I avoided the “pizza-face” acne phase in high school, but wasn’t as lucky in my 20s. For years I sought out fancy dermatologists and tried every product from prescription-grade to drugstore-bought. Now that I’m 30, my skin has calmed down considerably and I’ve folded regular facials into my beauty routine. An esthetician recently recommended I exfoliate more — a step I’ve shunned since my skin went haywire. Like washing, toning, and moisturizing, exfoliating is an essential component to a healthy skincare routine. Here’s what you need to know about it:

Why exfoliate?
The human body is constantly making new skin cells and shedding old ones. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, we have three layers of skin: the bottom layer, or subcutaneous fat layer; the second layer, the dermis; and the top layer, called the epidermis.
New skin cells are formed at the bottom of the epidermis, then move up to the top layer, and eventually flake off. The process repeats itself each month. The top 18 to 23 sublayers of the epidermis are made of dead cells, and the body ditches up to 40,000 of those cells each day through a natural process called desquamation.

A buildup of dead, dry cells can clog pores — leading to more breakouts — and leave your complexion looking seriously lackluster. Exfoliating is a great way to remove the outermost layer of dead skin and promote cell turnover. Once those dead cells are gone, skincare products absorb better and makeup goes on smoother.

Choosing the right exfoliant
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to exfoliation because everyone’s skin is different.
Those with acne-prone or sensitive skin should steer clear of scrubs and opt for non-abrasive exfoliators instead. Chemical peels, or non-drying cream cleansers, that contain a mild acid — like alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids — are easy on the skin but still effective. Individuals with dry skin should try gentle scrubs, but avoid over-exfoliating at all costs. (Too much exfoliation could lead to irritation and perpetuate a cycle of dry skin.) Mechanical exfoliation — like microdermabrasion or facial cleansing brushes — are a good fit for those #blessed folks with normal skin.

Doing it right
The key to effective exfoliation is a light touch. Be gentle with your skin! Harsh scrubs applied with a heavy hand can cause micro-tears in the skin, which leaves the epidermis susceptible to bacteria and environmental damage (pollution, smoke, greasy foods). Exfoliating shouldn’t be a part of a daily routine, either. Exfoliating once or twice a week should be enough to give you smooth skin. Make sure to use products sparingly and please, for the love of Kate Moss, don’t buy acids off the internet — leave the chemical peels to the professionals.

Have a quick chat with your dermatologist about your complexion to figure out your skin type and the exfoliation method that would work best for you. It’s mind-boggling that I made it 30 years without knowing how to properly exfoliate my skin. But if you don’t know, now ya know!

Samantha Cipriano is a writer, editor, and mother. Loves include snacking, traveling, and the Oxford comma. She’s widely regarded as the Steph Curry of power naps.