfoliate my skin loses all sign of radiance… I do however believe in gentle exfoliation, not over the top and using super grainy that can damage my skin exfoliation.


Wednesday, November 23/2011 at 10:09 pm

I’m definitely pro exfoliation. My skin gets very dull looking without some regular scrubbing.
This whole no moisturizer thing though? I just cannot get on board with that. Where I live its really dry and I have sensitive skin so if I don’t moisturize then I would look awful! I read the article linked in your post and I’m no expert but moisturizer accelerating the aging process seems a bit strange to me. Aging skin has a lot more to do with a combination of genes, exposure to the elements, lifestyle etc. than it does with putting some moisturizer on. I just don’t get it.


Nomadic D
Thursday, November 24/2011 at 4:08 am

I’ve been pretty obsessed with exfoliating since I got my clarisonic, I noticed a huge improvement right away. Til then I’d been using an AHA, but honestly I don’t think it was doing much for me. Then I got sort of lax about using my machine, and my skin started acting up again, a few breakouts and general dullness. Last week I thought, hey, maybe it’s exfoliation that I need, and decided to try out my clarisonic twice a day (!!! I know!!!), thinking, as you write here, that the only cells I’m brushing away are cells that are already dead, so hopefully overusing the brush won’t do any harm. Well, I was right! My skin has literally transformed in a week, and now I’m making sure to exfoliate twice a day, all previous spots are disappearing and my skin actually kind of glows. My skin! Glowing! This is huge. Anyway, just had to share my excitement with you. I’m off to read up on the no-moisturizer theory, that part I’d never heard of before.


Marina (Makeup4all)
Thursday, November 24/2011 at 4:41 am

Interesting post. I personally use Elemis Papaya Enzyme Peel once or twice per week and it works great for me as I have very dry skin.


Muslimah Beauty
Friday, November 25/2011 at 1:57 pm

I’m a HUGE exfoliating obsessive. I make my own but I can’t help but check the aisles at shops and just buy loads in one go! Bad I know..


Friday, November 25/2011 at 2:17 pm

I feel much better when I exfoliate my skin regularly (this means twice a week in summer and once a week the rest of the year). Otherwise my skin looks very dull and tends to produce more oil. As for these awful milia staff – I have this occasionally and need to visit my dermatologist to remove them. But she says it’s rather digestive problems then lack of exfoliation.


Friday, November 25/2011 at 4:48 pm

OK I have to chime in here because I’ve been told by two different aestheticians that I should be exfoliating my face as little as once every 3 months. The reason being I have “thin skin” (I’m 31) and that, by exfoliating, I’m thinning my dermis and letting more capillaries show through (I have redness issues). I actually went the entire summer without exfoliating once! When I do exfoliate, I use an AHA cream as opposed to granular formulas and I love how it feels but I am constantly freaked out that my skin won’t regenerate properly if I over-exfoliate. Also, isn’t retinol awful? I can’t even use the lowest grade, my skin freaks out and flakes off. So I guess my question is: Are there certain skin types that should exfoliate as infrequently as possible?
Also, very intrigued by this ‘no moisturizer at night’ thing. Will look further into that – thanks!


Monday, November 28/2011 at 2:47 pm

I think exfoliation & moisturizer needs will really depend on each individual’s skin, & the time of year, & their diet… I am currently gently exfoliating twice a day (oat flour paste with water & almond oil), & applying (& massaging in) layers of oil & oil-based moisturizers (& sunscreen) & still often have flakes by noon. I have crazy dry skin, a condition that causes & is aggravated by dry skin, and it’s fall in Canada, so DRY.

But I doubt many people need this much. I don’t in mid-summer. Daily exfoliation, yes. 4 layers of creams & oils, no.

I will never, never skip my moisturizer. Last winter, after hopping out of the shower, I ran downstairs to tell my guy something before I forgot. In the 10 mins. it took to tell him whatever, my face literally wrinkled up like I was 80. I am 36 & still get carded on occasion! It was eerie! Nothing a few good coats of cream couldn’t fix, but creepy.


Nicoletta Daskalakis
Monday, November 28/2011 at 7:07 pm

I recently got off the contraceptive pill it’s been about 6 months now. I suffered from severe acne getting off it and it’s only now starting to cool down. As a makeup artist, I was so embarrassed at my skin’s appearance, especially being 30. I tried everything, the only thing that worked was cetaphil anti-bacterial soap and cetaphil moisturizer. I was spending $$$ and this is the ONLY thing that has helped. Exfoliating made the acne worse. I want to start again but I am so scared ;) I cant believe how bad the pill is!!! Thank you for your blog, it’s so super informative and helpful, you are awesome and hilarious! Nicoletta xx


Friday, December 9/2011 at 9:23 pm

I am a fan of exfoliating, but in recent years my skin has become way too sensitive for anything that ‘scrubs’ in even the most gentle way. I had all but resigned myself to no longer being able to exfoliate when I found the most wonderful gel exfoliator by GM Collin for dehydrated skin ( ) I try to use it every other day and my skin stays blemish free and so soft and fresh looking.


Pat J
Thursday, October 25/2012 at 9:46 am

I am 75 and I am seeking help with deep mouth lines. My skin looks pretty good for my age but lips and eyes need help the most. My beauth consultant at Sephora has suggested the same exfoliating product you suggested. Is there anyway to reduce the deep lines. I use good skincare products, never leave make-up on overnight. Any suggestions. I also have dry skin and olive complection. Thanks for any help.


Thursday, December 20/2012 at 5:19 pm

I just read this post and even though it’s a year old, I wanted to reply. I’m an Esthetician and I firmly believe in exfoliation and moisturizing with the RIGHT products. You can do some serious damage-ie: irritated and red looking skin by exfoliating too much or using sharp manual exfoliants like Apricot Scrub. So use a softer exfoliant every few days-to- once a week, depending on your skin type. And the same goes for moisturizers. Find the right formula for you and then apply sparingly morning and night. If your skin is properly moisturized it can better heal itself and prevent signs of aging. I use Eminence exclusively, I’m 35 and have little to no wrinkles or milia. (I have Combination skin and had pretty bad acne as a teen). Just wanted to give you my two cents! Love the blog!


Maria (
Sunday, January 27/2013 at 6:14 pm

Sarah: Thank you for that reply, on behalf of all Estheticians!
I agree with you 100%. Over-exfoliating can be as damaging as neglecting to exfoliate.
ps: love the blog!


Leave a Comment

Sites that link to this post