How To Smooth And Soften Skin With Photoshop
In this article, I’ll demonstrate how to use Photoshop to give your subject’s skin a flawless finish to enhance your pictures. We’ll start by learning how to use Photoshop’s Spot Healing Brush to get rid of zits and other small skin imperfections. After the first cleanup, we’ll learn step-by-step how to soften and smooth skin while preserving as much of the natural skin texture as possible and without obscuring crucial features like the person’s eyes, hair, and so on.
To follow along, you can use any portrait photo. I’ll use this image that I downloaded from Adobe Stock:
The original, untouched photo
The original image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.
Here’s a close-up of what the young woman’s skin looks like initially:
A close up of the woman’s skin before smoothing and retouching
A close-up of the original.
And here’s what she’ll look like after smoothing and softening her skin:
How to smooth skin in Photoshop
The final skin-softened result.
Let’s get started!
How to Smooth Skin in Photoshop
I used Photoshop CC but this tutorial is fully compatible any recent version up to Photoshop 2022, plus older versions like Photoshop CS6. You can get the latest Photoshop version here.
Step 1: Make A Copy Of The Image
With the image newly-opened in Photoshop, the Layers panel shows the photo on the Background layer. Before smoothing the skin, start by removing any unwanted blemishes. To protect the original image, you’ll want to work on a separate layer..
Step 3: Set The Spot Healing Brush To “Content-Aware”
Make sure the Type option in the Options Bar is set to Content-Aware: Setting the Spot Healing Brush to Content-Aware in the Options Bar
Content-Aware should be selected by default.
Step 4: Click On The Skin Blemishes To Remove Them
Click on any unwanted skin blemishes with the Spot Healing Brush to remove them. Photoshop will instantly “heal” the blemishes by replacing the problem texture with good skin texture from the surrounding area. For best results, make your brush slightly larger than the blemish. To change your brush size, press the right bracket key ( ] ) on your keyboard to make the brush larger or the left bracket key ( [ ) to make it smaller. If the blemish hasn’t completely gone away on the first try, undo your click by pressing Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) on your keyboard, then resize your brush if needed and click on the same blemish to try again.
Example: Using the Spot Healing Brush to remove skin blemishes
In my illustration, the woman’s forehead appears to have what appears to be a sizable pimple just to the right of the center. I’m going to place the Spot Healing Brush over it, and I’m going to make my brush a little bigger than the zit itself:
using the Spot Healing Brush to erase a skin imperfection
placing the Spot Healing Brush over an area of imperfect skin.
I’ll use the Spot Healing Brush to apply pressure to the spot in order to remove it. Photoshop examines the place I clicked on, extracts desirable skin texture from the vicinity, and then mixes the desirable texture with the desirable tone and hue of the problematic area. The flaw is gone like magic:
clicking to eliminate the skin lesion with the Spot Healing Brush
To remove the flaw, click.
I’ll repeat the process with a different spot on her forehead, making sure the Spot Healing Brush is slightly larger than the region that needs healing:
A second skin imperfection can be treated by placing the Spot Healing Brush over it.
A second spot is covered using the Spot Healing Brush.
I’ll click on the imperfection once again, and Photoshop will immediately take care of it:
After applying pressure with the Spot Haling Brush, the second skin imperfection has vanished.
The second spot has vanished.
Her skin already seems considerably smoother after a few more strokes with the Spot Healing Brush to remove the last spots on her forehead:
Step 5: Make A Copy Of The “Spot Healing” Layer
With the blemishes removed, we’re ready to smooth and soften the skin, and again, it’s best to work on a separate layer. Back in the Layers panel, make a copy of the “Spot Healing” layer by pressing and holding the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key on your keyboard, clicking on the “Spot Healing” layer, and dragging it down onto the New Layer icon:
Making a copy of the Spot Healing layer in the Layers panel in Photoshop
Duplicating the “Spot Healing” layer.
In the Duplicate Layer dialog box, name the layer “Smooth Skin” and then click OK:
Step 6: Apply The High Pass Filter
We’ll apply Photoshop’s High Pass filter to smooth the skin. Choose Other from the Filter option in the Menu Bar, then High Pass:
choosing Photoshop’s High Pass filter from the Filter menu
selecting High Pass under Filter > Other.
The Benefits Of The High Pass Filter For Skin Smoothing
The High Pass filter is probably known to you if you’ve ever used Photoshop to sharpen photographs. Many of the procedures are the same even though we’ll be utilizing High Pass to smooth skin rather than sharpen it. The High Pass filter searches for and emphasizes edges in the image. An edge is a region where there is a significant, abrupt shift in hue or brightness between adjacent pixels. In portrait photographs, the margins are typically seen around the subject’s eyes, lips, and hair. On the other hand, skin texture has much smoother transitions and relatively less detail. Since these regions are not edges, the High Pass filter fills them with neutral gray instead of highlighting them.
The High Pass filter would enable us to sharpen the edges (the details) of the image without damaging the skin. However, we employ High Pass in the opposite manner to smooth skin. We’ll find the edges so we can smooth and soften everything but the edges, not so we can sharpen them. Let’s examine its operation.
Step 7: Apply The Gaussian Blur Filter
We need to blur the High Pass filter effect. It may seem counterintuitive, but the blurring will actually help to bring out more good texture in the skin. Go up to the Filter menu, choose Blur, and then choose Gaussian Blur:
Choosing the Gaussian Blur filter from under the Filter menu
Going to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.
In the Gaussian Blur dialog box, set the Radius value to exactly one third of the value you used for the High Pass filter. In my case, I set the High Pass radius to 24 pixels, so I’ll set the Gaussian Blur radius to one third of that, which is 8 pixels. Click OK to close the dialog box:
The Gaussian Blur dialog box
Setting the Gaussian Blur radius to one third of the High Pass radius.
With the blurring applied, the High Pass effect now looks softer and less detailed:
The result after applying the Gaussian Blur filter
The result after applying the Gaussian Blur filter.
Step 8: Change The Layer Blend Mode To Linear Light
In the Layers panel, change the blend mode of the “Smooth Skin” layer from Normal to Linear Light:
Changing the blend mode of the Smooth Skin layer to Linear Light
Changing the layer blend mode.
This blends the High Pass result in with the image, creating a high contrast, over-sharpened effect. It may look terrible, but don’t worry. It will look even worse in a moment:
The image after changing the Smooth Skin layer blend mode to Linear Light
The image after changing the Smooth Skin layer’s blend mode to Linear Light.
Related: Photoshop’s Five Essential Blend Modes For Photo Editing
Step 9: Invert The Layer
Go up to the Image menu, choose Adjustments, and then choose Invert:
Choosing the Invert comand from under the Image menu.
Going to Image > Adjustments > Invert.
With the layer inverted, the image goes from being over-sharpened to looking like a weird, blurry mess with big ugly halos around everything:
The image after inverting the Smooth Skin layer
The result after inverting the “Smooth Skin” layer.
Step 10: Open The Blending Options
To reduce the halo effect, click the Layer Styles icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:
Clicking the Layer Styles icon in the Layers panel in Photoshop
Clicking the Layer Styles icon.
Choose Blending Options from the top of the list:
Opening the Blending Options in Photoshop
Opening the Blending Options.
Step 11: Drag The “Blend If” Sliders
In the Layer Style dialog box, look for the Blend If sliders at the bottom. There are two sets of sliders, one labeled “This Layer” and one below it labeled “Underlying Layer”. We need the top sliders (the ones labeled “This Layer”):
The Blend If sliders in the Photoshop Blending Options
The Blend If sliders.
Notice the slider below each end of the gradient bar. These sliders control how the “Smooth Skin” layer blends with the image below it based on the brightness levels of the layer. The slider on the left is used to blend the darker areas of the layer and the slider on the right blends the lighter areas:
- Photoshop Blend If sliders.
- The dark (left) and light (right) sliders.
- Reducing The Light Halos
Reduce the lighter halos first. Click the right slider, hold down the Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) key, and then start moving it to the left. When you press the Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) keys together, Photoshop divides the slider in half so that only the left side moves while the right side remains still. As you move the slider, keep an eye on your image to notice how the lighter halos disappear. To minimize them as much as feasible, move the slider as far to the left as possible:
Using the Blend If sliders, blend the Smooth Skin layer’s lighter regions.
Drag the slider’s left side to the right.
After moving the first slider, the outcome is seen here. The majority of the lighter halos have mostly disappeared or at the very least become far less obvious. Just the darker halos are left.
The picture after using the Blend tool to remove the lighter halos When sliders
After moving the slider to the right, the paler halos are gone.
Reducing The Dark Halos
To reduce the darker halos, press and hold your Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key, click the slider on the left and drag the right half of it towards the right. Again, you’ll need to drag almost all the way to the right for most of the dark halos to disappear. Click OK when you’re done to close the Layer Style dialog box:
Blending the darker areas of the Smooth Skin layer with the Blend If sliders
Dragging the right half of the slider on the left.
And here’s my image after dragging both sliders. Her skin is looking very smooth, but so is everything else in the image. We’ll fix that next:
The skin smoothing effect in Photoshop after dragging the Blend If sliders
The darker halos are gone after dragging the slider on the left.
Step 12: Add A Layer Mask
To limit the smoothing effect to just the skin, add a layer mask. Back in the Layers panel, press and hold the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key on your keyboard and click the Add Layer Mask icon:
Clicking the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel in Photoshop
Adding a layer mask while holding Alt (Win) / Option (Mac).
A black-filled layer mask thumbnail appears on the “Smooth Skin” layer. This hides the smoothing effect from view so we can paint it back in only where we need it:
A black-filled layer mask has been added to the Smooth Skin layer
A black-filled layer mask has been added to the “Smooth Skin” layer.
Related: Understanding Layer Masks in Photoshop
Step 13: Select The Brush Tool
Select the Brush Tool from the Toolbar:
A black-filled layer mask has been added to the Smooth Skin layer.
Selecting the Brush Tool.
Step 14: Set Your Brush Color To White
Make sure your Foreground color (the brush color) is set to white. You can see your current Foreground and Background colors in the color swatches near the bottom of the Toolbar. The swatch in the upper left is the Foreground color. If it’s not set to white, press the letter D on your keyboard to quickly reset the colors to their defaults:
Setting the brush color to white
The Foreground color (the brush color) should be white.
Step 15: Paint Over The Skin
Before you begin painting, check your brush options in the Options Bar. Make sure that Mode (short for Blend Mode) is set to Normal, Opacity is at 100% and Flow is also at 100%:
The Mode, Opacity and Fill options for the Brush Tool.
Making sure the Mode, Opacity and Fill options are all set to their defaults.
Then paint over the skin to reveal the smoothing effect. A soft-edge brush will work best. We already know that we can change the brush size from the keyboard using the left and right bracket keys. Add the Shift key to change the brush hardness. Press Shift and the left bracket key to make the brush softer, or Shift and the right bracket key to make the brush harder.
Switching to the layer mask view in Photoshop
Holding Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and clicking the layer mask thumbnail.
This switches your view from the image to the layer mask. The white areas in the mask are where you’ve painted to restore the skin smoothing. Black areas are when the smoothing effect remains hidden. It looks a bit creepy, but viewing the mask is a great way to make sure you haven’t missed any spots, and you can paint directly on the mask if needed. To switch back to your image, once again press and hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click on the layer mask thumbnail:
Viewing the layer mask in Photoshop to see where the skin smoothing is visible
Use the mask view to look for any areas you missed.
Step 16: Lower The Layer Opacity
At this point, we’ve smoothed and softened the skin, but the effect is too intense. To reduce it, lower the opacity of the “Smooth Skin” layer. In general, an opacity value of between 40% and 60% works best, but it will depend on your image. I’ll set mine to 50%: