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As we continue to live longer and age, our bodies continually shed off old skin cells to make room for new skin cells. This happens naturally, and in our younger years, it happens more frequently than in our older years. And as we age, it actually becomes more and more of a necessity to help the process along by helping our bodies get rid of dead skin cells and prevent things like clogged pores, blackheads, and other skin conditions from forming. This is what is known as exfoliating the skin, or skin exfoliation.
There are two main methods for at-home exfoliation: mechanical (or physical) and chemical.
Mechanical exfoliation uses a tool, such as a brush or sponge, or a scrub to physically remove dead skin cells.
Chemical exfoliation uses chemicals, such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids, to gently dissolve dead skin cells. Although the word chemical often is thought to indicate something aggressive, in the case of exfoliation methods it is actually the opposite, as it can be the most controlled and gentle form.
Here are all the different skin types:
- Oily skin is shiny and greasy
- Dry skin is flaky, itchy, or rough
- Normal skin is clear and not sensitive
- Combination skin is dry in some areas and oily in others
- Sensitive skin may sting or burn after product use
Experts agree that using a mechanical exfoliator, such as a scrub, is best for oily skin. It will help break up the oil and impurities and wash them away. Look for cleansers containing charcoal, as it will absorb excess oil.
With dry, parched skin, look for exfoliators that remove dead skin, but also provide hydration. Look for chemical exfoliators that have fine granules as well as moisturizing oils, or humectants such as something honey-based. Scrubs that contain honey are perfect not only to exfoliate but moisturize as well.
Normal skin types have a choice between mechanical exfoliation or chemical. Normal skin tends to lean toward either dry or oily. Depending on your skin, follow the guidance on combination skin that best suits you.
Combination Skin - Normal to Dry
If your combination skin is more on the normal-to-dry side, you also have options. You’re lucky enough to be able to use any exfoliator of your choice. Since your skin type is less sensitive to exfoliation and you won’t be irritating any acne lesions, you can use an exfoliator with medium-grade scrubbing particles.
Combination Skin - Normal to Oily
Combination skin that’s normal to oily can stick with a physical exfoliator or try a light chemical exfoliator. If you prefer to use a product that will treat the oil, use a cleanser with alpha hydroxy acid. Using cleansers with AHA will gently exfoliate, preventing pores from getting clogged with oil and dead skin cells.
Sensitive skin types should avoid chemical exfoliation and most physical exfoliators too. Loving says that light powders, like rice and oatmeal, are the safest option. If you have truly sensitive skin due to a medical condition, you should skip the scrubbing all together.
For a natural solution a dry mix of gentle oat flour and almond flour works as a soft exfoliant, while a bit of sea salt does the heavy lifting. Mix with water to create a bespoke cleanser. If the salt gets to be too rough, consider grinding up your own oat flour mixture with steel cut oats.
How to do Physical Exfoliation
Pretty straightforward exfoliation with the use of a brush, small grains, or a scrub. Be mindful of the ingredients in store-bought physical exfoliators. Some scrubs contain exfoliating agents with particles that are large and potentially sharp which can scratch the skin too deeply. Also be careful with scrubs. They do work, but should be handled with caution. And contrary to what some may think, they are not as gentle or effective as chemical exfoliation.
In general, avoid any exfoliants with large particles like fruit pits and nut shells since these have a tendency to cause micro-tears in the skin.
Uh… Do I need to be concerned about micro tears!?
Don’t panic! Everything is fine. Micro-tears are created by agents that are too sharp or jagged, causing little tears in the skin. Many dermatologists are not fans of physical exfoliants because of how they can result in micro-tears. “If you look under a microscope, [it] looks like sandpaper to wood," said Dr. Gross. "There are rough, etched tears made to the epidermis which shows the unevenness of physical exfoliation.”
But physical exfoliation isn't all bad. If you want to use physical exfoliation, exfoliate gently and/or use an exfoliant with smaller granules to avoid possible micro tears.
Besides scrubs, are there other forms of physical exfoliants?
There’s microdermabrasion, which is basically face scrubbing at the hands of a licensed professional. This form of physical exfoliation is especially ideal for those with scars, wrinkles and stretch marks. There's also dermaplaning which involves knives.
How to do Chemical Exfoliation
What should I be looking for?
You should look out for alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). AHAs are found in natural substances like fruits and vegetables and are great for exfoliating dry skin because they break down the “glue” that keeps dead skin cells together. This might sound a little gross, but it results in smoother skin. However AHAs can not penetrate the skin very deeply, due to the fact that they are water soluable. This is where BHAs come in.
By contrast, BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) are oil-soluble molecules and reach deeper into the skin and pores. BHAs also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, providing a more in-depth exfoliation in general. It is recommended to use this type of exfoliant for those who have acne-prone, oily skin. If blackheads are a concern, stick to BHAs.
Is it possible to use both?
Yes! Since AHAs and BHAs work in different ways to exfoliate the top layer of skin, it is in fact safe to use both. BHAs break down the bonds between cells while AHAs cause the cells themselves to detach. Dr. Gross used a brick wall metaphor—in between these “bricks” are the fibers that holds the skin cells together. BHA break down the bonds between cells while AHA’s cause the cells themselves to detach.
Are there other chemicals or ingredients I should be looking out for?
Yup. Fruit enzymes like papain (papaya!) and bromelain (pineapple!) are perfect exfoliants for those with sensitive skin—they’re not nearly as harsh as BHAs or AHAs. Fruit enzymes break down the keratin in skin and target only the outermost layer of the epidermis. The only thing that’s finicky about enzyme exfoliators is that they can become unstable depending on their environment. Dr. Gross warned that some enzyme exfoliators have the risk of affecting the healthy cells underneath the skin, so all in all, ask your derm before proceeding.
Other Things To Remember
To prevent skin damage while exfoliating, dermatologists recommend the following tips:
Find the schedule that works for you: Be careful not to over-exfoliate, as this could lead to skin that gets red and irritated. Cell turnover in healthy skin occurs, on average, like this:
In your 20s: 14-25 days
In your 30s: 30 days
In your 40s: 40 days
Cell turnover rate continues to increase as you get older. Generally, the more aggressive the exfoliation, the less often it needs to be done.
- Select an exfoliation method that suits your skin type: If you have dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin, you may prefer to just use a washcloth or mild chemical exfoliator, as anything more than that may irritate your skin too much. Those with oily, thicker skin may want to use stronger chemical treatments or mechanical exfoliation. However, be mindful to not use something that will end up irritating your skin
- Look at the skin care products you already use: Some over-the-counter products, such as retinoid creams or products containing benzoyl peroxide, may cause your skin to be more sensitive or peel. Exfoliating while using these products may worsen dry skin or even cause acne breakouts.
- Be gentle to your skin: As stated earlier, be gentle with your skin. Whether you use a scrub or chemical exfoliator, apply the product gently using small, circular motions. Do this for about 30 seconds, and then rinse off with lukewarm water. If you use a brush or sponge, use short light strokes. Never exfoliate if you have open cuts or wounds or if your skin is sunburned.
- Follow with moisturizer: Exfoliating can be drying to the skin. Apply moisturizer immediately after exfoliating to keep your skin healthy and hydrated.
Stay tuned for a follow-up post where we will recommend some over-the-counter exfoliators and give recipes for at-home exfoliating.