Complete Guide to Cleansing and Exfoliating Your Face

The right daily skin care routine will leave your skin healthier, softer, smoother, and brighter. But with so much information out there about cleansing and exfoliating your face, it can be difficult to discern which advice you should follow, and which advice you should skip. We've got you covered.

What is exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the top layer of your skin. And while it can have benefits, it's not right for every skin type. It can also be damaging if not done properly.

As confirmed by the American Academy of Dermatology, there are two main types of at-home exfoliation: chemical and mechanical. Chemical exfoliation is achieved through products like alpha and beta hydroxy acids, which gently dissolve dead skin cells. Mechanical exfoliation is a more intensive method that is achieved through tools like sponges and brushes. We almost never recommend mechanical exfoliation, so for this article, we'll be focusing on chemical methods.

Cleansing and exfoliating your face safely at home

Is it necessary to exfoliate your face?

It's true that your skin automatically sheds dead skin cells on its own; however, some exfoliating helps remove them from the surface. If you never exfoliate, you run the risk of having clogged pores and dull skin. Because the dead skin cells trap oil in the skin beneath them, it may also bring on or worsen breakouts.

It's also important to know when you shouldn't exfoliate. If you have sunburn, a skin irritant, or an open wound, skip the exfoliants until you've healed. You also should skip exfoliation if you struggle with rosacea.

Which exfoliation method is right for your skin type?

This is what we recommend for exfoliation based on your skin type and specific skin care concerns:

  • For dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin: For these skin types, daily exfoliation isn't necessary. You should be choosy about the cleansing and exfoliating products you're using, ensuring that they're appropriate for your skin type.
  • For oily skin: For those with oily skin, exfoliation can be done up to 4-5 times per week (after working your way up to it to be sure) to help remove excess oil and sebum from your skin and help prevent clogged or congested pores.

Guide to cleansing and exfoliating your face

How often should you be cleansing and exfoliating your face?

We recommend that patients cleanse their face twice daily: once in the morning, and once in the evening. (You can see our tips for our step-by-step morning and nighttime routines here, too.) It's always the first step in an effective daily skin care routine.

Exfoliating, however, is not something we would recommend doing daily. Depending on your skin type, the most we would suggest is once every 4-5 days after working up to it. Here's what we suggest by skin type:

  • Dry or sensitive skin
    • Try cleansing twice per day as recommended with a gentle cleanser. If you feel this is irritating your skin or causing additional dryness, try once per day in the nighttime, rinsing with water instead of cleansing in the morning.
    • Depending on the severity of your dryness, you should try introducing an exfoliator once per week, or once every two weeks. Look for products that are safe for sensitive skin.
  • Normal skin
    • Cleanse twice per day, morning and night. It isn't necessary to have active ingredients in your cleanser, so if you're looking for an area of your skin care routine where it's safe to save money and opt for a drugstore brand, this is the right product to swap out for you.
    • Incorporate exfoliating 2-3 times per week..
  • Oily or acne-prone skin
    • It can be tempting to overcleanse when you have oily or acne-prone skin, but we encourage you to resist. It's not necessary to cleanse more than twice per day, and it may actually dry your skin out if you do. When that happens, your skin's sebum production goes into overdrive to ensure you have enough oil to keep skin hydrated, which may in turn worsen your condition. We recommend trying the double cleansing method, or products with hydroxy acids. Depending on the severity of your condition, you might benefit from seeing a dermatology provider and having a medicated cleanser prescribed. (Unsure? You can always send us a message before you place an order to speak with Laura personally.)
    • Exfoliating 2-3 times per week is still a safe starting point for your skin. You may be able to increase the frequency up to 4-5 times per week if your skin tolerates it well.

 Aesthetic photo of woman with good skin | How to guide for cleansing and exfoliating your skin

What is the right way to cleanse your face?

When cleansing and exfoliating your face, it's important to be gentle, as rough scrubbing motions could cause skin trauma and irritation. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a gentle, non-abrasive cleanser without alcohol. Wet your skin, then use your fingertips to apply the cleanser. Rinse with lukewarm water, then pat it dry with a soft towel.

Is the double cleansing method effective?

An option that's picked up in popularity recently is the double cleansing method. Though it might sound like it means simply washing your face twice, the key to success here is in the products you use. First, you'll need to use an oil-based cleanser, then you'll follow it up with a water-based cleanser.

Oil attracts oil. This is why you lead with an oil-based cleanser. According to Cleveland Clinic, it helps break down makeup, remove sebum, and rid your skin of oil and oil-based impurities. Water-based cleansers come next, which remove water-soluble impurities like sweat and dirt.

We don't recommend double cleansing for everyone. Unless you're removing full makeup coverage or have oily skin, it probably isn't necessary. If it doesn't apply to your specific skin conditions, we as dermatology providers would be more concerned about you overwashing your face than not washing it twice.

What is the right way to exfoliate your face?

If you're using a chemical method, or skin care product, for exfoliating, the AAD recommends using small, circular motions to apply it for 30 seconds. Be gentle- it doesn't take much friction to remove the skin cells, and you don't want to harm your skin's barrier.

It's especially important to follow up your routine with a moisturizer when you exfoliate. After cleansing and exfoliating your skin, it will also be more prone to dryness than usual, but your serums, treatments, and moisturizer will all work more effectively.

Should I cleanse first or exfoliate first?

You should cleanse your face before exfoliating. This removes impurities like sweat, makeup, and oils first, leaving you with a clean base that makes sure your exfoliating is focused on its real purpose: clearing away the dead skin cells from the top layer of skin.

Best cleasers by skin type | Complete Guide to Cleansing & Exfoliating Your Face

What are the best products for cleansing and exfoliating your face by skin type?

Our mission is to pare back the labyrinth of skin care products to only those that are using essential ingredients for visible impact. We do that by reviewing and vetting them based on clinical trial and study data, approving only those that meet our high standard of excellence. So if you're looking for the very best cleansing and exfoliating products for your specific challenge, this is a great place to start.


Best for Dry, Sensitive Skin

AV Tolerance Extremely Gentle Cleanser
This multiple award-winning product is a great choice for those with dry, sensitive skin. In 2022, Women's Health named it the Best Cleanser for Dry Skin, and Harper's Bazaar awarded it the Best Cleanser for Sensitive Skin. It's for good reason: it's a no-rinse, wipe-off cleanser that removes make-up, dirt and oil while restoring the skin's barrier. It also uses an innovative postbiotic named D-Sensinose, which helps immediately calm skin discomfort.

Best for Oily Skin

Best cleanser for oily skin | Complete Guide to Cleansing and Exfoliating Your Face

ISDINCEUTICS Essential Cleansing
This is a gentle (but powerful) cleansing oil with an oil-to-milk texture. It's a deep-cleansing emulsion that melts away stubborn makeup, sunscreen, and unwanted oils — leaving nothing behind but soft, glowing skin. Like we mentioned before, oils attract other oils. This is what makes this product ideal for oily skin- or as the first step in the double cleansing method.


Best for All Skin Types

Best cleansers for dry, sensitive skin | Complete Guide to Cleansing & Exfoliating Your Face

Revision Skincare Gentle Foaming Cleanser
This cleanser is one of our favorites for all skin types. (So, if you're not quite sure which type best represents your skin, we recommend starting here.) It's a soothing, soap-free foam cleanser that gently and effectively cleanses skin with a rich, velvety foam- while also calming and moisturizing your skin. It contains Chamomile, Aloe Vera, and Allantoin, all key ingredients with soothing, calming properties.



This fan favorite product always get rave reviews for the visible results it produces. It's gentle enough for daily use, though if you have sensitive skin, we recommend testing it once every 2-3 days and working up from there. It's a great option for anyone struggling with rough, bumpy, or dull skin, or those with hyperpigmentation issues. 
Best chemical exfoliators | Complete Guide to Cleansing and Exfoliating Your FaceRevision Skincare Brightening Facial Wash
This is an ultra rich cleanser with exfoliating ingredients, including Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids. It also includes brightening botanicals that remove the day's impurities and dead surface cells, leaving skin clean, hydrated and smooth. It's great for people with oily, combination, and mature skin types, but we don't suggest it for people with dry, sensitive skin.
Best chemical exfoliators | Complete Guide to Cleansing and Exfoliating Your FaceRevision Skincare Papaya Enzyme Cleanser
Revision's Papaya Enzyme Cleanser gently dissolves dull, dead skin cells revealing a brighter, smoother complexion with the ingredient Papain. It gets rid of buildup and congestion on your skin and pores while soothing and nourishing, making it a good gentle alternative for people with all skin types.



Unsure? Get one-on-one advice from a professional dermatology provider.

Laura Beacham, Founder of Shopderm

We're not just another retailer, we're your partner in healthy, effective skin care. We're led by Laura Beacham, MMSC, PA-C, who completed the top-ranked Emory University School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program in 2015, earning her Masters degree in Medical Science. She's currently applying that background as a dedicated Physician Assistant at Dermatology Associates of Georgia, but when she isn't there, she's conducting thorough research and sifting through clinical trials data to curate products that really work, and that are really worth your investment. She wants to make skin care accessible, so if you have any questions about what's appropriate for you, you can reach out to her directly using out contact page.

Back to blog