From loading up on antioxidants to investing in laser skin resurfacing, there are many ways to get the smooth, glowing, healthy skin we all want. Exfoliation remains among the best ways to improve your skin’s texture and tone, and it’s something all of us can do right at home. However, it’s also easy to overdo it by exfoliating too often or using the wrong method for your skin type.
In this ultimate guide, discover why it’s so important, as well as how to properly exfoliate your skin with expert tips from Dr. Magovern (board-certified dermatologist and owner of Manhattan Dermatology).
What is Exfoliation?
“Exfoliation is basically removing the dead surface cells from your skin,” says Dr. Magovern. “I hate to call them ‘dead’ because we now know they’re very much alive, but at any rate, it’s the removal of the topmost skin layer.” You can either use a chemical or physical exfoliant. A chemical exfoliation utilizes alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) or enzymes to loosen the glue-like substance that holds dead skin cells together. A physical exfoliant (also referred to as a ‘manual exfoliant’) uses a tool, liquid, gel or scrub.
Why You Should Exfoliate Your Skin
Your skin is constantly repairing and replacing itself. Because of this, you can be left with layers upon layers of dead skin all over your body. Here are 5 key benefits of exfoliation, which helps to make way for brighter, smoother skin:
- It fades age spots
- It makes fine lines and wrinkles look less visible
- It allows for better absorption of moisturizers, antioxidants and collagen-boosting serums
- It unclogs your pores
- It minimizes pore size and superficial scars
“It’s important because it helps to break down some of the top surface cells that contribute to skin dullness, dryness and that ‘aged skin’ appearance,” explains Dr. Magovern. “Brown spots also improve because some of those ‘dead’ surface cells are what harbor some of the pigment.”
While brighter skin is certainly a perk, exfoliation can actually help improve the health of your skin as well. If your skin is riddled with dead cells, your skin care products may not be able to penetrate and do their work. In essence, “It also allows your products to work more effectively,” says Dr. Magovern. By removing the top-most layer of skin, you’re making it easier for your topical treatments to sink deep below the surface where they could make a real difference.
Finally, if you have acne-prone skin, exfoliation can help clear clogged pores, which often lead to breakouts, and minimize their size. It can also help fade acne scars faster by accelerating skin cell turnover and stimulating collagen production.
What Type of Exfoliant Should You Use?
So, you now know how important it is to exfoliate—but there are a few things to consider when it comes to how you do this. In fact, there are two ways to exfoliate your skin: chemical exfoliation and manual exfoliation. Here we’ll explain what each one is in more detail, as well as help you decide which one will work best for you.
What is Chemical Exfoliation?
“Chemical exfoliation uses ‘chemicals’ to break down the surface skin cells,” says Magovern. As a general rule of thumb, highly sensitive and acne-prone skin responds very well to chemical exfoliants, as they are less likely to cause irritation. “I prefer chemical exfoliation with glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid or even using products that contain fruit enzymes, such as papaya, pineapple or pumpkin (as they tend to be gentler),” Dr. Magovern tells us. “Additionally, chemical exfoliators are nice because you usually don’t need to scrub, plus you get the benefit of something like glycolic acid, which can stimulate collagen production and trigger other anti-aging pathways. Salicylic acid targets oil glands, which can improve acne. I’m sure there are products out there with a combination of both (such as glowMD perfect scrub).”
If you prefer a chemical exfoliant, among the most common types are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). Both AHAs and BHAs work by combining with the structural lipids in your stratum corneum (the outermost layer of your skin) and dissolving them so that the dead skin cells break away.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
AHAs are among the most common types of light chemical peels. The AHA family of acids is derived from natural sources, such as fruit, milk or sugar. Two of the most widely used in skin care products today are glycolic acid (made from sugar) and lactic acid (made from milk). AHA-based facial exfoliators are an excellent choice for people with oily skin.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
Like AHAs, BHAs offer a light chemical peel. In general, BHAs (the most common type being salicylic acid) are a more effective treatment for acne-prone skin. They are a synthetic derivative that comes from the same source as aspirin.
If you have very sensitive skin, it is often recommended to look for facial exfoliants that are enzyme-based. These enzymes come from a natural source, like fruits, and work in the same way as acid-based exfoliators but at a much slower pace, so it allows for an extremely safe and gentle exfoliating process.
The Best Products for Chemical Exfoliation
- REN Clean Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic: AHAs are a popular choice in the exfoliating world, and REN’s best-selling powerhouse is the perfect contender. Formulated with lactic and azelaic acid, it carefully alleviates fine lines, acne, visible pores and dehydrated skin for a balanced and brighter skin tone. Press down on the pump till your cotton pad is saturated, then wipe over your face and neck (avoiding the eye area).
- Paula’s Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2 BHA Liquid Exfoliant: This light chemical peel is especially effective for those with acne-prone skin. It’s packed with salicylic acid that exfoliates and promotes faster cell regeneration to minimize blemishes, redness, large pores and wrinkles. Dispense a dime-sized amount and apply to the face with your fingers, a cotton ball or pad.
- SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser: This AHA/BHA combination is a treat to all skin types. With a blend of lactic, glycolic, citric, malic and salicylic acid, as well as jojoba oil, it gently exfoliates with minimum irritation. And it helps improve the appearance of skin texture, tone and smoothness. Moisten skin with warm water, then take a small amount of product on your fingertips and gently exfoliate. Cleanse the face using small circular motions before rinsing with warm water.