Exfoliating can be hard to get right. Do you use chemical exfoliants, or physical? And if you have sensitive skin, can you even exfoliate? Ultimately, there's a protective layer of skin cells on the top layer of your skin, made up of dead skin cells. And even though it’s completely natural and they're replaced every two weeks, there are certain things such as aging, hormones, dietary disruptions and even changes in the weather that can slow this process down. This means blocked pores, breakouts, rough patches wrinkles and dull skin. So by exfoliating, you can speed this process up. So whatever life throws at you, you can still keep your skin looking bright and healthy.
There are two main categories of exfoliating, physical and chemical. They each have their advantages and disadvantages but can be great when used together! In this guide to exfoliating, we’ll go through each, so you can find what’s best for you, including what’s best for your skin type!
Physical exfoliating involves (you guessed it) physically scrubbing the dead skin cells away with beads or sponges. They can either be gentle or harsh depending on the type of physical exfoliant and how you apply (how hard you scrub).
Advantages of physical exfoliation
1. You can get immediate results
2. There’s a lower chance of an unexpected allergic reaction
3. Reusable exfoliating tools are environmentally friendly and economical
1. Only works on uppermost skin layers
2. Easy to scrub too hard, leading to damaged and vulnerable skin
3. Scrubbing particles can be messy
Physical exfoliants can be rinse-off products like scrubs and peeling gels, or tools like face cloths, konjac sponges and face brushes.
Plastic microbeads: Gentle/Medium
Jojoba beads: Gentle/Medium
Coffee grounds: Strong
Apricot kernel: Strong (not recommended for face)
Ground oatmeal: Gentle
Salt and sugar grains: Medium
Chemical exfoliant means applying a product that breaks down the dead skin cells, so they can shed easily.
1. Works more evenly than physical exfoliation
2. Less prone to error
3. Ingredients have secondary advantages
1. Slower to work
2. More difficult to figure out if the product is effective
3. Higher chance of unexpected allergic or irritant reactions
4. Can cause photosensitivity
Currently, the most common chemical exfoliants in skincare hydroxy acids (alpha, beta and poly). Retinoids and enzymes are generally quite popular too.
Hydroxy acids work by increasing cell renewal and breaking up dead skin cells. They include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, e.g. glycol, lactic and malic acids) and beta hydroxy acids (usually salicylic acid). They're best applied after cleansing and toning, but before serums and moisturizers.
As well as exfoliating, hydroxy acids have been found to even out skin tone and reduce wrinkles, so are often recommended as anti-aging ingredients. Salicylic acid is oil-soluable and anti-bacterial, so it's great for oily and/or acne prone skin as it will penetrate deeper into clogged pores.
NOTE: AHAs will make you more sensitive to the sun, so always wear SPF when using them, and for at least a week after you stop.
Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A which are great at encouraging your cells to renew. They'll prevent the break down of collagen which is the building block of youthful skin. Best to go for one 2% or lower, as any higher will irritate your skin.
NOTE: Retinoid break down in the sunlight, so they're best used at night.
General tips for exfoliating
1. It’s better to under exfoliate than over, and always be cautious when starting to use a new product
2. Start exfoliating once a week and increase the frequency if it’s going well. For most, using it every day will be too much.
3. You can use more than one exfoliant in your routine, but if you’re using new products introduce them one at a time. This means you’ll know if they’re effective and your skin will be able to cope a little better.
4. Watch out for over-exfoliation, if your skin feels tight red or sensitive, your exfoliating routine is too harsh. Take a break for a few days to let your skin recover, then slowly start again.
5. Patch test leave-on products before incorporating them into your routine, especially if you have sensitive skin.
6. Always wear SPF, especially when using chemical exfoliants!
Recommendations based on your skin type
When you have dry, flaky skin, it can be tempting to scrub harder – but you can ultimately damage your skin and make it flake more! Start with a gentle physical exfoliation once a week and then after two weeks, introduce a chemical exfoliant every other day. Using Oatmeal and AHAs are particularly great for dry skin as they’re both humectants and will hold on to water, providing extra moisture. If you want to use retinoids, introduce them slowly as they can dry your skin out. And always make sure you moisturize after you exfoliate!
If your skin feels tight, it’s likely your skin is dehydrated. Like dry skin, dehydrated skin can benefit from water-holding oatmeal and AHAs, and remember to still moisturize after exfoliating.
Start with one gentle physical exfoliation method per week, and after two weeks you can begin to introduce a chemical exfoliant. Only increase if your skin doesn’t react! And make sure you apply sunscreen every day.
Start with a physical exfoliant once a week and introduce salicylic acid after two weeks.
Retinoids and AHAs are particularly good for wrinkles and hyperpigmentation, with clinical trials to back up their anti-wrinkle effects. However, both can be irritating, so they should be introduced slowly.
Acne-prone skin requires gentle care as irritation can cause inflammation, making breakouts worse. Salicylic acid and retinoids are particularly good for acne-prone skin because on top of exfoliating, they have other anti-acne actions too.
Exfoliating is great for every skin type, if you know how. It's key to remember that it's better to under exfoliate than over, so start exfoliating every week to see how your skin reacts, and go from there. Be gentle, and if you're using chemical exfoliants use a small percentage to begin with and always, always wear SPF.