New to exfoliation? Have you always wanted to try it but didn’t really know what’s it all about?
Even if you’ve never tried your hand at exfoliating your skin yourself, if you’ve ever gotten a facial, then you’ve already had your face exfoliated - you just didn’t know it.
Exfoliating the skin properly and regularly is crucial in getting that flawless glow you always wanted for your skin and trying to include regular exfoliation in your skincare regimen is definitely worth your while. But exfoliation can be really tricky - especially if you don’t really know what you’re doing, as you can definitely end up being too harsh on your skin.
But we’re here to make it really easy. For all of you who are googling around “should I exfoliate?” and “how to exfoliate?” - this article is for you.
There’s no need to worry you’ll end up with red, blemished face before some important event. With the right product and the right instructions, you’ll be on your way to a bullet-proof skincare routine for a perfect complexion.
Exfoliation is the process of removing skin cells from the skin's outermost layer in order to improve the appearance and health of the skin.
People believe this common practice originated in Ancient Egypt and one of the first chemical agents used to exfoliate the face was tartaric acid, typically found in grapes.
Regardless of its origins, nowadays, exfoliation is present in almost every professional facial treatment, and it’s also promoted as an important part of your home skincare routine with many over-the-counter exfoliating masks, creams, scrubs, peels, and even natural remedies.
Sounds simple, but it’s important to do it right because with exfoliation you can easily damage your skin and make things worse.
So, we must say there are some good arguments in support of the claim that exfoliation is not suitable for every skin type, although this really depends more on the method, product, and the frequency of exfoliating, rather than exfoliation as a whole.
To give this question a good answer we first need to help you understand your skin’s physiology.
The skin you live in is a dynamic, live organ in a continuous cycle of replacing cells. Old cells die and new ones are being reproduced. This happens as frequently as every 30 days or so.
Everything works in perfect order and this process enables the skin to function optimally and protect the body.
Unfortunately, as we age, the process slows down and a there’s a build-up of worn out, dead skin cells that slowly start to clog the pores, messing with the function of the live cells beneath.
To prevent this, people have learned how to exfoliate the skin, bringing back its youthfulness and glow.
When dead skin cells are removed from the skin’s surface there’s room for the new cells to emerge. These cells are not damaged, pigmented, clogged or irritated.
So, in other words, if you really want to have smooth skin, you must take proper care of it, which includes exfoliation.
There are two ways in which you can exfoliate your skin. One way you can achieve this is by physically scrubbing the skin with an abrasive product or ingredient. The other way you can exfoliate your skin is by using an active chemical agent that will dissolve the dead skin cells.
Physical or mechanical exfoliation is the process where a tool/material or a facial scrub/ingredient physically removes the outermost superficial layer of skin consisted of dead skin cells, debris, and other bits.
If you decide to go for physical exfoliation you will need to manually rub the skin with an abrasive material. Some of the most common methods for this type include exfoliating with cleansing scrubs, brushes, loofahs, exfoliating mitts, and microfiber cloths.
Ingredients you can use for mechanical exfoliation include sugar, salt crystals, pumice, or even crushed almond shells.
Well, firstly it’s really easy to do. All you need is a clean washcloth and a good moisturizer for afterward. For the natural ingredients, such as sugar and salt crystals, you can make some pretty fabulous DIY home facial scrubs. Secondly, with physical scrubs, although the results are not as effective as with chemical exfoliants, they are immediate. Thirdly, the over-the-counter options for physical exfoliation are endless, and you can find a scrub for almost every part of your body, as well as every skin type.
Now, let’s talk a little about the precautions of exfoliating, or better said, not exfoliating right. With physical exfoliation, you need to be really careful. Scrubbing too hard, or using too abrasive materials can irritate your skin, cause rashes, swelling, and redness. This happens because the skin loses too much transepidermal water, and it’s necessary to use a moisturizer, oil or serum after exfoliating.
Additionally, physical exfoliation can be really harsh on dry skin and over-exfoliation can lead to dry skin. So, be careful and if you have dry skin starts with some very gentle exfoliation treatments.
Another very popular method of physical exfoliation is the microdermabrasion technique - a light cosmetic treatment which uses an exfoliating material like crystals or diamond flakes, and machine-based suction to gently lift up the skin during exfoliation. It’s not an invasive procedure, but it’s best performed by a trained skincare professional. Unlike, other physical exfoliants, microdermabrasion is suitable for all skin types, and you can read more about it in detail here.
I understand that the name might come off a little strong and scary, but there’s nothing to be worried about. The word “chemical” just describes how the procedure works on the face. For example, with physical exfoliation, you needed to manually scrub the face, while with chemical exfoliation the active ingredient inside the formula does all the work for you.
The procedure includes creams and scrubs that contain a chemical such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids, or enzymes which loosen the glue that holds the cells together. After the bonds are loosened, the dead skin cells are detached from the rest of the skin and slowly dissolved. This way the skin can be penetrated really easily and the products also act on the living cells beneath the surface.
The general rule of thumb is that chemical exfoliation in lower concentrations is a lot gentler on the skin and it’s probably a better option for people with sensitive or dry skin. Still, we need to mention that this depends a lot on the type of chemical used and the formulation of the products itself, but we’ll get to this shortly.
Another benefit of using chemical exfoliation is the effectiveness in treating common skin problems. While both methods share a number of benefits, we can’t compare the potential of chemical exfoliants with physical ones.
Chemical exfoliation is an amazing treatment for acne and acne scars, symptoms of aging like wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots, discoloration, and saggy skin. Also, there are types of chemical exfoliants that are great for sensitive and dry skin.
The main difference between physical and chemical exfoliation is in the ability of chemical exfoliants to penetrate the skin deeper, reach the dermis and act on the living cells causing functional changes, while physical exfoliants work only on the surface of the skin, which makes them ineffective in treating wrinkles, acne, and acne scars.
There are a few things you should be really careful about.
The first one is the concentration and pH value of the product you are using to chemically exfoliate the skin. High concentrations may be used by some professionals for certain conditions, but when you are buying a product for home use remember that high concentrations and low pH value can lead to burning and redness. A mild burning sensation is totally okay and normal, even expected, but the mask shouldn’t bring you to tears! That means something is wrong.
The second thing you should be careful about is the acid used in the product. Some acids have greater bioavailability, which means they irritate the skin more than others. Here are some general guidelines from us, regarding the commonly used acids in chemical exfoliation products but I highly recommend that you read more in detail about each one.
AHAs are a group of chemicals that have an extremely strong effect on the two top layers of our skin. They act by loosening the bonds between the cells on the surface, getting rid of dead skin cells, and penetrating the skin deeper to act on the living cells inside the dermis. They are known to stimulate collagen production and help the skin maintain its youth and elasticity.
The best-known alpha hydroxy acids are glycolic, lactic and citric acid. Glycolic is the strongest of them all and most effective, while lactic acid is the gentle one best for sensitive skin.
When we talk about the beta hydroxy acids used in cosmetics we mean salicylic acid. BHA is stronger than AHAs and its molecules are oil-soluble. This acid goes deep into your hair follicles, gets rid off excess oils and dead skin cells and unclogs your pores. Salicylic acid is potentially more effective than AHAs in battling acne and scars, but it also irritates the skin a lot more and it’s not the first choice for people with sensitive skin and dry skin.
The two acids groups are close cousins, share a lot of benefits but also differ in some critical functions. You can check out this article about the differences between AHA and BHA, to learn more about them.
Retinoids are also a class of chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A. They are used in medicine for various health issues, but also topically for the skin. Retinoids are most commonly used to treat inflammatory skin disorders, to stimulate cell turnover (e.g. psoriasis), photoaging, and wrinkles. Currently, research is being done into their ability to treat skin cancers.
Although you can find a lot of over-the-counter products with retinoids, always consult with your dermatologist or doctor before starting a retinoid treatment - as they have side effects and can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.
Your exfoliating method will vary depending on your skin type. Not everything works best for everyone. And, here are some general rules. If you’re not sure what’s your skin type, be sure to check out our guide on how to determine it.
If your skin gets irritated after trying a new product or easily breaks out after touching it, you’re probably dealing with the sensitive skin type. In this case, the best option is to go for chemical exfoliation with a really gentle product. Although both AHA and BHA can be great for sensitive skin in low concentrations, the ultimate starter acid for sensitive skin is lactic acid from the AHA family.
Take it from there - see how your skin reacts and you can slowly start to introduce stronger alternatives.
Generally, the most recommended products for dry skin are the ones that include AHA in their formulation. And if you have read a thing or two about AHA you wouldn’t be surprised.
Apart from AHAs, DIY and over-the-counter physical exfoliants can also potentially work well for dry skin.
However, over-exfoliating, scrubbing too hard, or using a product that’s too strong can have an opposite effect on dry skin - it can make it even drier.
Here’s where BHA shines. Its oil-loving molecules are perfect for finding excess oil and breaking it down, clearing the pores, leaving the skin clean and oil-free.
Apart from salicylic acid, glycolic acid or some over-the-counter physical scrub would also be a good choice.
Combination skin is a little tricky and a good timetable might do the deal. Instead of focusing on one exfoliant method, you should combine a few of them and focus on specific areas, because combination skin is a combination of oily and dry, right?
Use AHA-based chemical exfoliant for your dry areas, and a BHA-based chemical exfoliant or a physical scrub for your oily areas. First, treat the dry areas, treat your oily areas the next day. Don’t do everything in one day to make sure you won’t over-exfoliate the skin.
If you are in this group than consider yourself lucky. People with normal skin type don’t get irritated as easily and are free to experiment with many exfoliation methods until they find the one that they like best. Just remember, don’t overdo it by using too many products in a short period of time - stick to one product at a time and give it a few weeks before you decide whether you like it.
The purpose of exfoliation is to clear out the pores from dead skin cell buildup, and that’s true of both chemical and physical exfoliants.
Physical exfoliation accomplishes this by scrubbing away the dead skin cells, while chemical exfoliation works by dissolving them.
This benefit is a result of the cleaner pores you’ll be getting after your exfoliation skincare step.
Some people are genetically predisposed to have larger pores and there isn’t much one can do about it. But, large pores can be a result of a buildup of dirt, dead skin cells, debris, and excess oil that keeps getting inside, all of which makes pores look more prominent, even if they aren’t in fact, larger than usual.
When the pores are clear, they are tighter and much less noticeable.
With exfoliation, you are increasing blood circulation, breaking down toxins, stimulating collagen production, and encouraging new skin cells to come through.
Removing damaged skin cells helps remove superficial marks, spots, and scars on the face because the cells underneath are fresh, new, and undamaged.
The increase in collagen production helps the skin heal faster and more effectively, as well as maintain its elasticity, something that further prevents the formation of new wrinkles and scars.
Sometimes the products we use for our skin are great - but they’re unable to actually reach our skin’s pores from everything that’s clogging them. Even if we can’t see or notice this with the naked eye, the question of how much our skin is actually absorbing the good (often expensive) active ingredients of a product always remains. This is why the steps the order in which you use your products in a skincare routine is so important. You start with cleansing, proceed with toning/exfoliation, and apply serums and moisturizers at the end. Also, this is the reason why you should never ever apply a mask or cream, (or anything for that matter) on your face before you’ve cleaned it.
When exfoliants remove the superficial layer of dead and damaged cells the other products have a much higher chance to act on the living cells beneath them.
Exfoliating every day is bad for the skin and can lead to a lot of side-effects.
Over-exfoliating can strip away the skin from its natural oils which in turn can cause excess oil production and new, more frequent breakouts.
Exfoliating is great for wrinkle reduction, but over-exfoliating can actually lead to more wrinkles and fine lines over time because it will make the skin thinner.
If you use too strong or abrasive products, exfoliation can lead to burning, irritation, and blemished or red skin.
When you introduce an exfoliation step in your skincare routine, make sure you adjust it with the other products you are using. For example, there are some topical prescriptions or even over-the-counter products that can make your skin really sensitive and vulnerable. Adding an exfoliant, in this case, can make things worse.
Additionally, not using a moisturizer after exfoliating can make your skin dry, dull, and even blemished.
Take your time to learn all about the procedure, the methods, and the products before making a decision. As we already mentioned, not every exfoliant is good for every skin type. Experiment and try new things - just not too frequently!
Exfoliation is great and your skin needs it - there’s no question about that. But finding the right exfoliating methods can take some time - so be patient.
If you are an exfoliation newbie you should definitely start slowly. Exfoliate once a week with a really gentle product. Don’t reach for higher concentrations right away. Results won’t come sooner, but the damage will.
After a couple of weeks have passed you can start exfoliating three times a week and see how that goes. There are no strict schedules or rules you are obliged to follow. You need to be the one that’s gonna create rules and schedules.
How? Listen to your skin by feeling and observing every sensation it gives back after you’ve put it through a new treatment.
It’s important to lock hydration after your skin was exfoliated, which means you should always apply a moisturizer at the end of your skincare routine.
Well, there’s no strict rule and it also depends on your skin type. If you have normal or combination skin you can exfoliate up to three times a week.
If you have sensitive skin then stick to a once-a-week schedule.