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How To Cure Your Acne With Exfoliation

By Megan Griffith

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Jaggi Rao,
MD, FRCPC Double board-certified dermatologist

Did you know that acne is classified as a skin disease? That’s right, your struggle has been validated! Those horrific breakouts you are forced to battle every now are not ‘just zits’, as your clear-skinned friends like to call them. Indeed, acne is an incredibly widespread skin condition1, but it is also infuriating and unpredictable, and we feel your pain.

Exfoliation helps get rid of acne by clearing out dead skin cells. But over-exfoliation gets rid of all those healthy skin cells, which protect your skin’s natural barrier.

Acne can appear on any part of your body and it can affect your skin, your mood, your self-confidence and even your image of yourself. Why do you get it? Most simply put, it is because of excessive oil which becomes trapped in your pores2. This causes germs to begin developing on location, and a pimple grows out of it. The logical remedy? Exfoliation.

What Is Exfoliation?

Exfoliation serves to scrape off the skin cells that you no longer need3, which gather around the surface of your skin. If acne has been your long-term enemy, then you probably already know what we are referring to. Still, keep reading so as to get the full picture of how exfoliation can help you clear up your acne.

Why should you exfoliate? The procedure can provide you with a more even complexion after just a few treatments. Ready to enjoy a smoother face? Time to choose your exfoliation type.

Exfoliation can be either physical or chemical. You do have to choose between one or the other. For instance, if you are using products like alpha-hydroxy-acid and citric acid, then you should not be additionally scrubbing your skin with any kind of sponge, etc.

The chemical kind of exfoliation refers to applying chemical substances to your skin in order to rid it off excess skin. Components like glycolic acid can be used to peel the redundant skin off of you. Remember that if you are opting for the chemical kind, it does require more research and preparation, as well as a potential informative visit to a dermatologist/exfoliation specialist.

The physical kind is likely a method that you have already been engaging in for a while. It is the literal removal of the unneeded, top layer of your epidermis. It can be performed using various kinds of rough surfaces, such as loofahs, a cloth or salt and sugar grains. Still, remember to research whether or not you can use a certain product’s texture for exfoliation, as abrasive agents like apricot cores can hurt you more than help you. You could also choose to have a microdermabrasion procedure4, which you can either do at home or with the help of a professional.

How Does Chemical Exfoliation Work?

As you are likely well-acquainted with the more simple, more easily available physical exfoliation, we will not elaborate on the chemical kind of dead skin cell removal. The idea behind chemical exfoliation is that it literally relaxes your skin cells’ bonds which keep them together. This is done by enzymes and acids which react with your complexion’s surface.

Some chemical agents that can do this for you include chemical peels (AHA/BHA peels, trichloroacetic acid, phenol, carbolic), Alpha hydroxy acids like lactic, glycolic and tartaric acid, Beta hydroxy acids like the infamous salicylic acid, as well as various medical remedies like Accutane (isotretinoin), Tazorac, Differin and Retin-A. The last three contain tazarotene, adapalene and tretinoin, respectively, which can easily help you overcome your acne5.

You should know that the listed cures vary between milder and stronger ones. Most of them can be found at regular drugstores. Some of them can be used every day, while others should only be employed every few days. You might be able to find the stronger kinds at designated salons which offer cosmetic procedures.

General Practical Advice

This leads to the question of how hard you should be pressing into your skin when exfoliating. As a general rule, you should never press so hard that you feel actual pain. If you are experiencing any kind of skin condition, you should probably be pressing very lightly. This means that you should be rubbing your skin gently6 and should not be doing it too frequently, either. The best advice is to observe the way your skin is reacting to the process, and act accordingly. In fact, if you are experiencing severe acne, you should probably not be physically exfoliating the affected area, at all. That could lead to further unpleasant effects like the reddening of your complexion, further sebum production or even just the all-round aggravation of your acne.

If you are opting for the chemical variant, make sure that the chemicals you are using are mild enough for your acne. Whenever you have to dry your skin after showering, always pat it dry instead of additionally scrubbing it. If you use any kind of additional ointments, make sure to read the instructions, in the case that they might react badly with recently exfoliated skin. Do hydrate yourself regularly. This is because the oils you have scrubbed off during exfoliation will only be re-manufactures by your sebaceous glands if your complexion is not sufficiently moisturized. Use an oil-free, non-comedogenic, lotion that is specifically designed for your skin type and for the body part onto which you are lathering it.

What kind of exfoliating agent should you choose? Opt for a well-reviewed scrub, a product you can peel off, or, if you are feeling unsure about only using a cream, go for a microdermabrasion procedure. Do not hesitate to ask your doctor or dermatologist for extensive guidelines7 in regards to exfoliating your acne-ridden skin. It is better to be safe than sorry, and you really don’t want your condition to worsen just because you scrubbed too hard or because you chose an unsuitable chemical procedure. If you experience any sort of additional inflammation after a specific treatment, immediately contact a specialist for help. Otherwise, enjoy exfoliating your way to healthier skin!


  1. Ayer J., Burrows N. Acne: more than skin deep. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 2006;82(970):500–506.
  2. Sparavigna A., Tenconi B., De Ponti I., La Penna L. An innovative approach to the topical treatment of acne. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. 2015;8:179–185.
  3. Grajqevci-Kotori M., Kocinaj A. Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Contact Dermatitis (Journal). Medical Archives. 2015;69(6):414–416.
  4. Lloyd, J.R. The use of microdermabrasion for acne: a pilot study. Dermatologic Surgery (Journal). 2001;27(4):329-31.
  5. Leyden J, Stein-Gold L, Weiss J. Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and Therapy. 2017;7(3):293-304.
  6. Skin care for acne-prone skin. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). 2013.
  7. American Academy of Dermatology. Evaluate before you exfoliate. AAD Website. Accessed 2019.
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