The temptation in winter is to downright coddle our skin with rich oils and hydrating creams. But exfoliating in winter actually plays a crucial role in making sure all that hydration is effective.
"Between the cold weather and dry heat, your skin dehydrates and dead skin cells build up," Dr. Marina Peredo explains. Doing so, and sloughing away these accumulated dead cells is actually crucial to allowing serums, moisturizers, and all those other products to actually sink in and work. "Our skin naturally exfoliates itself," Dr. Peredo says—but the exfoliation process can slow down as we get older, and in winter because the buildup of dead skin increases."
That aforementioned, increased wintertime dryness can also mean skin is increasingly sensitive during the coldest months of the year. This, according to Dr. Josh Zeichner, means that you can't necessarily use the same products as you would try in the summer. "Avoid hard scrubs that tend to be gritty and abrasive," he recommends, suggesting that we "stick to gentle botanical exfoliators or mild chemical exfoliators like glycolic acid. Gentle exfoliation is ok to remove dead cells that make the skin look dull, but don't over scrub."
So, as much as a good, gritty facial scrub can feel downright cathartic, it's best to get down with chemical exfoliation. A quick primer—beta hydroxy and salicylic acids breaks the bond that hold dead cells together. When the bond it broken it is easier to shed skin. These acids are good for acne and blackheads and clogged pores. "The last thing you want to do in the winter is disrupt the skin barrier which can lead to irritation and inflammation," Dr. Zeichner explains.
Dr. Dendy Engelman echoes this sentiment—"I prefer chemical exfoliants to physical ones because they are less harsh to the skin," she says. "Given that it's colder and the humidity is lower in the winter, just make sure to use thicker emollients to protect the newly exfoliated skin and try to apply them more often," she advises.
The Ordinary, AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
Experienced skincare acid addicts will be pleased to discover this less-than-$10 formula which packs all the punch of an in-office peel. This berry-hued liquid exfoliating facial combines a whopping 30% AHA blend (glycolic and lactic acids, with the less common tartaric and citric acids, too) with 2% BHA (salicylic acid) used for its acne-fighting, pore-de-clogging powers. 10 minutes, at night, no more than twice is a week is all you need to see a serious improvement in radiance. Beginners: come back to this one later! (Oxygen Boutique, $8.75)
Kypris, Glow Philtre
This quickie mask (5 minutes for sensitive skin, 20 minutes tops, for everyone else) gently resurfaces dull complexions mostly using fruit-derived enzymes, namely pomegranate pith enzymes. Silver Ear Mushroom provides hydration so skin isn't dried out in the process of sloughing away dead skin. (Anthropologie, $88)
Susanne Kaufmann, Enzyme Peel
This 10-minute peel is gentle enough for beginners, combining acids derived from apples, kiwis, and papaya. Dead, surface skin is gently sloughed away and the complexion is left dewy. This one works wonders before a night out, leaving the skin brighter and smoother, but not irritated. (Net-A-Porter, $68)
Shiffa, Tri-Acid Radiance Peel
This 10-minute leave-on mask combines three hero acids (lactic, glycolic, salicylic) for a triple threat of resurfacing, hydrating, anti-aging, and acne-busting properties. A blend of marine extracts, hibiscus, vitamin C, and bilberry (among other natural ingredients) keep skin hydrated and bright. (Nordstrom, $68)
DCL, Multi Action Penta Peel
A DCL formula means business, and this one is no exception. These peel pads contain five types of acids, including some that are less commonly seen. Mandelic works to refine texture and lactic smooths, salicylic is anti-bacterial and helps decongest clogged pores and address acne, phytic brightens dark spots and evens skin tone—but keeping this formula well-rounded is the addition of hyaluronic acid which keeps you hydrated even as you exfoliate. Just swipe, chill for 3-5 minutes, rinse with cool water, and go. (Dermstore, $65)
Dr. Dennis Gross, Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel
A gentler version of a cult favorite, Dr. Dennis Gross's 2-step peel pads focus on three key exfoliating acids: lactic, mandelic, and salicylic to address common concerns like uneven skin tone and texture, enlarged pores, and fine lines and wrinkles. The formula includes soothing ingredients, too, (like colloidal oatmeal) to keep sensitive skin types happy. (Ed's note: don't forget to read our Q&A on all things skin with Dr. Gross' team in this article!) (Sephora, $88)
Goldfaden, Fresh a Peel
This quickie peel gets you clearer, brighter skin in 1-3 minutes. The gel formula contains lactic acid to brighten sunspots, naturally-derived glycolic acid from sugar cane to remove excess oil and dirt, and lemon and orange extracts which provide a healthy dose of Vitamin C to leave you glowier post-use. (Dermstore, $85)
Peter Thomas Roth, 20% Glycolic Solutions Jumbo Peel Swab
This giant q-tip might appear toy-like but it contains a pretty legit dose of glycolic acid (20%). Another swipe-and-go formulation, this blend of exfoliating glycolic with hydrating hyaluronic acid and plumping hydrolized collagen leaves skin softer, clearer, and more radiant. (Sephora, $48)
Patchology, Milk Peel 5 Minute Flashmasque Sheet Masks
We typically associate sheet masks with hydrating and nourishing our skin, but this one does that while gently resurfacing the skin with lactic acid. The nourishing and hydrating properties are delivered via coconut and soy milk. Plus, unlike other sheet masks, this one needs just 5 minutes. (Nordstrom, $30 for 4)