Exfoliation, a practice said to have been invented by the ancient Egyptians, is included in pretty much all facials and is the process of removing dead skin cells and any other unwanted debris that cling to the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin).
Regular exfoliation is an important part of maintaining healthy skin that both looks and feels great.
The skin undergoes a natural cell turnover process.
New skin cells are continually generated at the basal layer (stratum germinativum) of the epidermis. These are slowly pushed upwards onto the layer that we can see; the ‘horny layer’ or stratum corneum.
During this time they go from being plump regular looking cells to becoming dead, keratinised discs. These dead cells slowly slough off via a process called desquamation. Your entire epidermis is replaced though these processes roughly every 50 days.
Unfortunately sometimes things interfere with this process;
- Ageing slows down the process, and this can leave the skin looking dull and emphasise fine lines,
- Hormonal fluctuations can lead to excess sebum which can be trapped in pores by dead cells leading to break outs,
Exfoliating can help our skin along in the process and help restore clear, smooth, soft skin. It helps our other products (serums & moisturisers) penetrate and reach where they need to be. It’s not much use having them sit on the dead cells at the surface!
Types of Exfoliating Product
Exfoliants can be divided into two main types: manual and chemical.
Manual exfoliants (sometimes called physical or mechanical exfoliants) are rough textured products that pretty much scrape dead cells from the skin’s surface through an abrasive action.
Micro-beads, crushed apricot kernels, rice, oatmeal, facecloths, loofahs, konjac sponges, body and face brushes eg. Clarisonic, and some methods of depilation all exfoliate.
Be sure to only use products intended for facial use. Products for body exfoliation eg. sharp apricot kernels can be harmful to the face and cause irritation and infection without actually exfoliating!
Small plastic micro-beads (most frequently revealed as polyethylene or polypropylene on the ingredients list) are the safest for the facial skin. However, these are terrible for the environment and pollute our water and food supplies. Micro-beads will be banned in the UK from 2017.
The drawback with manual products is that it’s very easy to over-exfoliate simply by scrubbing too hard or too long. This can cause or exacerbate sensitivity. Signs of over-exfoliation include redness, tightness, stinging or burning, excessive dry patches and flaking skin.
Gently massage a manual product in circular motions on the skin. Despite the name, do not actually scrub! Let the product do the work for you.
Microdermabrasion is a technique which falls into this category, it can only be performed by a trained therapist although many scrubs on the market try to emulate the effect with ever finer grains.
Chemical exfoliants can be broken down into three groups. AHAs, BHAs and enzymes.
- AHAs: Alpha-hydroxy acid. Glycolic acid is probably the most popular, others are lactic acid, malic acid and citric acid. Their method of action is not fully understood.
- BHAs: Beta-hydroxy acid. In terms of skincare this usually only refers to salicylic acid. Salicylic acid helps to dissolve sebum plugs and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties making it exceptionally useful for acne prone skins.
- Enzymes: Some fruits such as papayas, pineapples and even some bacteria produce enzymes which can help with exfoliation. I’m not aware of any real research into how or why they work.
Both AHAs and BHAs have some unwanted side effects, such as irritation, making skin more sensitive to light after treatment and burning.
I always make doubly sure to wear an SPF after any kind of exfoliation. It’s particularly important with chemical exfoliants however due to the risk of sun damage.
How to Exfoliate
How often skin needs to be exfoliated differs from person to person depending on their skin type and environment. A good basic guideline is said to be once per week for dry or sensitive skins and twice per week for oily skins.
Most experts seem to agree that chemical treatments such as acid toners should not be used on a daily basis or even any more than once per week in most cases.
AHAs are increasingly being used in other skincare products such as moisturisers. It’s important to check labels and make sure you aren’t over using them.
When it comes to exfoliation less is definitely more. Remember konjac sponges, loofahs and face brushes like the Clarisonic are exfoliators too. It’s best not to use another exfoliator at the same time as one of these as we don’t want to risk over-exfoliating and damage the skin. Exfoliation can thin the skin, and we don’t want to our skin to become pre-maturely thinned.
Exfoliation when done correctly should leave your skin feeling softer and looking healthier – not red and irritated. If in doubt, leave it out!
I hope this post will be helpful to some of my readers, do let me know in the comments if you have any questions or would like me to talk about any of these points in more detail.
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