What’s Facial Exfoliation? And Should I Do It?

When the term “exfoliation” is used in the context of skin care, it refers to the removal of a superficial layer of dead skin cells, which are sloughed off routinely every month when we are young.

As we age, natural exfoliation of skin cells can take twice as long, resulting in the accumulation of a layer of dead skin cells.

This thicker layer of dead skin can cause the complexion to appear dull, discolored, and broken out (resulting from clogged pores).

Exfoliation, achieved by either mechanical or by chemical means, can make your skin look brighter, smoother, and more even; however, if done too aggressively, it can cause micro-tears that compromise the protective skin barrier.

Benefits of Exfoliation

Removal of layers of dead skin cells can help to brighten your complexion, reduce redness, smooth rough patches, fade acne scars and dark spots, and stimulate collagen production.

Exfoliation helps to unclog pores, which prevents breakouts and increases the effectiveness of other skincare products by allowing them to penetrate more deeply into the skin. It also helps to loosen ingrown hairs when done prior to shaving.

Types of Exfoliation

  1. Mechanical (physical) exfoliation requires physical force to remove dead skin cells; it can be achieved by using a sponge, a brush, or mild abrasive particles to smooth and refine the skin.
  2. Chemical exfoliation is usually more gentle on the skin than mechanical exfoliation; it utilizes acids or enzymes to loosen desmosomes that hold the dead skin cells together, facilitating their removal.
    1. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are water-soluble and exfoliate the surface of the skin. They draw in moisture to help keep the face hydrated. Types of AHAs include lactic acid, glycolic acid, mandelic acid, and tarteric acid.
      1. Lactic acid is the most gentle of the AHAs, which makes it an excellent choice for sensitive skin.
      2. AHAs should be applied every three nights on clean, dry skin when you are beginning to use them.
      3. AHAs should be allowed to penetrate the skin for about 10 minutes before application of subsequent skincare products.
      4. Glycolic acid is stronger and quicker-acting than lactic acid; it is appropriate for normal or oily skin.

        The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

    2. Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are oil-soluble and re-open oil-clogged pores to treat blackheads and comedones. They have anti-inflammatory properties, which help to reduce some of their irritating effects.
      1. Salicylic acid is a common type of BHA.
      2. BHAs can be irritating and drying if high concentrations are applied to the entire face.
      3. BHAs should be used every third night on clean, dry skin.

        Neutrogena Rapid Clear
        Salicylic Acid
        Treatment Pads

    3. Retinoids
    4. Urea
  3. Certain skin types require specialized types of exfoliation:
    1. Oily, thick skin can tolerate more potent chemical exfoliants and mechanical exfoliants.
    2. Individuals with darker skin should refrain from the more aggressive forms of exfoliation, which can result in the formation of dark spots on the skin.
    3. People who have dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin benefit from a mild chemical exfoliant as mechanical types may be too irritating.

How to Properly Exfoliate

  • Make sure your face is properly cleansed using your usual cleanser.
  • Physical Exfoliant
    • Place a quarter-sized amount of facial scrub onto your fingertips.
    • Apply the scrub to your face (be careful to avoid your eyes) using small, circular motions.
    • Gently massage the product into the skin for 30-60 seconds using your fingertips.
    • Rinse your face with lukewarm water.
    • Apply subsequent skincare products (toner, serum, etc.).
  • Chemical Exfoliant
    • Read the product label for the correct instructions; some chemical exfoliants are designed to be rinsed off, while others remain on your face. BHAs (i.e., salicylic acid) require only a brief contact time to concentrate themselves into the oily areas of the face.
    • Apply the product to your face and allow it to be absorbed into the skin (3-5 minutes).
    • Apply subsequent skincare products (serum, moisturizer, etc.).
    • Some chemical exfoliants increase sun sensitivity, so care should be taken to only use them at night.

Frequency of Exfoliation

As a general guideline, you should exfoliate your face 1-3 times per week depending on your skin type; sensitive skin requires less frequent exfoliation than normal or oily skin.

People with sensitive skin should start out exfoliating their face weekly and gradually increase the frequency to 3-4 times per week.

Excessively aggressive or frequent exfoliation can lead to red, irritated skin and the formation of micro-tears, leading to a compromised skin barrier.

The more potent or more abrasive the exfoliant, the less frequently it should be used.

A moisturizer should be applied after exfoliation because it to minimize trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) that can occur with exfoliation.

Exfoliation done just prior to shaving helps to remove dead skin and prevent ingrown hairs.

Exfoliant Formulations

While mechanical exfoliants generally exist in the form of grainy, abrasive scrubs, chemical exfoliants exhibit a variety of consistencies, including liquids (e.g. facial cleansers), serums, and creams.

Oily skin benefits from a less viscous (thinner), liquid formulation, and creams are ideal for dry skin. Individuals with combination skin often benefit from an intermediate consistency, such as a serum.

Although some chemical exfoliants require prolonged skin contact in order to be effective, BHAs (salicylic acid) requires only a brief contact time to concentrate itself into oily, obstructed pores; therefore, it can be effective as a facial cleanser.

AHAs are more effective in the form of pre-moistened pads, toners, and serums, which generally stay on the skin longer.

To Exfoliate or Not

While your skin will exfoliate its dead cells spontaneously, the process slows down with age, causing a layer of dead skin cells to accumulate on top of healthy skin.

Regular exfoliation of your skin using a chemical or mechanical exfoliant can reveal newer, healthy skin that is brighter, smoother, and more even. In addition, routine exfoliation can reduce redness, unclog pores, fade scars, and stimulate collagen production.

Mechanical exfoliation is generally more aggressive than chemical exfoliation and more likely to result in skin irritation, micro-tears, and disruption of the skin barrier.

The main types of chemical exfoliants include AHAs and BHAs, each having their own unique advantages.

People with sensitive skin should exfoliate less often than people with thick, oily skin.

Different formulations of chemical exfoliants containing different active ingredients are designed for people with specific skin types.

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