When you hear exfoliation, you probably immediately think of that creamy and gritty apricot seed scrub. Maybe you tried it once and your skin broke out, maybe it felt too scratchy, or maybe you love it! The process is super personal and no one technique, combination of exfoliants, or single product works for everyone.
Exfoliation happens naturally as desquamation, the body’s process for skin regeneration, (shedding dead skin cells.) When everything is working according to plan, the outermost layer of skin cells come off one by one to reveal the new skin cells underneath. New skin cells hang out on your skin’s surface for around 14 days before falling off, and the entire outer layer of epidermis is replaced about every 50 days. However, this routine may stop working properly. When that happens it needs assistance in the form of external exfoliation.
A few things can inhibit the body’s natural exfoliation process:
When the desquamation of the stratum corneum (the outer layer of skin) is inhibited, it can show up in the following ways:
As most of us struggle with one or more of these skin issues at some point in our lives, exfoliation is a key part of a skin care routine. It also helps make all other steps more effective by clearing dead skin cells that may block products from getting deeper into your skin to work their magic.
Exfoliants can be separated into two categories – mechanical and chemical.
Remember the scratchy apricot seed scrub I mentioned earlier? This is mechanical exfoliation – also called physical exfoliation. Particles of various sizes physically buff off dead skin cells. Mechanical exfoliants work quickly and deliver visible results, however a down side is that they can be irritating to skin, especially facial skin. Many people scrub too hard when using these products and cause more harm than good. Only a gentle pressure (if any) is required as the friction is enough to exfoliate. The larger and more course the exfoliating particles are, the less you want to press as you scrub your skin.
Harsh, large particles that are great for serious exfoliation include ground apricot or other fruit seeds, whole berry seeds (strawberry, cranberry, blueberry, etc.), coffee grounds, sand, pumice, ground nuts, sugar, and salt crystals. These particles are not recommended for facial use as they are big and rough. Save these types of scrubs for dry patches or places on your body with thicker skin – feet, knees, and elbows come to mind.
Washcloths, microfiber cloths, loofahs, body brushes and electric face brushes are also physical exfoliants. Depending on the pressure used they can vary from medium to rough exfoliants.
Examples of gentle, face-appropriate physical exfoliants are colloidal oatmeal, clays, jojoba beads, peeling gels, finely ground nuts, bamboo powder, various plant fibers, peeling masks, or plastic microbeads (NOT recommended because they are a source of pollution – but they exist so I am including them here). Dampened sea sponges and konjac sponges make great mild physical exfoliants as well. Any of these are great for facial skin. Clay can be a bit drying so I would not recommend it for people with dry skin.
Chemical exfoliants can be broken down into three main categories – AHAs, BHAs, and enzymes. They are usually in the form of leave-on products or extended applications (like a facial mask). These exfoliants work by dissolving the “glue” between dead skin cells, making it easier for them to shed, or even by breaking down the dead cells themselves. There are also super serious chemical peels a professional esthetician applies.
AHA stands for Alpha Hydroxy Acid
Lactic acid and glycolic acid are the main AHAs in skincare products, although there are a few others.
BHA stands for Beta Hydroxy Acid and is usually in the form of salicylic acid. Milder forms include betaine salicylate and plant extracts like white willow bark.
These work by proteolysis (the breaking down of protein) and are usually from fruits like papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin (p is the magic letter here). You’ll also see enzymes from strawberries, kiwis, starfruit, and passionfruit… the list goes on. They are much more finicky and unstable than AHAs and BHAs as they are sensititive to temperature and light.
Overdoing exfoliation can cause more harm than good. When using physical exfoliants don’t scrub too hard or too long or too often. Once or twice a week, gently use circular motions to buff your skin for a few seconds. Your skin should not be red, burning, or feel raw.
When using chemical exfoliants – start slow. Use the product a couple times a week and gradually increase usage if your skin can handle it. It shouldn’t burn or dry out your skin. There are different concentrations available as well. Start with a lower concentration – even a 1% vs a 2% BHA exfoliant can make a big difference.
Be careful in the sun and make sure to wear an approved SPF sunscreen. Exfoliants partially remove your skin’s protective barrier (made up of dead skin) and may make you more sensitive to sunlight. Slow down or change products if your skin becomes irritated.
Any number or combination of exfoliation techniques may work for you. Everyone’s skin is different and you may have to try various products or tools before you find your perfect fit. Don’t get discouraged!