Exfoliation is a natural process where the body sheds dead skin cells, allowing brand-new, fresh skin to be revealed. As we age, that process (called cell-turnover) starts to slow down, allowing dead skin cells to build up, and eventually resulting in dullness, more visible wrinkles, and clogged and/or enlarged pores. When we speed up the process of cell-turnover, we can help skin look younger, smoother, and brighter.
Different Types of Exfoliation
First, we need to talk about the different types of exfoliation. There are mechanical exfoliants (scrubs, brushes, & salts) that physically breakdown the dead skin cells. Then there are chemical exfoliants (acids & enzymes) that sit gently on the skin for up to 3 minutes allowing them to get rid of the dead skin cells and keep living ones. Both are affective and have their place in a good exfoliating routine.
There are two major types of chemical exfoliators: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).
Alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble acids that are safe for dry and sensitive skin because of their moisture-binding properties that allow the skin to keep from becoming dehydrated. The most common ones are glycolic acid, mandelic acid, and lactic acid.
Lactic acid (derived from milk) is the most gentle of AHAs which makes it ideal for sensitive skin. It's also really good for anti-aging as it targets lines and wrinkles.
Glycolic acid (derived from sugar cane) is one of the most common AHAs because it provides a significant amount of exfoliation which makes it an all around treatment for many skin concerns.
Citric acid is made from citrus fruit extracts. Its main purpose is to neutralize the skin’s pH levels and to even out rough patches of skin.
Mandelic acid contains larger molecules derived from almond extracts. It can be combined with other AHAs to increase exfoliation, or used alone, to improve texture and minimize the appearance of pores.
Kojic acid (derived from rice) is used as a lightening agent to target dark spots and pigmentation problems. It's also used to brighten up a dull complexion.
AHAs have been shown to help boost collagen production, leaving skin firmer and plumper, and can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles!
Beta hydroxy acids are oil-soluble acids that are a great for treating oily, congested skin, and the most common one is salicylic acid. It’s well-known as an acne treatment, but it can also help calm down general redness and inflammation. All BHAs work as chemical exfoliants, increase cell turnover and healing rates, and can help kill bad bacteria. BHAs can be a bit drying, but the benefits can be immense for oily, clogged skin - just be sure to use a moisturizer!
Enzyme exfoliation is another type of chemical exfoliation that breaks down the "glue" that holds dead skin cells together. Enzyme exfoliation works more gently than AHA chemical exfoliants to shed skin cells and speed up the skin's natural exfoliation process. Enzyme exfoliation can be used instead of a stronger acid to gently remove aging dead cells, awaken dull skin and target pores.
Mechanical exfoliation is physically removing the dead skin cells with the use of a slightly rough washcloth, facial scrub, or cleansing brush. While mechanical exfoliation can have many of the benefits for skin that chemical exfoliation does, you have to be careful about the tools you may choose to use. A gentle rotating brush (like a Clarisonic) or washcloth are great choices, but many facial scrubs, especially those containing microbeads, can cause tiny cuts in the skin. Make sure any scrubs you choose to use are gentle, and don’t contain sharp ingredients like ground nut shells or microbeads. When rubbing a scrub onto your face, use light pressure and go slowly. Where the skin is concerned, the gentler the tool the better!
How To Use:
Chemical exfoliants come in a wide range of concentrations, which can be very confusing for first-time users. A good rule of thumb is to start by using products with low concentrations of acid.
For salicylic acid products, look for around 1-2% concentration of acid to start. Glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid can be a bit higher while still remaining gentle, but around 10% concentration or lower is enough to see results. All types exfoliants should be used at night time only and no more than 3 times a week. No matter which exfoliant you choose, the strong exfoliating effects make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Make sure to wear sunscreen every morning to prevent burns, age spots, and increased skin cancer risk.
What To Use For Each Skin Type:
Sensitive skin - enzymes or lactic acid
Dry skin - any AHA or enzyme
Combination skin - any AHA or BHA (customize to use BHAs on oily t-zone and AHAs everywhere else)
Oily skin - BHAs & mechanical exfoliation (Can use any enzyme or AHA in conjunction with BHAs)
Exfoliating is important to help keep the skin clear, bright, and youthful. It also opens the pores and allows for easy penetration of active serums and products into the skin for better results. When you first begin exfoliating some purging of the skin may occur. Some minimal breakouts are normal and necessary for your skin to be able to purge out all unwanted oils and sebum. In this case using a toner to help reduce redness and inflammation will be very beneficial!