Ask A Dermatologist: How Often Should I Exfoliate If I Have Oily Skin?

Learn the ins and outs of exfoliating oily skin.
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Expert-approved

This article has been reviewed by Dr. Aznaida T. Pandapatan, a board-certified dermatologist that practices both medical and cosmetic dermatology.

How often to exfoliate oily skin is a question I wish I knew the answer to sooner. I often am ashamed of how rarely I used to exfoliate my oily skin. In the past, when I didn’t know much about skincare, exfoliating once every three weeks or so seemed enough. Say what? Oily skin actually needs more frequent exfoliation than dry or sensitive skin needs. So my problem back then was that I didn’t know how often to exfoliate my oily skin and what type of exfoliant to use. But now I do, so stay tuned if you want to learn the ins and outs.

To find out exactly how often oily skin should exfoliate, we turned to board-certified dermatologist Aznaida T. Pandapatan, MD.

What exfoliation does

Skin is ever-changing and renewing, and old cells are shed from the skin’s surface every 28 days while new healthy ones take their place. But as we grow older, skin exfoliates less frequently on its own, and some other factors also hinder the process. As a consequence, it causes dead cell buildup, which in turn leads to a dull look, clogged pores, and most likely breakouts. Here is where exfoliation comes to help.

Exfoliation removes the top layer of the skin to speed up cell turnover. By exfoliating your skin, you help pores unclog and eliminate excess sebum, so fewer chances for pimples and blackheads to appear. Also, exfoliation can fade dark spots, retexturize the skin, diminish fine lines, and increase product absorption, so what you apply after will provide more benefits.

So exfoliation is non-negotiable and everyone should do it regularly. However, you definitely don’t want to overdo it as it can lead to the opposite effect. Over-exfoliation can dry out the skin and trigger the sebaceous glands to secrete more oil in an attempt to replenish the moisture loss. It can also impair the epidermal barrier and leave skin vulnerable, red, irritated, and itchy. That said, finding the right frequency to exfoliate oily skin is pivotal to getting the most out of the process.

How often you should exfoliate oily skin

Dr. Aznaida T. Pandapatan recommends people with oily skin to exfoliate up to three times per week. Howerver, how often you should exfoliate your skin hardly depends on the type of exfoliation and exfoliating agent you’re using. This is important because while some exfoliants are gentle enough for twice-weekly applications, others can be harsh, and overusing them can mess up your skin barrier.

Physical exfoliation

This traditional method of exfoliation involved rubbing the skin with small granules (or brushes) to manually slough off dead cells. Physical exfoliation may be too harsh for most people, which is why is often used for the body and not for the face. “If you have active acne, physical exfoliation is absolutely not advisable,” says Dr. Aznaida. However, “for those without acne, physical exfoliation may be ok, especially for those who have resilient, non-sensitive skin,” she adds.

If you have oily skin, you can physically exfoliate two-three times a week with a gentle scrub or facial cleansing brush to remove the buildup of dead cells and prevent pore clogging. Physical exfoliation is more abrasive, so you shouldn’t want to do it more than 2-3 times per week.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants are acids that dissolve the bond between skin cells and slough the dead ones from the surface. You most likely have heard about alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). While AHAs are water-soluble and clear the cell buildup from the skin’s surface, BHAs are oil-soluble, so they penetrate the skin more in-depth to remove oil, bacteria, and dirt trapped inside pores. Most experts advise people with oily skin to use a combination of AHAs and BHAs to work in different layers of the skin. The best acids to exfoliate oily skin are salicylicglycoliclactic, and azelaic acids.

Even though chemical exfoliation is gentler than physical, it’s still recommended to start with once weekly application and increase slowly up to a maximum of three to see how your skin reacts. This also depends on the product at hand and its concentration. For instance, you can use a salicylic acid toner every day, but you can’t use The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution daily.

Enzymatic exfoliation

Enzymatic exfoliants uses fruit enzymes like papaya, pomegranate, and pineapple, to clear the skin surface of impurities and breaks down the glue that holds dead cells together. This type of exfoliation works on a much gentler level than a chemical one. If your oily skin is also sensitive and easily reactive to chemical acids, enzymatic exfoliants might be the best option for you. They are usually suitable for daily use.

The verdict

While it depends on the type of exfoliant you use, the general belief is that people with oily skin should exfoliate 2 to 3 times a week. No answer fits all, you have to observe your skin and see how it reacts to certain products. Start with one exfoliation a week, then two, and finally three a week. If your skin gets irritated reduce the frequency.


References

  1. Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. Published 2016 Dec 14. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152
  2. Endly DC, Miller RA. Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017 Aug;10(8):49-55. Epub 2017 Aug 1. PMID: 28979664; PMCID: PMC5605215.
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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