Even for those who think they have a simple, speedy and low-maintenance skincare regime, there are probably more steps and products involved than you think. First there’s your cleanser, then a moisturiser, and a serum if you’re really serious about skincare… and you probably top it off with an SPF during the day and maybe a swipe of eye cream at night. That’s enough surely?

Well, what if we told you there’s a fundamental step missing – one that if you leave out means the products you do apply aren’t working as hard as they should be? We’re talking about exfoliation.

‘If you have a tough stain on your kitchen counter, you need to scrub first before you can clean… exfoliating your skin is the same thing,’ says Dr Harold Lancer, LA-based dermatologist to stars such as Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham.

But what does exfoliation actually do? ‘It involves the removal of the oldest dead skin cells on the skin’s outermost surface,’ explains Dr Ikramullah Al Nasir, Medical Director & CEO of Dermacare Skin Centre Dubai. ‘There are many means of inducing skin exfoliation, including chemical, mechanical, and thermal from laser or light sources, but what they all do is signal to the mother skin cells in the deeper skin layers to make fresher new skin cells. This then accelerates the skin renewal process.’

Cell renewal is a cyclical process where dead skin cells shed to reveal plump cells underneath. In young skin this process happens every 28 days, but it slows down with age. ‘If you are not giving skin that extra push, it starts to get sluggish and looks worn out,’ says Dr Al Nasir, ‘and it can start showing signs of issues like hyper pigmentation, uneven skin tone, open pores, wrinkles and acne breakouts.’

Exfoliation can also enhance the efficacy of other products. By ridding the top layer of dead skin cells, the skin is open and receptive to absorbing other ingredients, making exfoliation the one step you can’t afford to miss. We take a look at the newest innovative scrubs to see which is the best for you, your skin type and the result you’re looking for...

Old-school scrubs

What are they? These are probably what you thought of when you heard the word exfoliator. They are creamy cleansers with grains and granules known in the beauty world as ‘mechanical scrubs’. Dead skin is sloughed away by the combination of the grit factor – normally things such as oats, sugar or apricot kernels – along with you physically rubbing it into and off your skin.

Why is it good? Even ultra-sensitive skins can use this type of exfoliant. If you have oily skin or pores that get clogged easily then this is the level of exfoliation for you as the creaminess of the scrub will cleanse and rebalance the skin and the particles will get into pores, scoop out the dirt and excess oil and take them away. To add a boost to your simple scrub, use it with a muslin cloth or a flannel. This will ensure that you apply it across your face more evenly and the fabric will provide an extra, gentle exfoliating boost.

What should you be wary of? If the grains are too large and too abrasive they will actually scratch the skin rather than smooth it. You will know if this is happening as your skin will start to get very dry and red in patches. There is also a limit to what this type of exfoliator can do, so while they’re great for making dull and clogged skin brighter and clearer they will have little impact on pigmentation, acne scarring or wrinkles.

Our pick

Nuxe Gentle Exfoliating Gel, Dh109, Sephora – if your skin is very sensitive, then this is the scrub for you. It contains minutely grounded lychee stones and walnut husks but you won’t feel like you’re sanding your skin down.

Sisley Gentle Facial Buffing Cream, Dh300, Paris Gallery think of this more like a mask that buffs away at your skin. Apply all over your face, leave for one to two minutes, or until the cream has gone hard, and then massage it off your skin. The soft microbeads won’t scratch but will smooth the skin.

Institut Esthederm Osmoclean Lightening Buffing Mask, Dh244, 
Bin Sina Pharmacy – for skin that is exposed to the sun a lot you need this for the softest exfoliation possible. Apply a thick layer all over the skin and leave on for as long as you can. This allows the soothing and calming ingredients to sink in and get to work on rehydrating and repairing. Then, when you are removing the creamy mask, the tiny microsphere exfoliating beads burst, creating a gentle scrub to delicately remove dead skin.

Serums that slough

What are they? Brands have realised that we need multitasking products as we just don’t have time to expand our skin-caring repertoire. Which is why the new breed of serums have added low-level exfoliating, skin transforming acids in them, normally from fruits such as pineapples, apples or cane sugar.

Why is it good? As it can be worn during the day you simply replace your regular moisturiser with one of these instead and as the ingredients are combined with other actives you’re tackling various skin issues at the same time. So whilst exfoliating is on the agenda, it will be coupled with firming and brightening. It also evens out the skin tone.

What should you be wary of? It is imperative to team an exfoliating serum with a good-quality, high-factor SPF if it doesn’t already contain protection. Previously, liquid exfoliators were only used as night products so that the abrasive ingredients could get to work without the sun aggravating the baby soft and sensitive skin that was being revealed under the dead cells. These new serums are designed to do the same job while your skin will be exposed to the sun, so you need to ensure your skin is being shielded. As the whole purpose of these serums is to fight against the effects that sun damage has, it would be counter-productive to use them without sun cream.

Our pick

Dior Exfoliating Snow Gel, Dh257, Sephora Dior has created a unique exfoliating complex specifically for this gel serum. Not only does this special ingredient get to work on creating a more even skin surface, but it sinks down to target the melanocytes deeper down in the skin to prevent them from producing too much melanin. There’s also an edelweiss complex, which works to create a brighter complexion.

Chanel Le Lift Serum, Dh650, Paris Gallery – Chanel has also devised its very own special exfoliating agent in this lightweight serum that refines the skin’s appearance. It is combined with anti-ageing ingredients such as resveratrol, the wrinkle plumper, and 
a very unexciting sounding ingredient called 3.5-DA, which boosts skin proteins, such as collagen, to add more bounce and plumpness to your complexion.

Clarins Sun Wrinkle Control Cream For Face 50+, Dh160, Clarins Boutique, The Dubai Mall – this is super lightweight and won’t clog and irritate the skin as so many other SPFs, so it is perfect for use alongside your exfoliating serum of choice. It also contains five exceptionally clever plant extracts that will reinforce the fresh, new skin cells that your exfoliating serum will bring to the skin’s surface, making it harder for the sun to break them down and instigate skin damage.

Night-time sloughers

What are they? More potent exfoliators that are completely liquid in their consistency. They are so potent in fact, that they can only be used at night to prevent skin sensitivity, but also because they can then target the skin cells when they are in their repair stage, boosting their productivity to mend damaged skin and reduce future damage. They contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) – most commonly glycolic acid – and beta hydroxy acids – most commonly salicylic acid – which are designed to be used only two to three times a week as they are much stronger.

Why is it good? If you’re noticing the first signs of pigmentation, enlarged pores or fine lines, then this is what you need. AHAs provide deeper levels of exfoliation than serums or scrubs. This is because they begin their work by dissolving dead skin cells on the top of the skin and then, because of their smaller molecular size, they also sink down to exfoliate at a deeper level, reducing the appearance of pigmentation, wrinkles and pores. These are ideal for those on a busy schedule as it simplifies your skincare regime – you just replace your night cream with a chemical exfoliator a couple of evenings a week.

What should you be wary of? The idea of acid dissolving skin cells may sound daunting, but these exfoliators are gentle enough for most skin types; however you may experience light tingling when you first apply them. If you have psoriasis, eczema or are on prescribed medication then it’s best to avoid them as your skin may be too sensitive. Always protect the new, fresh skin the day after with a good, high factor SPF.

Our pick

Alpha-H Liquid Gold, about Dh189 (cultbeauty.co.uk) this has become a global beauty must-have because of how it can transform the skin. It is packed with the highest amount of glycolic acid that you can get in an over-the-counter product, so the second it touches the skin it gets to work on exfoliating dead skin cells. But it also lowers the pH levels of the skin, causing it to produce more hyaluronic acid, making the skin more hydrated and softer, as well as boosting collagen production to plump it up.

Zelens PHA+ Bio-Peel Resurfacing Facial Pads, about Dh368 (cultbeauty.co.uk) it’s the combination of AHA, BHA, lactic and lactobionic acids in these pads that make them so brilliant. Each acid exfoliates the skin but also reduces pores, wrinkles and inflammation as well as teaming up with ingredients in any other products you apply on top to make them penetrate better.

Sarah Chapman Overnight Facial, about Dh261 (feelunique.com) – if you prefer a serum at night then this is for you. Packed with skin-scrubbing actives such as vitamin A and vitamin C, it also has natural ingredients such as rose and jasmine oil to soothe the skin and hydrate it overnight.