What Is an Exfoliant?

Jillian O Keeffe

An exfoliant is a substance that removes the top layer of skin cells from the skin. It may be a physical substance that rubs off the skin cells, a chemical substance that destroys the layer of cells, or even a laser. Many different exfoliant types are available for the cosmetic market, ranging from cheap to expensive, and exfoliants may even be made from household substances like oatmeal. After an exfoliation treatment, the skin may appear smoother and look clearer, after the top layer of skin cells have been removed.

Sugar is a natural exfoliant that is used in many body scrubs.
Sugar is a natural exfoliant that is used in many body scrubs.

Skin grows in such a way that the outer layer is dead cells; new cells are constantly growing from underneath. The outside of skin is a protective layer that has to withstand normal environmental stresses such as wind, water and touch. When the skin cells get to the outside, they are dead and they fall off over time, but not all at once, which may leave a patchy or dull appearance on the skin. An exfoliant simply lifts this dead layer of cells off before it would otherwise have fallen off naturally.

Exfoliating cream can be used to wash away dead skin on the face and reveal brighter, younger-looking skin.
Exfoliating cream can be used to wash away dead skin on the face and reveal brighter, younger-looking skin.

Physical exfoliants are gritty substances, which when rubbed gently over the face scratch the old skin cells off. They can also remove dirt and makeup on the skin. Small particles tend to be less irritating to the skin than larger particles, and may be more suitable for sensitive skin types.

Exfoliant treatment can make a skin appear smoother and clearer.
Exfoliant treatment can make a skin appear smoother and clearer.

Many different types of commercial exfoliant are on the market, containing such particles as clay or powdered seeds. Homemade exfoliants are also an option, with powdered oatmeal one such ingredient. Beauty salons may offer microdermabrasion, which is an exfoliating treatment using gritty substances, but under the control of a machine rather than hand rubbed.

Laser ablation treatments are very effective at exfoliating skin, but require several weeks of recovery.
Laser ablation treatments are very effective at exfoliating skin, but require several weeks of recovery.

Acid peels are another type of exfoliating treatment, and these are available in beauty salons or clinics. These techniques burn off the top layer of skin cells which then fall off as skin flakes. Lasers can also destroy the dead layer of cells, leaving behind newer skin than before. These types of treatment tend to be more expensive than the physical treatments, but may produce more visible results.

Moderate exfoliation can help promote the growth of new skin.
Moderate exfoliation can help promote the growth of new skin.

After an exfoliation treatment, skin tends to feel drier, because the natural oils are rubbed off along with the skin. Typically, moisturizer is the next step of a beauty regime after the skin is washed clean. Too much exfoliation, such as daily use of an exfoliant designed to be used weekly, can cause skin irritation, redness and dryness.

Acid peels are a type of exfoliating treatment that is often available at beauty salons.
Acid peels are a type of exfoliating treatment that is often available at beauty salons.
Moisturizing cream may be applied to prevent dryness following a skin exfoliation procedure.
Moisturizing cream may be applied to prevent dryness following a skin exfoliation procedure.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


My skin is tough, so it can handle exfoliants with large particles. I use an exfoliating body scrub with bits of almond in it, and the rough pieces are the best thing for scraping off dead skin.

I wet my face first. Then, I put a bit of the scrub on my forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin. I rub it in with my fingers slowly and deliberately.

I rinse it off and wipe off the residue with a wet cloth. I usually do this right before I shower, so I can easily rinse off any rough bits that insist on remaining behind.

I love touching my face after using the scrub. My skin feels like it did years ago every time I use it.


@Oceana - I tried using a peel like this once, but it irritated my skin badly. I felt as if I had been out in the sun all day without sunscreen.

I couldn't even wear makeup, because it hurt too much to put it on. Even splashing my face with cool water was painful.

Because of this, the only exfoliant I use is a rough washcloth. If I lather up and then rub the washcloth in circles across my skin, I can tell a difference in the texture of my face. It gets rid of rough spots.

I was a bit surprised that my skin reacted the way it did to the chemical peel pads. I can use perfumed soap with no problem, and I've never had a bad reaction to any skin product before.


My favorite type of exfoliant is ribbed cotton pads that have been soaked with a type of gentle chemical peel. These pads come in a jar with a tightly sealed lid, and they sit on top of each other to help them retain moisture.

I use one pad every other week, because my skin is pretty dry. After washing my face with a gentle cleanser, I rub the pad over my skin. It's like I can feel the dead skin curling up and surrendering.

After I use it, my skin feels so soft and smooth. To me, it's just as good as any type of peel you could get in a professional's office. I'm sure it's far less expensive, too.


My dermatologist used a series of chemical peels to treat my acne. I had a severe case at age 26, and it wasn't going away with over-the-counter medicine.

Each time I went to see him, he had a nurse rub some sort of acid over my face with a cotton pad. I could feel burning and tingling instantly, and I knew that it was working.

My skin dried out a lot after the peels, so I had to keep it well moisturized. I also avoided using makeup after this exfoliation. My new skin that had been freshly revealed was really sensitive to any kind of product, so all I put on it was moisturizer formulated for sensitive skin.


Once every 6 months or so I treat myself to a microdermabrasion treatment. I can tell when I am ready for one as my skin looks and feels flat and dry.

What a difference after one of these treatments. My face looks and feels younger and smoother.

In between treatments I use exfoliating products, but nothing seems to work as well as one of these treatments. The microdermabrasion is able to go a lot deeper and give lasting results.

Moisturizer is also key to keeping your skin soft and smooth. I get in the habit of using a good moisturizer on my skin every day, but nothing feels as good as getting all those dead skin cells off.


I use an exfoliating cleansing pad on my face everyday when I wash my face. These only have a mild abrasion, but really help keep my face feeling clean.

I notice if I just use a washcloth, after awhile it's like I can feel the dead skin on my face. When I regularly use an exfoliating pad, my face stays much smoother.

I keep these pads clean and recycle them by throwing them in the washer with my towels. It is important to keep them clean and sanitized. After a few washings, they are kind of shot, so then I throw it away and start with a new one.

Once a week I also use an exfoliating mask on my face. I don't live close to a Lush store, but whenever I get the chance, I like to buy their exfoliating facial masks. I especially like the ones that have oatmeal and honey in them.

Oatmeal is something that is mild, yet does a good job of exfoliating my skin. I put this on when I get in the shower, and rinse it off right before I get out.


@Sara007 - For your face you might want to make your own exfoliant. What I do is put some sugar, almond oil, lemon juice, and lemon essential oil into a container and make a paste out of it. Once I have the paste I apply it to my face, and using my fingertips gently scrub my skin. You shouldn't have any allergic reaction to this as it is totally natural.

For your body, you may want to try buying an all natural salt scrub. Natural sea salt is one of the best exfoliants I have found as it really makes your skin feel soft. Oatmeal is another thing you can try.

As far as applicators go, I prefer my hands or a natural sponge. Just remember if you go the sponge route to change it often.


Can anyone recommend a really good exfoliant if you have sensitive skin?

I can't use anything that is heavily perfumed and have found that some of the popular brand name body scrubs have actually given me itchy skin. So, I think trying something natural might be best.

Also, if you are looking for a applicator, is it best to use your hands, a washcloth, loufa or natural sponge?

I really want to get my skin so that it looks healthy and glowing but it seems like an uphill battle. Right now I know my skin is a bit parched, and definitely too dry looking for my liking.


@burcidi-- Yea, I get an acid peel done once a year and it's amazing.

I think with any professional exfoliation method, the skin does feel a bit sunburned for a couple days. Most methods require between one week to ten days of down time. I generally take off from work for that period until my face has had a chance to heal.

What happens is that the acid burns off the outer layers and these start to peel off in a couple days. When that's done, fresh skin comes through which is free of sun blemishes and hyper-pigmentation. It's fantastic, my skin looks beautiful. I think it's definitely worth the money and effort.


The only professional exfoliation I received was microdermabrasion, but I didn't have a very good experience with it. I had it done by a licensed aethetician last year. She basically used something like sandpaper and removed the outermost layer of my skin. It was a very uncomfortable feeling and hurt a little bit for the next day.

I did see new even skin come out but also had some acne appear. I think my skin is too sensitive for microdermabrasion. I heard that when exfoliants are used too much on the skin, it causes a release of sebum by the oil pores on our face, hence the acne.

I don't think it has the same effect on everyone, but it's a pretty serious method. I think it could even permanently damage the skin if it isn't done right. I think natural exfoliants and home remedies are a much better option.


I use a river rock as an exfoliant. It is only a little bit coarse and I run it across my skin in the shower to scrub off the dead skin.

I actually did find it next to a river. It is just the right size and it fits my hand really well. Its great because it is a lot cheaper than those exfoliating scrubs and it has a cool natural feel. I imagine that one day I will have worn it down smooth and then I will be able to say that my skin wore down a stone.


You know I actually don't use any soap at all on my body. I just use really hot water and a coarse wash cloth that acts as an exfoliant.

I have been doing this for about three years now and my skin has never looked better. It is smooth, even toned, not oily and I never smell. I know it sounds counter intuitive, but If you just give your body a good scrub down every night you will be cleaner than you've ever been before.


I use an exfoliating cleanser daily, not just because I want to remove the dead skin but also to clean out my pores.

I have very oily skin and the oil clogs my pores and causes blackheads and whiteheads. I'm not able to clean my pores if I don't use an exfoliating cleanser because the exfoliant removes the dead skin and helps open up the pores and then washes the oil out.

The cleanser I use for this is suitable for everyday use so it is not very strong. I have to use it twice a day for it to work. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to go to a professional and have a chemical peel done.

Has anyone tried chemical peels before, would you recommend it for exfoliation?

Post your comments
Forgot password?