Exfoliation is one of the best ways to get glowing, smooth looking skin. But there’s a lot more to it than just scrubbing your face. Exfoliation sounds simple – it is the removal of dead skin cells which can clog the pores and cause the face to look dull and dry. But how and when you do it, not to mention what you use as an exfoliator, is just as important. Here’s the lowdown on the best way to exfoliate your face.
Why Exfoliate Your Face?
Our skin cells naturally regenerate, which is a process of shedding old skin cells which are replaced with new, fresh ones. But as we get older, this process slow down. This means that dead skin cells hang around the skin’s surface for a much longer time. Here’s the problem with that. Dead skin cells make the face look dull and dry. That pile up of dead skin cells can make pores look bigger, and exaggerate the look of fine lines and wrinkles. It also means that products like serums and anti-aging creams aren’t working as well as they could be, as they aren’t penetrating deeply into the skin. Your makeup may not look as good on your skin either as it will settle into lines and pores rather than creating a smooth canvas. Exfoliation helps improve the skin’s texture and also helps to fade dark spots and acne scars.
So if your body has slowed down when it comes to giving these dead skin cells the heave-ho, or you just want to give your skin a little extra glow, this is where exfoliation comes in. Exfoliation is the manual process of getting rid of these dead skin cells but there’s more than one way to do it.
What Are the Different Types of Exfoliation?
There are several ways you can exfoliate your face, including chemical, physical and manual methods which range from simple sponges to overnight peels. What they all have in common is that they accelerate cell turnover and help boost the skin’s circulation, to reveal fresher, smoother looking skin. Here’s the breakdown.
A manual exfoliation can be as simple as using a washcloth to whisk away dead skin cells. Just apply your regular face wash and use a wet or damp washcloth to slowly and gently work it into the skin. The slight abrasive texture of the washcloth is enough to give the skin a bit of a polish.
The next step up is a sponge. Products like the Erborian Charcoal Konjac Sponge are made from an Asian plant and infused with bamboo charcoal. All you have to do is squirt a dollop of your favorite cleanser on the damp sponge and gently move it over your face. A mitt, often made of microfibers such as Jane Iredale’s Magic Mitt, is another option. It’s made from a knitted microfiber cloth and helps clean and scrub the face using only water.
Other people prefer a facial brush. One of the most popular cleansing brushes is the Clarisonic, which has a rotating brush head. The best way to think of it is electric toothbrush technology applied to your face. The Clarisonic Mia Smart Facial Cleansing Device rotates at 300 movements per second. Keep in mind that if you invest in a pricey facial brush, you will need to regularly clean the brush heads (gunk can accumulate in the compartment under the head) and buy replacements as well. A facial brush can be used a few times a week.
A physical exfoliant is an abrasive scrub or paste. The great thing about them is that they make your skin instantly look better. The chunkiest ones are made from crushed apricot kernels or walnut shells. These are the strongest exfoliants, and should be used with caution as they can cause micro tears to the skin. If you like the feel of a textured paste, a more gentle option is a formula made with rice powder such as Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant which is made with papain, salicylic acid and rice enzymes. The Unscrub from Paula’s Choice contains jojoba beads that dissolve as they are worked into the skin.
If you’re using a physical exfoliant, start by washing your face with your regular cleanser (make sure it is mild) before applying the scrub. Work the paste into your skin for around 30 seconds or so using gentle circular motions, making sure to avoid the eye area. After rinsing thoroughly with lukewarm water, apply a hydrating serum or your regular moisturizer. Post scrub is also a great time to apply a peel off mask to give your skin TLC.
Microdermabrasion also gives skin a deep exfoliation. This is usually performed by a doctor or at a medical spa, and involves spraying the face with a fine layer of crystals to remove dead skin cells while the skin is simultaneously suctioned. A series of treatments is usually recommended.
A chemical exfoliation may sound scary but it is anything but harsh. Some of the most gentle exfoliators are acids such as an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or a BHA (a beta hydroxy acid). They gently dissolve the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal the fresher, brighter and plumper looking skin underneath. They work by breaking down the bonds that hold skin cells together so they can easily be whisked away. Enzyme based acids, usually derived from fruits such as pineapple or papaya, are some of the most gentle chemical exfoliants.
AHAs and BHAs are derived from different sources, and work slightly differently. AHAs include lactic, glycolic, mandelic and tarteric acid and are usually derived from fruit, milk or sugar. Anyone just starting out with exfoliation could try a lactic acid based peel or one made with glycolic acid.
BHAs work best on oily skin. They will exfoliate the top layer of the skin and also work on acne, blackheads and those little white bumps called milia. The most popular BHA in skincare is salicylic acid, a synthetic ingredient. Salicylic Acid is also anti-inflammatory, which means it can help calm down skin, and it helps to reduce redness and hyperpigmentation caused by acnes.
Depending on your skin type and needs, some people use both AHA and BHA products. Used together, they deliver a powerful punch against clogged pores, dead skin and sun damage. The rule of thumb here is to alternate between using a BHA and AHA product, or find one that includes both.
How Should I Use a Chemical Exfoliator?
A chemical exfoliation comes in many product forms (they are also sometimes called peels), such as toners, serums or gels. Sometimes they are packaged as a liquid toner or called “lotion exfoliants” that are easy to apply. No matter which type of chemical exfoliation you choose, always start with freshly washed skin.
For a toner or liquid lotion chemical exfoliation, all you do is soak a cotton ball or cotton pad with the liquid and swipe it across the face. Don’t rinse it off. Sometimes mild tingling can occur it shouldn’t be extremely uncomfortable – if it is, stop and discontinue use. Another option is product soaked pads, which are already dosed for your convenience. Many companies are offering single use towels which are perfect for traveling. Other peels are meant to be applied at night. Whatever you choose, it’s important to follow the directions on the product.
How Often Should I Exfoliate?
That is the million dollar question that comes down to your skin type and what other products you’re using. In general, a safe rule of thumb is to start off exfoliating once a week and build up to two to three times a week. If you have normal skin, you can take your pick from products but it’s a good idea to start slow with something gentle like glycolic or lactic acid and see how your skin reacts. Anyone with dry skin should reach for a gentle exfoliant such as something formulated with a rice enzyme paste or a very mild amount of glycolic or lactic acid.
Oily skin can handle a bit more exfoliation, so anyone with oily and acne prone skin should try a product with a combination of glycolic and salicylic acid products. Combination skin is trickier, and the best way to tackle it is to buy specific products for your skin areas. If you’re oily in your T-zone, use a slightly stronger product here and save the milder stuff for the areas where you have sensitive skin.
It’s also important to take into consideration what other products you’re using before jumping into exfoliation. If you’re applying a retinol based cream at night or regularly wash with a salicylic acid based cleanser, your face is already benefiting from exfoliation. Throwing in another form of exfoliation could tip you from glowing skin to glowing red skin.
If you’re already using products with retinols, AHAs or BHAs, you could take a break from them when you’re ready to exfoliate or just start slowly with a mild product and see how it goes.
But no matter what kind of skin you have or what sort of beauty regimen you’re following, when it comes to exfoliation less is often more.