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How to Exfoliate the Face: Best Tips From a Dermatologist

March 11, 2021

Exfoliation, or the removal of dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin, is an important and necessary part of any skincare routine. However, if the word ‘exfoliation’ conjures up the action of scrubbing your face with harsh granules, you may be doing more harm to your skin than good. So what is the right exfoliation technique for your skin? In this article we will give you tips on how to exfoliate the face, including excerpts from Skincare Bible: Dermatologist’s Tips for Cosmeceutical Skincare by Dr. Teo Wan Lin, dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre.

Types of exfoliation

Exfoliation can happen in two forms: physical and chemical.

Physical exfoliation: Physical exfoliation relies on the rubbing of granules, particles or materials (cloths, sponges) over the face to remove dead skin cells by gentle mechanical force.

Do not use physical tools to exfoliate the face.

While this kind of exfoliation can leave you feeling refreshed, the technique can be too harsh for the skin, especially for individuals with acne-prone or sensitive skin. Physical exfoliation may even weaken the skin’s barrier function and leave your skin red or irritated.

This is a no-no for those with active acne, rosacea and eczema.

Chemical exfoliation: Chemical exfoliation relies on fruit enzymes and gentle acids to slough off dead skin. This mechanism is much more controlled, gentler than physical exfoliation and suitable for acne-prone and sensitive skin types (lactic acids, polyhydroxy acids, salicylic acids).

Chemical peels

Chemical peels should be performed at a dermatologist’s office under medical supervision. The active ingredient used is much more concentrated and effective, and hence has the potential to cause severe skin irritation. These peels have to be washed off right after the procedure, and otherwise have the potential to cause severe chemical burns. When used appropriately, chemical peels are a safe and effective way to remove dead skin cells and increase collagen production, inhibit pigmentation, reduce active seborrhoea and have an anti-ageing effect overall. With regular use, these treatments exfoliate the face and improve fine lines, wrinkles, skin discolouration and texture.

Exfoliate the skin: chemical peel

Glycolic, lactic or salicylic acid is commonly used. An accredited dermatologist is best able to identify the type of peel for your skin. Some

Individuals with active eczema or rosacea will not be suitable for chemical peels, hence it is important to get diagnosed and treated.

Types of exfoliating acids

The two most well-known type of exfoliating acids is alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA).

AHAs: Alpha hydroxy acids work by causing skin cells to detach from the outermost layer of skin, making them easier to slough off. Once the dead skin cells are removed, new cells can rise to the surface.

Common AHAs used as chemical exfoliants are lactic, glycolic and mandelic acid.

Glycolic acid: Glycolic acid is the strongest AHA as it has the smallest AHA molecule. As such, it is able to penetrate deeper into the skin and can exfoliate the face at lower concentrations compared to other acids. However, if you are just beginning to try out chemical exfoliants, a different acid should be considered

Lactic acid: Apart from exfoliating, lactic acid also moisturises. Individuals with dry skin can consider lactic acid for this dual function.

Mandelic acid: With a larger molecular structure, mandelic acid is not able to penetrate deeply into the skin. This makes it a gentle AHA and safe to use, especially for people with sensitive skin.

BHAs: Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) differ from other AHAs as they are oil-soluble. This property allows them to penetrate deeper into our skin and pores.

BHAs exfoliate the face by softening the outermost layer of skin cells and dissolving unwanted skin debris. They also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, making them ideal for individuals with oily and acne-prone skin.

How to exfoliate the face: home-use chemical exfoliation

Online vendors are often providing home chemical peel kits which I would never recommend for the above reasons. Many doctor skincare products contain low doses of glycolic acids (AHAs) and lactic/salicylic acids but I have intentionally omitted these in my cosmeceutical formulations.

In my clinical practice, I have observed that the use of such clinical formulations over a period of time is one of the biggest risk factors do developing skin sensitivity, which really is a form of eczema known as irritant contact dermatitis. I would recommend using active ingredients such as a stabilised, pH neutral form of vitamin C (sodium ascorbyl phosphate as opposed to the acidic L-ascorbic acid) hyaluronic acid, phyto-antioxidant plant extracts such as Brassica oleracea (Larecea™) which have been proven to have robust anti-oxidant, UV-protective abilities without the risk of irritation.

The best at-home chemical peel equivalent

The effects of the SilkPeel Home Facial Peel System are that of microdermabrasion which has a similar effect to microscopic skin exfoliation. This is achieved in a clinical setting with chemical peel acids such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid. These, however, are legally used only by trained medical personnel, and should not be supplied to home users. This silk peel provides an at home chemical peel system that is both safe and effective. It has the additional benefit of delivering bioactive cosmeceuticals to the skin, with the use of the Amino Acid Masque for example.


The key feature of our SilkPeel is the CUIONS microcrystalline head. The microcrystalline head effectively performs gentle microdermabrasion when used together with the Amino Acid Masque. This is a home-equivalent to in-clinic diamond microdermabrasion — the home facial kit version designed to be much less irritating to the skin while performing the function of microdermabrasion. We have engineered the copper ion head specifically to have a less abrasive structure than the traditional diamond heads, while retaining the microdermabrasion feature to gently exfoliate dead skin cells. It is suitable for sensitive skin, and can be done safely at home without medical supervision.

Benefits of exfoliation

We shed dead skin cells naturally as new skin cells slowly travel up from the deepest skin layers to the surface. On average, this process takes about 27 days.  As we age, this cell turnover process slows down.

When we exfoliate the face, we remove the build-up of dead skin cells. Regular exfoliation can reveal younger, brighter skin with an even tone.


The benefits of chemical exfoliation may make it tempting to use AHAs and BHAs often. However, too much exfoliation can disrupt your skin barrier and cause the skin to become red and inflamed.

Discuss with your dermatologist how often you should get chemical peels.

Are you looking to exfoliate the face with a chemical peel procedure? TWL Specialist Skin and Laser Centre offers in-clinic photorejuvenation chemical peel procedures. Click button on bottom left to schedule an appointment with us.

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