Do You Exfoliate or Cleanse First?
Do You Exfoliate or Cleanse First?
January 21, 2020 by Kate Somerville

By now you likely have heard about all of the benefits of exfoliation. How it removes impurities from the pores. The way it leaves the skin cleaner, brighter, and healthier overall. The one thing you may still be wondering is, do you exfoliate or cleanse first? While we pick cleansing first in the order of things, this skincare question has been debated by many.

The good news is that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer. You can try a cleanser first, then an exfoliating face scrub. Or, you can exfoliate then cleanse the skin. The best thing to do is what works best for your skin. There are benefits to both. Ultimately, to understand the order of skincare, you must first know why exfoliation matters in the first place and what exfoliating does to your skin.

Why Exfoliation Matters

Adding exfoliation as a step to your regular skincare routine helps to unclog pores, eliminate bacteria, and maintain the skin’s balance. The result is fewer breakouts, clearer skin, and a more radiant complexion. That’s why the decision of whether to exfoliate or cleanse first matters less than being consistent about doing both.

All areas of skincare work better together rather than on their own. Exfoliation is not necessary on a daily basis, but it’s just as important as cleaning or moisturizing the skin. Your skin is susceptible to built up sweat, oil, makeup residue, and other toxins from the air that sink into your pores. It creates a fast track to whiteheads, blackheads, and other types of breakouts. It also causes the skin to appear less vibrant and discolored in some areas.

Exfoliation removes this buildup and paves the way for new skin cells to take its place by sloughing away the dead skin. A clean, exfoliated face allows the skin to do its best work. Additionally, when you’re asleep, the body releases a human growth hormone that’s essential for collagen production [1]. In turn, collagen helps to minimize the appearance of fine lines and visibly decrease the size of your pores. By supporting your skin’s natural processes, it gives you a healthier, fresher appearance.

Benefits of Using Cleanser First

Cleaning the face before exfoliating allows you to start with a fresh slate. Exfoliation dives into the pores, more so than a mild cleanser. It’s important to remove your makeup and clean your face on a daily basis. It’s not always necessary to exfoliate with the same frequency.

The process we recommend is to apply a thin layer of the Kate Somerville ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment in the morning or evening, once or twice a week. Massage it into the face for 30 seconds and leave on the skin for up to two minutes to allow the skin to fully absorb the facial scrub’s healthy ingredients. Then, rinse and pat the face dry before moving on to toner and moisturizer.

ExfoliKate® contains lactic acid, fruit enzymes, and salicylic acid as part of its effective formula. Their role is to improve the look of the skin’s texture by helping to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores. Keep with the recommended use and you’ll see how this exfoliating treatment helps to improve your skin week by week.

Benefits of Using an Exfoliant First

Generally speaking, fewer people choose to exfoliate then cleanse, although there are benefits to reversing these skincare steps. The action of sloughing away dead skin cells, excess oil, and other impurities can take care of cleansing simultaneously. When approached in this way, mechanical exfoliation is the better choice. By using specific “tools” to remove the top layer of the skin, it promotes a smoother texture and a brighter appearance.

Use a damp washcloth or exfoliating brush to gently wipe the face by using small, circular motions. This will stimulate the skin as you brush away the top layer of the skin. Keep in mind, though, not all cleansers are made to exfoliate the skin and vice-versa. Be careful about the type of tool you use since some are more abrasive than others and can irritate or tear the skin.

Alternating Skincare Steps

A final option for those determining whether to exfoliate before or after cleansing is to use both mechanical and chemical exfoliation. After you’ve wiped away your makeup, the next step is mechanical exfoliation. Slough away the surface layer of the skin with your exfoliant tool of choice. Next use a gentle cleanser to nourish the skin and give your face a smooth foundation to follow up with a chemical exfoliant.

Chemical exfoliation relies on chemicals or enzymes to dissolve or break down clogged pores. It offers a more intensive way to tackle the stubborn impurities that cause the skin to have breakouts, appear dull, or lose its supple quality. One of the many benefits of the ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment is that it has ingredients that work both as a “chemical” and “physical” agent. Essentially, it takes care of both types of exfoliation in one.

After four weeks of use, 100% of women tested showed highly significant improvement in the appearance of skin texture, pores, crow’s feet, fine lines, and wrinkles. Adding it into the regular rotation with your other skincare steps will help maximize its benefits. You’ll notice if one method works better than the other depending on your skin type and its sensitivity.

Exfoliating Based on Skin Type

An oily skin type usually requires more exfoliation to get rid of excess oil and shine. Two to three times a week typically works well. Dry skin, however, only requires exfoliation once a week at most as to not strip the skin of its natural oils from the face. Then, for those with combination skin, a happy medium between the two is most effective.

Although exfoliating can help acne, beware of certain exfoliants or too much exfoliation, which can aggravate acne-prone skin further. With that being said, there are certain environmental circumstances that may temporarily call for a need to change the frequency. Increased sweating caused by weather conditions, fluctuating hormones, or a change to a diet may lead to more exfoliation than normal to keep pores clean. Conversely, extra dry months may cause you to rein in how often you exfoliate or prompt you to change the type of exfoliation method you decide to use. 

Regardless of when and how you decide to exfoliate, be gentle on your skin and accommodate your treatment based on how it reacts and what the situation calls for.

Beware of Over-Exfoliation

There are numerous benefits that come with exfoliating the skin, but be careful that you don’t overdo it. There is such a thing as over-exfoliation and it can create problems for your skin that may circumvent any improvements you’ve already made. It can cause just as many issues for the skin as not exfoliating at all. It’s all about maintaining a healthy balance. Going to extremes can cause redness, irritation, inflammation, and microtears, which leave your skin prone to infection. Signs you’re exfoliating too much are:

  • Your face feels tight and itchy rather than smooth and supple. It’s important that you use an exfoliant that also has nourishing and moisturizing ingredients to help condition the skin.
  • The skin is more sensitive to sunlight and other environmental factors. When you over-exfoliate, you leave the skin raw and exposed without the barrier it needs to stay healthy and prevent sun damage.
  • Breakouts occur more frequently. Too much exfoliation causes a disruption to your skin’s natural process and your sebaceous glands may go into overtime to provide the oil your skin needs. The excess oil eventually may lead to acne.
  • There’s prolonged redness or irritation. Exfoliating more than a few times a week may be too harsh on your skin. For certain skin types, more than once a week can cause your skin to react in a negative way.

  • Exfoliators work hard to remove impurities from your face. Afterwards, you’ll feel how much smoother and fresher it feels. Getting carried away with too much of a good thing can backfire. Have confidence in the process and let exfoliation take care of tackling pores on a steady but not everyday basis.

    Get More from Your Skincare


    Although our esthetician tips would suggest cleansing first before exfoliating, try it both ways and see what works best for your skin. Every skin type needs its own special care and your skin may react more positively to one technique over the other. The one thing we can all be in agreement on is the importance of them both. Step-by-step, you can create a healthier, brighter complexion by adding exfoliation to the mix.

    Each step, tool, and skin product has its own role as part of a complete skincare regimen. Exfoliation elevates your daily regimen to give your skin a more radiant glow, while cleansing is a necessary step to remove daily impurities from the skin. The few minutes you focus on your skincare will make a huge impact on the condition of your skin long-term. Enjoy how much better your face looks and feels after you’ve cleansed and exfoliated your skin. It’ll be easy to keep it as part of your regular routine once you’ve seen its benefits.