When it comes to skincare knowledge, exfoliation is an important step you’re taught from a very young age. You must remember those days of vigorously scrubbing your face with a $0.99 sachet of peach scrub in seventh grade, right? Or getting together with your besties on the weekend to make a homemade facial concoction of oats and honey or coffee grounds and yogurt. No? Just us then.
But seriously, exfoliation is almost a rite of passage throughout your teens when hormones start to play havoc with your complexion and you realize that the soft, flawless complexion you used to take for granted, does not last forever. Sigh.
The problem with exfoliation, however, is that so many get it so wrong. And we’re not just talking about 15 to 20 years ago when you didn’t really know any better. Exfoliation can stump even the most beauty savvy of adults. From scrubbing your skin like your life depended on it to exfoliating daily (sometimes even twice a day), the struggle for perfectly exfoliated skin is real. But it can do more harm than good.
Let’s discuss how to exfoliate properly.
The Importance of Exfoliating Your Skin
Exfoliation is key for the health of your skin because of one reason: cell turnover. Cell turnover is the process by which the deeper levels of your skin produce new cells, which move up through to epidermis to replace those that have died. When they reach the surface (the stratum corneum), they shed through a process called desquamation.
Your body’s exfoliation process slows and weakens as you age. For example, babies’ skin cells turn over at an approximate rate of every 14 days whereas by your teenage years, this process has already slowed down dramatically to every 28 days or so. This decline continues to get sluggish as you age and can slow down to an almost snail’s pace of up to 90 days in certain cases.
As well as your age, cell turnover can be determined by a whole bunch of other factors including your genes, hormones, lifestyle, and exposure to environmental stressors such as pollution and sun damage. While you can’t control your genes or turn back the clock, leading a healthy lifestyle and protecting your skin goes a long way in keeping your cell turnover at its optimum rate.
When cell turnover becomes inefficient, dead skin cells build up on the surface of your skin causing dullness, poor texture, blocked pores, and uneven skin tone. Exfoliating helps speed up this process by removing those dead skin cells, improving circulation, and generally boosting the skin’s natural desquamation process.
But how does exfoliation actually work? Well, it’s generally split into two camps: physical and chemical.
What Is Physical Exfoliation?
Physical exfoliation, like the name suggests, uses a physical stimulus to exfoliate the skin. There are four typical types of physical (sometimes known as mechanical) exfoliants: cleansing scrubs, brushes or loofahs, microdermabrasion, and dermaplaning.
Skincare scrubs have been around for decades. Hundreds of manufacturers produce them, and they’re an inexpensive way to exfoliate your skin so they certainly have their place in the world – if you shop wisely. However, they often contain ingredients like ground fruit pits or nutshells, which can be super sharp and can cause micro-tears on the surface of your skin. That is not good news, so these type of harsh scrubbing ingredients should be avoided at all costs. An alternative used to be plastic micro-beads, but these are now banned in cosmetic products in the US because they’re terrible for the environment. Instead, look for products containing jojoba beads, rice granules, or sugar.
If you like the idea of physical exfoliation, you could also try microdermabrasion at the doctor’s office. Microdermabrasion works by combining microcrystals with a vacuum suction to remove dead cells from the uppermost layers of the skin. It also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin below the surface to promote stronger, more youthful-looking skin over time. Dermaplaning is another interesting option that gently shaves the skin’s surface to scrape off small, downy hairs from the face as well as the upper-most layers of dead skin cells. It sounds weird, but many celebrities and beauty experts swear by it for smooth, glowy skin. Ask your skincare specialist if either of these might be good options for your concerns.
In our opinion, however, chemical exfoliation is the ‘real’ deal…
What Is Chemical Exfoliation?
Rather than using physical aids to exfoliate the skin, chemical exfoliants use chemicals to boost cell turnover. As with physical scrubs, chemical exfoliants can be used as part of your at-home skincare regime, but professional chemical peels are also a great option if you’re looking for super speedy results or have more serious skin concerns like discoloration or acne scarring.
Chemical exfoliants work by loosening the bonds between cells, which causes them to loosen and slough away. Most use alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or a combination of both.
AHAs are naturally-occurring, water-soluble substances like lactic acid or glycolic acid, whereas BHAs are oil-soluble substances like salicylic acid. Both AHAs and BHAs are very effective at exfoliating the skin, but because BHAs are oil soluble, they are also able to cut through any excess sebum that may be clogging your pores. This makes BHAs the more obvious choice for oily, inflamed or acne-prone skin. AHAs, on the other hand, are awesome all-rounders, perfect anti-agers and great for all skin types.
Our all-time favorite AHA is lactic acid, which is one of the most highly researched skin acids and the hero ingredient of our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment. Lactic acid is extracted from either fermented milk or vegan sources like beets, tapioca, or corn starch and has a pretty large molecular size. This makes it way more tolerable than glycolic acid but with none of the skincare benefits taken away.
The 4 Golden Rules for Exfoliating Like a Pro
Given that chemical exfoliators are superior to physical exfoliators, here’s a quick guide for making sure you get the most from your exfoliation routine.
- Know Your Skin Type
Your skin will determine the type of exfoliator you should use. The best way to figure out which one to use is by cleansing your skin and then leaving it for a few hours without applying any skincare product or makeup. After some time, check out your skin in the mirror and feel it with clean, dry hands. If it already feels and looks dry and flaky, you have dry skin whereas if it’s shiny and feels a little slick to the touch, you have oily skin. Dryness on your cheeks coupled with a shiny t-zone indicates combination skin, redness probably means it’s sensitive, and if it looks and feels pretty normal, then that’s exactly what it is.
When you know your skin type, then you can make a judgement on the type of chemical exfoliator to go for. AHAs are excellent for most skin types, and lactic acid is required if you have sensitive skin because it is one of the gentlest acids available.
- Never Over-Exfoliate
Cell turnover is a continuous process, but this doesn’t mean you should start dousing your skin in AHAs and BHAs every time you wash your face. This can actually have terrible consequences and may cause damage to your skin in the form of redness, irritation, flaking, and breakouts.
Instead, start slowly regardless of your skin type. Two or three times a week is usually enough to start with (perhaps even less if you have extremely sensitive skin). After a few weeks, you can build up to every other night or nightly depending on how well your skin tolerates it.
- Choose Chemical Exfoliation
While there are many cleansers out there containing AHAs and BHAs, experts agree that face acids are more effective when they’re left on your skin for a longer period of time.
This is why chemical peels are so great at getting the job done and why our Overnight Star Lactic Acid Treatment is an awesome way to allow all active ingredients to penetrate your skin and offer unbeatable exfoliation without irritating your skin.
- Wear Sunscreen Every Day
When incorporating active ingredients into your skincare routine, it’s important to protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun. AHAs, in particular, increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so if you’re using a chemical exfoliant that contains lactic, glycolic, citric, mandelic, or malic acid, make sure you apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every morning.