Protection, protection, protection: That’s the first maxim all of us should internalize when it comes to caring for our skin. (A broad-spectrum, UVA and UVB sunscreen of at least SPF 30 is the single most important way to prevent the outward signs of aging, not to mention warding off dangerous cancers.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, allow us to move on to the slightly less dire—although no less efficacious—tenets of skincare: Hydration and exfoliation. Both are essential, whether your skin is dry, acne-prone, or sensitive. And unlike sun protection, where you’ve really only got a single surefire choice, when it comes to moisturizing and sloughing away dead skin cells, there’s a bevy of beautiful options. Allow us to explore.

Hydration isn’t one size fits all.
When it comes to keeping your face quenched, you’ve got all the choices, both in terms of the actual ingredients you use to hydrate, and the delivery mechanisms that allow the moisture to penetrate your complexion. Humectants like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and propylene and butylene glycol work by pulling moisture out of the atmosphere and into your skin; botanicals like shea and cocoa butter, coconut oil, and other oils and extracts have small enough molecules to penetrate the skin directly. While all do the job, it’s a nice idea to look for both kinds of moisturizers so you know you’re getting that one-two punch.

Delivery methods vary from water-thin to soufflé-thick, and you can pick and choose as you and your skin see fit. Hydrating toners, mists, essences, are especially refreshing on slick or greasy skin; fluids, gels, lotions, oils, balms, and creams offer increasing levels of occlusivity (a fancy word for how breathable the product is). Super-dry complexions can tolerate frosting-thick creams. If you’re layering a handful of moisturizers, do be sure to apply from thinnest to thickest for optimal absorption.

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Exfoliation is actually a little more simple.
There are two primary ways to exfoliate: Physical, or chemical. The physical approach uses teeny little bits—wax beads, ground up shells, or even nubby cloths—to lift away dead skin cells, which, if left to linger on the complexion, can cause dullness, blemishes, and even impede the production of new collagen. The only thing to look out for here is that the scrubby bits aren’t too sharp; overly edgy pieces can cause damaging micro-tears in the skin. A good test: If it hurts it’s too tough.

Chemical exfoliation uses acids (alpha hydroxy acids, or AHA’s, are popular, as are fruit extracts, and lactic acids) to dissolve the bonds holding the dead skin to your face. The higher the percentage of acid concentrated in your mask, peel, or sheet mask, the stronger the exfoliation will be—and the less likely you should probably hit it.

Neither chemical or physical exfoliation is better or worse for your skin. In fact, it’s just a matter or preference. Either way, start exfoliating once a week. If your skin tolerates it well, feel free to move up to biweekly applications. And if it’s really heavy-duty, monthly or quarterly could be all your skin needs to shine.

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