How To Exfoliate Your Way To Radiant Skin In 8 Steps

Polish like a pro

The secret to radiant skin is a regimen with just the right balance of skin-renewing ingredients. Here’s how to get the glow with marie claire‘s encyclopedia of texture-smoothing and pigmentation-fighting exfoliators, derm know-how and the skin envy-inducing solutions to match.

Break the Rules

We all cleanse and then exfoliate, but according to Beverly Hills-based dermatologist Harold Lancer, simply reversing these steps can help transform your complexion. “Exfoliating before cleansing allows for a deeper cleanse, more efficient delivery of active ingredients, and more robust cell renewal,” he says. Give it a try.

Get Informed

To find a formula that works for you, it helps to understand your options: “Mechanical polishers are scrubs with tiny grains or crystals that rub off dead skin cells, while chemical ones are made of enzyme-based ingredients from plants like papaya and pineapple that dissolve dead cells,” says Lancer, who believes a combination of both delivers the best results.

Lancer The Polish Method

TRY: LANCER The Method: Polish, $129;

This scrub sloughs off texture and excess sebum, allowing fruit enzymes to get to work deep into skin for a deeper clean and exfoliation on oil-prone skin. 


TRY: SISLEY Gentle Facial Buffing Cream, $120;

For sensitive complexions, Sisley’s paste uses micro-fine bamboo particles to perform gommage (a French technique which gently ‘erases’ imperfections) whilst calming inflammation with chamomile.

Neutrogena Bright Boost

TRY: NEUTROGENA Bright Boost Resurfacing Micro Polish, $19.99;

Add extra pep to your summer skin routine with this mandelic acid-infused physical exfolaitor, which helps brighten sun-induced pigmentation like melasma.

Drop Acid

Another big player: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), including glycolic, lactic and citric, which work just like enzymes, dissolving the bonds between skin cells so they come away at the same time (a process that is invisible to the naked eye). And while it may sound counterintuitive, formulas with AHAs and enzymes are often best-suited to sensitive complexions that can be irritated by granular formulas.

Murad Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum

TRY: MURAD Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum, $130;

This serum works double time to prevent and correct pigmentation with glycolic acid and vitamin C to get you to your most brilliant, crystal-clear skin yet.

Be Vigilant

We’re all guilty of reaching for a scrub when dullness strikes. A better plan: consider exfoliating to be as crucial as cleansing. The benefits will go beyond the immediate glow you see in the mirror. “Exfoliating … changes the physiology of your skin to make it act younger,” says Lancer. “The restoration of the skin’s radiance is a sign of the work going on below the surface to support cell renewal and to increase collagen production in the dermis.”

NEOSTRATE Facial Cleanser

TRY: NEOSTRATA Restore PHA Facial Cleanser, $54.99;

Pressed for time? Start your routine off right with this exfoliating cleanser, which washes away debris, spf, makeup and dry, lacklustre skin with PHAs (the ultra-gentle little sister to AHAs and BHAs). 

Peel Away

There was a time when at-home peels left skin flaking, but new formulations bring the glow without visible shedding. Prevage’s latest treatment combines AHAs with polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), which are larger acid molecules that are less irritating. “Over the course of a month, a weekly peel gradually and gently conditions skin for optimal resurfacing, with increasingly higher concentrations of acids,” says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, noting that potent antioxidant idebenone helps protect new skin cells from environmental aggressors too.

Elizabeth Arden Prevage

TRY: ELIZABETH ARDEN Prevage Progressive Renewal Treatment, $205;

This progressive peel raises fine lines and refines skin’s texture for a smooth canvas, without downtime or compromising skin. 

All The Feels

One thing that can scare people away from stronger actives is the way certain ingredients, like AHAs, make skin tingle or even sting a little when they’re applied. “This is actually a sign the ingredient is working,” says Barbara Green, head of research and development at NeoStrata. “In fact, I have come to love that feeling because I know the ingredient is absorbing. But if you don’t feel anything don’t worry – you’re just in that lucky group of people who don’t tingle.”

Dermalogica Clear Start Flash Foliant

TRY: DERMALOGICA Clear Start FlashFoliant, $41;

Get on top of trouble spots at the ground level with this foamy saliyclic acid leave-on treatment, which clears out pores and minimises post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Deep Dive

In the doctor’s office, a Fraxel laser treatment (which can take several days to recover from) deeply resurfaces skin, stimulating collagen production and cell turnover. “The treatment makes the complexion look significantly smoother and brighter,” says Lisa Pateman, a dermal nurse at Artisan Aesthetic Clinics. An option with no down-time: microdermabrasion. “We have a machine that uses micro-crystals to remove dead or damaged cells in the outer layer of the skin,” says Lancer. “The process minimises fine lines and hyperpigmentation over time.”

Easy Does It

While exfoliating is a crucial step in radiant skin, every single step in your regimen can help accelerate cell renewal, even skin-tone and improve moisture retention. Classic exfoliating ingredients (such as AHAs and enzymes) are now showing up in everything from skin-brightening toners to day creams and anti-ageing serums that promise to reveal more radiant skin. The only catch: you need to make sure the ingredients in your regimen play nicely. It’s easy to add a product without realising you’re doubling down on active ingredients. In fact, it may take several days before your skin starts to show signs that it’s overwhelmed. To avoid irritation, start slow (once or twice a week) and build up to the maximum usage recommended on the label.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of marie claire.

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