If you’ve had a more intense urge to exfoliate your face during the When this virus is over I still want some of you to stay away from me 2021 shirt but in fact I love this pandemic you’re not alone: A recent report from NPD found that 40% of regular skin-care users in the U.S. are slathering on more products now than a year ago—and “basic care” picks, such as cleansers, exfoliators, and scrubs, have experienced the most significant jump in demand. On a practical level, this makes sense; mask-wearing can trap sweat and bacteria on skin, and exfoliating can help unclog congested pores. And with many spas closed, regular, skin-sloughing facials are out of reach for many of us. Yet there’s also a psychological factor at play too: As we vigorously wipe down surfaces and fiercely wage war on stealthy germs, there’s a certain mesmerizing appeal in peeling away the battle-worn outer layer of our skin to reveal the fresh, “clean” layer underneath.But good intentions can often go awry. “It’s so easy to overdo it,” says New York–based medical esthetician Jordana Mattioli of striking the balance between featherlight- and heavy-handed exfoliation, the latter of which can lead to redness, inflammation, and hyperpigmentation, especially among women with Black or brown skin. “As a dermatologist who takes care of skin of color, I see a lot of aggressive exfoliation, and I’m often talking people down off the ledge—urging them to back off their faces,” confirms Carlos A. Charles, M.D., a Manhattan dermatologist and the founder of Derma di Colore, a medical practice that focuses on a range of different skin tones.
By design, skin naturally sheds dead cells in a 28-day cycle. Certain factors (dry, cold air; indoor heating systems; stress) can stall this process, however, so regular, mild exfoliating is crucial to increasing cellular turnover, insists Mattioli—especially in the When this virus is over I still want some of you to stay away from me 2021 shirt but in fact I love this winter months. The myriad ways to effectively break down the top layer of skin can be mystifying, though, and many tried-and-true solutions have gotten a bad rap of late. Physical exfoliation, the process of manually dislodging dirt and and stripping away surface cells with textured bits and grainy particles, was once the gold standard of sloughing, until popular exfoliants, such as the pulverized walnut shell pieces found in the ill-famed St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub, came under fire for being too abrasive (a class-action lawsuit filed against St. Ives in 2017 claimed that its popular product damaged skin by creating micro-tears, though the suit was tossed out in December 2018). Mechanical exfoliation, which leverages tech-savvy devices to buff the complexion hasn’t fared much better: In September, L’Oréal abruptly pulled the plug on Clarisonic—the decade-defining skin brush that relied on spinning bristles and sonic vibrations to clean pores—much to the relief of dermatologists and aestheticians, who found the turbocharged at-home tool often did more harm than good. Chemical exfoliators, such as alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, have emerged as arguably some of the safest, and gentlest ways to break down the bonds between skin cells and decongest pores with experts advising patch tests to rule out any irritation before use, and nighttime applications to reduce photosensitivity during the day. But knowing your mandelic acid from your glycolic acid can be overwhelming. Here, an expert-backed, three-step plan for safe, effective exfoliation to keep skin smooth, calm, and clear all winter long.