Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/7/2021
In the old days, “skin care” may have meant little more to you than a splash of warm water, some discarded bar soap, and a quick run-through with a razor on your face.
These days, however, you're doing more to maintain your skin, right? Cleansing, moisturizing, and if you're really committed to the cause — exfoliating.
Exfoliation is an important step if you'd like to be able to subtract a year or three every once in a while when sharing your age. But it's okay if you're not too sure how to go about this process, or if you're undecided if it's for you at all.
We'll be sharing what you need to know about exfoliating your skin: benefits, types, and a step-by-step exfoliation guide for your skin.
Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the skin surface. Think of it as scrubbing off the built-up mud and gunk from your tires after a long road trip — only, instead of getting plain old tires underneath, exfoliating helps to reveal a new layer of the skin.
This procedure is important because the skin sheds old skin cells about every 40 to 60 days in adults.
However, sometimes these skin cells stick around the skin surface after failing to shed completely. This can cause a build-up of dead skin cells, a condition that can lead to clogged pores, flaky skin, and an uneven skin tone.
There are two main methods of exfoliating:
This involves the manual removal of dead skin cells and icky build-up in the skin. To do this, you need materials that can really work up a scrub on the skin surface, some of these include:
Products that contain small particles like sugar or salt crystals, jojoba wax, etc.
However, not all small particles are recommended for exfoliating. For one, exfoliants with microbeads have been banned in the United States, but this has less to do with effectiveness and is more concerned with dangers to the environment.
Also, you might want to turn your face away from washes that contain nut shells or fruit pits, these can be a little too rough on the skin and lead to micro-tears that can damage the skin barrier. They may however, get a nod of approval if they are very finely grounded to reduce their abrasiveness.
To get rid of the dead skin, stronger abrasive materials like pumice can be used on thicker parts of the skin such as the back of your feet.
In addition to small particles, textured fabrics can be used when exfoliating the skin. That means using devices like face sponges on your face, and loofahs or washcloths for the remaining, less sensitive parts of your body.
A more advanced physical exfoliation technique is microdermabrasion. This involves the use of an instrument to apply crystals to the skin to take off dead skin cells. In addition to exfoliating, this procedure can help to improve age spots, scarring, and other skin-related conditions.
Chemicals and the skin may seem like an unlikely pairing, alpha hydroxy acids, and beta hydroxy acids do a fantastic job of removing dead skin cells from the body. Here's how:
AHAs are naturally occurring acids present in sugarcane (glycolic acid), bitter almonds (mandelic acid), sour milk (lactic acid), fruit (citric, malic, and tartaric acid).
These acids work to essentially melt off the gunk that holds dead skin together on the skin surface. This helps to reveal smoother and younger-looking skin underneath.
AHAs are water-soluble acids and maybe your go-to acid if you have normal to dry skin. This is because of their moisturizing abilities. Plus, they not only exfoliate but have been shown to have certain anti-aging benefits.
Salicylic acid is a Beta-Hydroxy Acid, an acid that promises just about the same benefits as alpha-hydroxy acids. Only, this acid is oil soluble which permits it to go deep into the skin surface to unclog pores and remove the buildup of sebum and dirt.
This makes BHAs useful not just for exfoliating and anti-aging, but also for managing skin conditions like acne.
Enzymes are a safe alternative to chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs. They work by taking off the top layer of the dead skin cells. Your favorite fruits are chock-full of these enzymes, they include papain from papaya, bromelain from pineapple and an enzyme from pumpkin.
They’re typically considered in lieu of acids for people who have more sensitive skin. Unlike AHAs, the activity of enzymes aren’t pH-dependent, but rather by water.
Although they’re limited in their intensity as an exfoliant, they’re also gentler on the skin.
Ingrown hairs are the annoying aftermath of plucking or shaving your hair.
They’re an inflammatory reaction caused when adjacent skin is penetrated by growing sharp tips.
Using salicylic or glycolic acid can help to manage this condition. In particular, applying glycolic acid daily can help to reduce the curvature of the hair, reducing the chances of penetrating the skin.
When you exfoliate your skin either by manual or chemical means, you're giving your skin a free shot at an improved appearance.
This is because exfoliating helps to stimulate the production of new skin cells when it rubs away the old parts.
Because enlarged pores may be caused by a build-up of dirt and oil in the skin, clearing this build-up, either by physical or chemical processes can help to reduce the appearance of enlarged pores on the face.
Exfoliants like AHAs have been shown to increase the production of collagen.
This should get you excited, because collagen helps to improve the appearance and structure of your skin, as well as skin elasticity, important features if you’re looking interested in looking to stretch your youth for as long as possible.
Photoaging, the reason you’re already sporting frown lines much like your dad’s — is popularly caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays.
Chemical exfoliants such as lactic and glycolic acid can help to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
They achieve this by encouraging skin elasticity and increasing cell growth.
Their ability to encourage the production of collagen and hyaluronic acid — key factors for skin hydration — is also helpful in reducing premature signs of aging.
Before getting into the process of exfoliation, it's important to examine the type of skin that you have.
For example, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin use only mild chemical exfoliants such as mandelic acid, as physical exfoliants may be too irritating.
Oily skin gets a free pass to use stronger chemical treatments like salicylic acid, or physical exfoliants.
That said, here are quick tips to observe when exfoliating:
Wash your face using a gentle cleanser
Douse a cotton pad with the solution and apply across the face and neck
Make sure to avoid the eye contour and eyes
Application should last for about 30 seconds
Don’t rinse off
When using chemical exfoliants, it’s important to note the effects of the compound when exposed to sunlight. Some options like glycolic acid can increase your skin’s sensitivity to light and should be used at night time.
Cleanse your face using a gentle product
Apply the scrub to the face and neck gently
Adopt small, circular motions when applying
Wait about 30 seconds
Rinse off with lukewarm water
When using a sponge or face brush to exfoliate, use short light strokes on your face to avoid irritation.
It’s tempting to want to enjoy the benefits of exfoliating as quickly as possible, but your skin may be unable to endure too frequent exfoliating.
The amount of times you exfoliate should be determined by your skin types, however you shouldn’t use chemicals to exfoliate your skin more than once a day.
Also, because exfoliating can be drying to the skin, remember to apply moisturizer after application.
Top it off with a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 to keep your skin protected.
Exfoliating is an easy way to take your skincare to the next level.
Generate new skin cells, manage ingrown hairs, and all together improve the appearance of your skin using chemical or physical exfoliants.
But make sure to take the necessary precautions when applying either option.
If this article has rubbed you the right way when it comes to your skincare, you can learn more about skincare by visiting the blog.