Skin Exfoliation 101: The Whats, Hows, and Whys

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Most of us know the basics of exfoliation. You may have learned about it in junior high when you started using the infamous St. Ives Apricot Scrub to make your skin feel silky and smooth, but exfoliation now goes far beyond a face wash with some scrubby bits in it.

In fact, the exfoliators you used back in the day probably had little plastic beads in them, which are now banned. Not only were these detrimental to the environment, but they could burst within the pores causing serious damage. All of those have since been replaced with rice, salt, sugar, and other natural physical exfoliators. But, what is a physical exfoliator?

It is what you would call a scrub. That body scrub you’re using and just about any cleanser from LUSH is a physical exfoliator. It is a skincare product you can feel scrubbing the dead cells. Hard or sharp bits are mixed into a cream or gel cleanser, and you can feel it scraping the skin. When you wash your face with a physical exfoliant, your skin should feel smoother and softer to the touch immediately.

The same goes for exfoliating gloves and cleansing brushes. These products buff away dead skin cells from the surface to reveal more smooth and glowing skin. But what are the alternatives for those who find these sorts of scrubbing products irritating? And how often should you exfoliate your skin? Are the rules different for the face and the body? These are all questions I will answer for you right now.

First of all, there are no rules when it comes to skincare. Of course, you should drink plenty of water, always be gentle, and never sleep with makeup on, but everyone’s skin reacts differently. Some skin types may thrive with a physical exfoliant like the Mario Badescu Botanical Scrub that uses finely ground palm seeds to polish the skin and clear congestion, currently one of my favorites as it helps slough off my top layer of dry and flaky winter skin. Although my skin is quite sensitive, it works wonders for me, but others could find the grainy texture of this scrub still irritating and causing redness.

If that sounds like you, a chemical exfoliant may be more up your alley. I know, the word “chemical” sounds harsh and intense, but as long as you choose the right potency in your skincare, it can do amazing things. When you think of a chemical peel, you may think of rashes, pain, and even raw texture that takes days to heal. But, chemical exfoliants are often much calmer and gentler than you might think. In fact, using a serum or moisturizer that features alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids or enzymes will exfoliate the surface of the skin without the manual aspect of a scrub. One of the most loved chemical exfoliators on the market right now is the Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment. This luxurious serum helps fight texture issues, dullness, dark spots, and even aging. Its high level of lactic acid is paired with calming and healing ingredients like aloe and arnica to offer the best results while still remaining gentle.

But AHAs and BHAs are not the same. AHAs are made of natural substances, which make them ideal for dryer skin. They help reveal softer and brighter skin over time, but are a bit more gentle than BHAs which dive deeper into the pores. BHAs are more suited for those with oily skin types, acne, or blackheads. They have antimicrobial and antibacterial components, which help to thoroughly clean the pores. And you can, in fact, use both BHAs and AHAs together without overstimulating the skin. But, enzymes are the most gentle of them all. Things like pineapple or papaya enzymes are even more careful on the skin, because they only reach the top layer. The Kiehl’s Pineapple Papaya Scrub is a great starter product for those with the most sensitive of skin types.

But no matter which you choose to use, the golden rule is the gentler the better. Even if you think your skin can handle a higher percentage of BHAs or AHAs you always want to start slow and low, and build your way up to a higher potency of chemicals or grainy textures. If you scrub your skin like crazy or try a ton of exfoliating products all at once, you will likely irritate your skin and cause damage rather than doing it any good. You also do not need to exfoliate your skin everyday. Just like using a face mask, 3-5 times a week seems to be the sweet spot for most people, because exfoliation has so many benefits, it can be tempting to go all in everyday and at once, but like everything else in life, moderation is key.

And do not forget, exfoliation goes hand in hand with SPF. Whether you are brushing, rubbing, or chemically exfoliating, any level of acids or retexturizing makes the skin more sensitive to the sun and requires more protection.

So now that you know the difference between these exfoliating methods, why is exfoliating so important? Well, exfoliating makes the surface look better, but it also accelerates the skin’s healing process. When ridding the skin of its debris, cells turnover is improved and products like serums, moisturizers, and treatments penetrate the skin to clear away dry skin, oils, dead skin cells, dirt, and pigmentation leading to faster and better visible results.

What should you look out for? When it comes to exfoliation always check the label. If the physical exfoliant you are considering features something large like nuts that are not finely grained the product can actually harm your skin by causing micro-tears. These may not be visible to the naked eye at first, but can create an uneven texture that cannot be healed. As long as you choose a scrub that has smaller granules and feels mild, you should be just fine.

According to just about every dermatologist that I have read interviews with, chemical exfoliants are best for those with sensitive and acne-prone skin. This is because chemicals can gently break through the skin without a hard substance like salt or sugar irritating a skin that is already inflamed. Drier or more normal skin types can use just about any of the options I have laid out here, but as with all skincare, trial and error are a part of finding your holy grails.

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Finally, exfoliating your body is also important. Especially during these brutal winter months when your knees go ashy, your elbows crack, and your skin always feels tight. The skin on your body is much less sensitive than the skin on your face and neck, so physical exfoliators tend to be the go to. They are often cheaper to make and since you use a lot more body wash and body lotion than face products, scrubs are the most popular. Scrubs in a jar like the ones from Tree Hut tend to be a bit more intense and the ones that come in bottles like Soap & Glory The Scrub Of Your Life are often a lot milder. Something that has worked wonders for Fatima, is the Castle Baths Tre’Yours, a 100% natural and handmade body scrub with essential oils. It leaves the skin moisturized and soft, a great option for dry skin types. But, if you steer clear from scrubs due to allergies or sensitive skin, exfoliating gloves or mitts can be used with any body wash or soap you like. They help to exfoliate the skin with a slightly rougher texture than your average washcloth. You can find these in just about every drugstore for a few bucks and they can be reused as well. But something your body and face have in common is that they do not need to be exfoliated daily. My rule of thumb is to scrub your body as often as you scrub your scalp. And in between days, you can shave, which is sometimes enough exfoliation for some, but others require a bit more care.

Hopefully, you are now well-versed in all things exfoliation. If not, please leave any question in the comments section below. I want you to get the absolute most out of all your skincare products, and that starts with the right exfoliation!

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BeautySamantha AnnComment