Exfoliation sloughs off dead skin to reveal healthier, newer cells. This leads to a luminous, younger-looking complexion and helps your skin absorb moisturizers and other products. Here’s a comprehensive look at different types of exfoliants, what products to use and how often to use them.
What is it?
Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. Why bother? After skin cells form, they trek through the epidermis toward the top layer — drying out and dying along the way.
When cells reach the surface, they build up, making your skin look thick, rough and lifeless. Individuals over 30 years old are more prone to cell buildup, because natural cell turnover tends to slow as we age. Exfoliation takes care of this buildup, replacing the dead cells on the surface of your skin with fresher, healthier cells.
Types of exfoliants
Exfoliants are generally classified as two types: physical (also known as mechanical) and chemical. Physical exfoliants use abrasive ingredients to remove dead skin cells, while chemical exfoliants use enzymes or acids.
Physical (or mechanical) exfoliation
To slough off dead cells, physical exfoliants use the following ingredients:
- Jojoba beads
- Coffee grounds
- Synthetic microbeads
- Pumice stone particles
Common physical exfoliants include:
- Scrubs and other products such as pads containing abrasive ingredients
- Microdermabrasion, which removes the top layer of skin by using a device that sprays aluminum dioxide crystals
You’ll find a variety of physical exfoliants on the market. Here’s a quick list of our favorites:
- NIA24 Physical Cleansing Scrub boasts jojoba beads to exfoliate the skin, Pro-Niacin to strengthen skin’s barrier and chamomile, oat and sage to calm the skin. Plus, Pro-Niacin improves skin texture, tone and discoloration.
These exfoliants dissolve the bonds between dead cells on the skin’s surface using the following acids or enzymes:
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), including glycolic, lactic, malic, citric and tartaric acids
- Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), including salicylic acid. Unlike AHAs, BHAs are more effective at entering oil glands and exfoliating cell residue, which is what helps to treat acne, reports Household & Personal Products Industry
- Retinoids, including adapalene, tazarotene and tretinoin
- Natural enzymes, including bromelain from pineapple, pancreatin from certain meats and papain from papaya
Common chemical exfoliants include:
- Lotions, gels, scrubs and other exfoliating products containing AHAs, BHAs or natural enzymes
- Prescribed retinoids, such as Retin A, Differin and Tazorac
- Chemical peels, such as AHA and BHA, carbolic/phenol and trichloroacetic acid (TCA) and natural enzyme peels
Here’s a list of a few of our favorite chemical exfoliants:
- skyn ICELAND Nordic Skin Peel combines lactic acid and papaya fruit extract to exfoliate the skin. Botanicals such as white willow bark and green tea comfort, restore and protect the skin.
In addition to removing dead skin cells — thereby creating a radiant complexion and allowing skin to better absorb active ingredients from other products — exfoliating can also:
- Boost circulation. In her book, Spa Bodywork, Anne Williams notes that friction treatments, such as body polishes, salt and sugar glows and loofahs can act on circulation and lymph flow. Also, improved circulation might increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the skin.
- Help with the appearance of fine lines. However, exfoliation won’t combat wrinkles. Exfoliation “generally does not improve significant wrinkles since its effects do not reach the dermis where wrinkles are formed,” writes G. Todorov, Ph.D., of Smart Skin Care.
A scrub for your skin type
To effectively exfoliate your skin, choose a product based on your skin type.
Dry skin: Use products with the chemical exfoliant AHA, because you only need surface exfoliation and don't want to cause further dryness, writes Paula Begoun in The Complete Beauty Bible: The Ultimate Guide to Smart Beauty.
Oily skin: Look for exfoliants with BHA, because it exfoliates the skin’s surface and inside the pores. Also, you can incorporate a gentle physical exfoliant in your regimen, suggests Begoun.
Acne-prone skin: Exfoliation is particularly important for this skin type, because it generates more dead skin cells. Plus, these cells easily get trapped on the skin’s surface, further clogging pores.
Ditch physical exfoliants, which can aggravate acne, and opt for a BHA product gentle enough for daily use, advises About’s acne expert Angela Palmer. If you need a stronger treatment, ask your dermatologist about prescription retinoids.
Normal and combination skin: Try a BHA and a mild physical exfoliant. Normal types also benefit from at-home microdermabrasion treatments, esthetician Camille Capone tells Natural Foods Merchandiser. “After exfoliation, skin is primed for soaking up nutrients, so it's always good to follow up microdermabrasion with a vitamin and mineral-enriched serum,” she adds.
Sensitive skin: Avoid exfoliating products with a high concentration of glycolic acid — or test the product first to make sure it doesn't cause irritation. Retinoids are irritating as well and might not be appropriate for sensitive skin. Instead, opt for gentle scrubs designed specifically for sensitive skin.
- Product pick: Avene Gentle Purifying Scrub uses non-abrasive beads for gentle mechanical exfoliation. This paraben- and oil-free formula contains Avene Thermal Spring Water to calm and soften the skin.
Eczema or rosacea: Some skincare experts advise against exfoliating the skin if you have eczema, rosacea or a similar skin condition. Your best bet is to consult a dermatologist.
How often to exfoliate
Your skin type doesn’t just determine the type of product you use; it also determines how often you use that product. Other factors include strength of the scrub and application technique, writes Todorov.
Some exfoliants include specific instructions on frequency. If not, follow these guidelines, according to Woman’s Day.
- Dry and sensitive skin: Once a week
- Normal and combination skin: Up to twice a week
- Oily skin: Every other day
If you’re just starting a scrub, use it one to two times a week to reduce the risk of irritation.
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