Exfoliation is touted as the key to achieving glowing and radiant skin. Regardless of your age, your skin will benefit from this skincare step.
Specifically, exfoliation is the process of shedding dead cells from the surface of the skin. Our skin cells typically shed and replace themselves every three weeks, revealing a fresh and younger-looking layer of skin cells beneath it.
As we grow older, however, the rate of shedding slows down dramatically. The buildup of dead cells leaves a dry, dull, uneven, and flaky finish to the skin complexion. It can also clog the pores, which, in turn, causes acne.
Adding exfoliation into your skincare routine helps the natural shedding process of the skin and encourages healthier smoother, more even-toned skin. If you choose to exfoliate, it’s essential to do so safely so that it does not damage your skin or cause redness or acne breakouts.
Benefits of Exfoliation
Exfoliation helps rid your skin of the remnant dead skin cells. As a result, your skin complexion looks healthier and brighter immediately after. Exfoliation will also increase the effectiveness of topical skincare products by enhancing absorption.
Furthermore, if you have acne-prone skin, exfoliation can help clear out pores and prevent acne breakouts. It can also help fade acne scars by accelerating skin cell turnover and by stimulating collagen production.
Exfoliation may also fade age spots and reduce the visibility of fine lines and wrinkles.
Types of Exfoliators
There are two types of skin exfoliation – mechanical and chemical. Your skin type should determine the exfoliation method you choose. It depends on what your skin reacts best.
As a general rule-of-thumb, acne-prone and highly-sensitive skin respond well to chemical exfoliants as they are less likely to irritate.
Chemical exfoliators refer to acids or enzymes that peel off dead skin cells. It is usually found in the form of peels and pads.
In contrast, mechanical exfoliators, also known as physical exfoliators, refer to face brushes, scrub, or microdermabrasion device that remove dead skin cells manually. These tend to be more abrasive than chemical exfoliators.
A mechanical exfoliant, also known as a physical exfoliant, refers to any product that requires a scrubbing or rubbing action. It could be a scrub or brush that you apply manually with your hands or a battery-powered alternative that does the scrubbing action for you.
Some of the common types of mechanical exfoliants include:
- Battery-powered facial brush
- Granular facial scrubs or body scrubs
- Konjac and loofah sponges
- High-tech flannels or cleaning clothes
They’re practical, but can also be abrasive. It’s like sandpapering a block of wood – the friction from the buffing the skin back and forth lifts the stuck dead cells. The abrasiveness of mechanical exfoliation depends on several factors:
- The type of exfoliating particle (how large, how smooth, how hard)
- How you move them across your skin (what direction you go in, how hard you press, how long you rub it in for)
You might opt for a mechanical exfoliant if you want something that:
- Gives immediate results (a.k.a. instant gratification)
- Won’t interfere with the rest of your skincare routine
- Stimulates blood circulation and reduce puffiness
Mechanical exfoliation can be too harsh for sensitive skin. If the exfoliator is extremely rough, it can irritate the skin and cause redness. Hence, it’s important to follow up with a humectant oil or serum to minimize irritation and lock in moisture.
Facial brush is the pinnacle of at-home mechanical exfoliation because:
- Offers a more in-depth cleanse and the bristles penetrate the skin surface, therefore getting rid of more dirt and oil.
- Speeds up the skin renewal process.
- Tightens skin and shrinks the appearance of pores over time.
- Stimulates the surface of the skin, making it more radiant and smooth.
- Stimulates detoxification of the lymphatic system.
- Prep skin for the rest of skincare routine.
The best facial brushes will offer a deep clean and prep your skin for subsequent skincare products.
It’s normal to experience an acne flare-up if you’re using a cleansing brush for the first time. This is known as “skin purging” or “adjustment period.” Generally, your temples, cheeks, and chin are the most prone to breakouts. You should observe an improvement within 2-3 weeks. If the sensitivity persists, you may take a break from exfoliation until your skin calms down and reverts to the normal state. After a while, you may slowly reintroduce exfoliation into your routine.
Face scrubs are ideal for both oily and dry skin types because they buff away dry skin and dramatically revamp skin texture.
The ideal mechanical exfoliant for you depends on the thickness and sensitivity of your skin. There is a wide variety of mechanical exfoliants with different sizes:
- Larger granules. People with oilier complexions have large sebaceous glands and are therefore able to tolerate more abrasive exfoliants, such as magnesium oxide crystals or pumice stone.
- Smaller granules. Those with drier, sensitive skin should use products with finer granules, such as jojoba beads and ruby crystals.
DIY sugar scrubs
A popular type of face scrub that you can make at home is known as “sugar scrubs.” It’s a sweet treat that your skin can’t resist.
Sugar, milk, coffee, and honey are four of the secret ingredients of a superpower sugar scrub. Sugar and milk contain acids that exfoliate the skin. Also, coffee may offer potent antioxidants and promote collagen production when used topically. Manuka honey, on the other hand, can aid in wound healing.
Here’s a secret sugar recipe that we would like to share with our WellPrevail community.
- ½ cup coffee grounds
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp milk or buttermilk
- 1 tsp manuka honey
- Combine all ingredients in an airtight container. Stir well.
- Gently wet your face with water or face mist.
- Spread scrub over your face and neck. Avoid your eyes.
- Wet your hands and gently rub the scrub into your skin in a circular motion for 3-4 minutes.
- Rinse off using lukewarm water. Pat dry.
- Store the remaining scrub in a fridge.
Microdermabrasion is a minimally invasive exfoliation procedure. It involves a stream of microcrystals or tiny diamond-studded tips that buff and polish your skin, and also gently vacuum loose dead skin cells from your face. This abrasive impact removes dead skin cells and impurities. The body interprets it as an injury and therefore stimulates collagen and elastin production, resulting in a dramatic improvement of overall skin tone and texture. It also allows topical skincare to penetrate more deeply and effectively.
Microdermabrasion can address the following skin concerns:
- Dull complexion
- Uneven skin tone and texture
- Acne and acne scars
- Fine lines and wrinkles
- Stretch marks
- Hyperpigmentation, age spots, and brown spots
- Melasma (dark spots or patches on the skin)
- Sun damage
Microdermabrasion is considered safe for all skin types and tones. However, it is not useful for deeper problems such as scars, stretch marks, wrinkles, or deep acne scars.
For a few days after microdermabrasion, you may notice:
- Skin swelling
- Skin redness, similar to sunburn
- A burning or stinging sensation
- Increased sensitivity to sunlight
After the procedure, use sun protection and moisturizer to reduce the risk of side effects.
Nevertheless, microdermabrasion is not for everyone. Avoid it if you have skin conditions such as rosacea, eczema, active sunburn, herpes, lupus, open sores, psoriasis, fragile capillaries, or widespread acne. Under such circumstances, microdermabrasion can irritate your skin and cause further breakouts.
If you prefer to do-it-yourself, you may consider an at-home microdermabrasion kit.
Dermaplanning is an exfoliating treatment that is usually done in-office. It involves gently scraping the surface of your skin with an exfoliating surgical scalpel to remove the dead skin cells and peach fuzz from your face. It’s also called microplanning or blading.
The procedure aims to erase fine lines and deep acne scarring. It also makes your skin’s surface smooth, radiant, and younger.
Dermaplanning is safe and low-risk for most people. It doesn’t require any downtime for recovery. Nevertheless, you may experience slight redness or whiteheads shortly after the treatment. Use sunscreen to reduce sensitivity to the sun. As the redness subsides, you’ll be able to see the results more clearly afterward.
Chemical exfoliation uses different hydroxy acids, retinol, and enzymes to break the bond that holds dead skin cells together, allowing the dead skin to fall off.
Several forms of chemical exfoliators exist, including medicated acne cleansers, serums, toners, and peels.
These chemical exfoliators can penetrate the inner layer of the skin to increase your natural exfoliation rate. You will notice the results after a month or two of regular use.
Types of Chemical exfoliants
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Best for dry, sensitive, redness-prone skin. AHAs water-soluble acids are derived from natural sources, such as fruit, milk, or sugar. Two of the most popular AHAs are glycolic acid (from sugar cane) and lactic acid (from milk). Other types include citric acid (from citrus fruits), tartaric acid (from grapes), and malic acid (from apples). AHAs work to refine, plump, and smoothen the skin’s surface, all while encouraging skin cell turnover. Do not use AHAs if your skin is prone to permanent brown discoloration after they’re irritated. If you have sensitive skin, you should start with lactic acid, which is the mildest of the AHAs. Glycolic acids, on the other hand, are stronger and faster-acting.
Beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Best for oily, acne-prone skin. BHAs oil-soluble acids penetrate deep into your skin to expunge excess oils and sloughs off dead skin cells. It can, therefore, treat blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. There’s only one common BHA: salicylic acid, a cult-favorite acne treatment. It can be used on dark skin.
Retinoids. Retinoids are derived from vitamin A. They soothe sun-damaged skin, erase signs of aging, and curb acne. There are several types of topical retinoids available, including retinol, alitretinoin, tretinoin, adapalene, and bexarotene. Retinoids vary in concentration.
Enzymes. If your skin is sensitive, you should opt for enzyme-based exfoliants derived from a natural source, such as fruits. Enzymes work at a relatively slow pace, so it allows for a safe and gentle exfoliating process. Common examples include papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple).
Who is it for?
Chemical exfoliants are excellent for problematic skin – whether it’s prone to acne, sensitivity, eczema, dryness, or sensitivity.
You might opt for a chemical exfoliation if you want something that:
- Is quick and easy to use
- Requires no scrubbing (great for problematic skin types)
- Penetrates deeper than a physical exfoliant, i.e., offer longer-lasting results
- Help reduce signs of aging
- Continues to work after application
Chemical peels can be used to:
- Improve skin tone and texture
- Reduce wrinkles and fine lines
- Treat certain types of acne
- Eliminate age spots, dark spots (melasma), and freckles
Wash your face with a regular cleanser. If your chemical exfoliant comes in a pre-moisturized cloth or pad, apply this all over your entire face, neck, decollete and even the tops of your hands. Wait a few minutes for the chemical exfoliant to be absorbed into the skin. Then, finish off with a serum or moisturizer. Follow the instructions provided by the chemical peel manufacturer.
Apply the chemical exfoliator every alternate night on clean, dry skin.
After a chemical exfoliation, your skin may be temporarily hypersensitive to the sun. It is thus essential to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day.
What works best for your skin type?
Since each type of exfoliator has different properties, it’s essential to consider your skin type and concerns before choosing an exfoliation method for you.
If your skin stings or is easily irritated after using new products, then you have sensitive skin. BHA acids are generally most suitable for sensitive skin because it is less irritating than other chemical or mechanical exfoliants.
People with normal skin can try any exfoliating technique or product. It’s ultimately down to personal preference.
AHAs such as glycolic acid can penetrate through the surface layer of your skin, allowing the moisturizer to hydrate new skin cells more effectively.
People with oily skin can tolerate stronger chemical or mechanical exfoliators, such as motorized brushes. Facial scrubs may also be a good option.
Look for products containing retinoids, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid.
Combination skin is a mix of dry and oily skin sections. Focus on each area individually and use products that suit that particular section of the skin. For example, you may use a low-level AHA acid on dry regions one day and use a higher-level chemical exfoliator or scrub on oily areas the next day.
Beware of over-exfoliation
Less is more. The goal is not to feel a sting or to turn beet red – it’s to assist your body’s natural exfoliation process.
Over-exfoliating can deplete too much of that protective barrier necessary for retaining moisture. As a result, over-exfoliation can leave you with dry skin. In other cases, exfoliating can be too harsh for sensitive skin and irritate.
How often you should exfoliate depends on your skin:
- Sensitive skin. Use once or twice a week, max. Be extra gentle and exfoliate with a mild chemical exfoliant or a warm, wet microfiber cloth.
- For oily skin. Your skin has a higher tolerance for heavy-duty exfoliants, and you can exfoliate up to five times a week.
- For normal to combination skin. Limit your exfoliation to up to three times a week.
Is Body Exfoliator suitable for the Face?
You shouldn’t use a body-specific exfoliator for the face, and vice versa.
Exfoliators designed for the body tend to be more aggressive than products intended for the face. Your facial skin is more delicate than elsewhere on your body. Using a body-specific product on your face can result in microtears and other irritation.
Using a facial exfoliator on your body won’t cause any harm, but the formula may not be potent enough to produce substantial results.
The Bottom Line
With regular exfoliation comes blemishless skin.
The skin cell turnover rate declines with age, which is why exfoliation is vital to keep skin looking fresh, healthy, and youthful. Whether you choose a mechanical or chemical exfoliant, both will help your skin slough more quickly on its own.