What Does Exfoliate Mean and What Does Exfoliating Do? - The Dermatology Review

What Does Exfoliate Mean and What Does Exfoliating Do?



You’ve likely heard over and over again that exfoliating is the key to clear, glowing skin. But what exactly does exfoliating mean? Should you break out that old walnut shell facial scrub that’s hidden in the back of your bathroom cabinet or look for a new exfoliating skin care product? No need to worry; in this post, we’ll give you the definition of exfoliate, what exfoliating does for the skin, and our top recommendation for an exfoliating skin care product. 

What does exfoliating mean?

Exfoliation is defined as “the process of removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin,” according to the American Academy of Dermatology. There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliation, also referred to as mechanical exfoliation, utilizes an abrasive substance to scrub away dead skin cells through motion. Chemical exfoliation utilizes chemical agents to break up dead skin cells, allowing them to be washed away more easily. 

Physical vs. chemical exfoliation: which is better?

Now that you know one exfoliate definition and the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation, you may be wondering which method is better. While both methods of exfoliation can help remove dead skin cells from the outer layer of skin, most skin care experts recommend using chemical exfoliants. This is because physical exfoliants, like microbeads and crushed walnut shells, are too abrasive for the skin and may cause microtears and irritation. Thus, it is best to look for a product that contains chemical exfoliants, such as AHAs, BHA, or fruit enzymes. 

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid. These ingredients exfoliate the skin by targeting corneocytes (dead skin cells that make up the top layers of skin) in a process called corneocyte desquamation. By enhancing their breakdown and increasing the separation of skin cells, the rate of cell turnover is increased. Ultimately, this helps to improve uneven skin texture, resulting in smoother, softer skin. 

In addition to AHAs, the beta hydroxy acid (BHA) salicylic acid has the ability to exfoliate skin. It works by softening and dissolving keratin, a protein found in the skin that acts as a “glue” to keep cells together. Thus, salicylic acid exfoliates the skin and sloughs off dead skin cells. Since it is an oil-soluble acid, it has the ability to penetrate deep into pores instead of remaining only on the skin surface. Inside the pores, it helps to loosen clogs and allows oil to flow out more freely. This is why salicylic acid is used in acne products.

Another group of ingredients that can help to remove excess dead skin cells from the outer layer of skin is fruit enzymes. By definition, enzymes are chemicals that speed up the rate of a reaction between two substances without being consumed themselves. Similar to salicylic acid, enzymes work by breaking down keratin in dead skin cells to reveal smoother skin. Examples of common fruit enzymes used in skin care include papaya, pineapple, blueberry, and pumpkin. 

What does exfoliating do for the skin?

As we’ve already discussed, the definition of exfoliate is to remove dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin. So why is this important? The buildup of dead and keratinized skin cells can take a toll on your skin’s texture and appearance, making it appear dull. Exfoliation leads to reduction in thickness of the stratum corneum, which gives the skin a bright, glowing appearance and improves skin texture. 

Excess dead skin cells on the skin’s surface also contributes to the formation of blemishes. 

The first step in the formation of a blemish occurs when the skin’s sebaceous glands produce excess amounts of sebum (oil). The next step is follicular hyperkeratinization. While the name may sound complicated, this simply means that follicles in the skin are not exfoliating properly. This means that keratin in the skin cells and sebum clog the follicle. When the follicle becomes clogged, a species of bacteria called Propionibacterium acnes accumulate and multiply in the follicle. The follicle becomes inflamed, thus leading to pimple formation. As you can see, proper exfoliation is one way to help prevent acne. 

Exfoliation also helps to reduce signs of aging, such as fine lines and age spots. In order to understand why, let’s first consider the process of skin cell renewal. The lower layers of the skin create new cells which migrate to the surface of the skin, a process that takes about 28 days. This process is characterized by not just even skin growth, but also the shedding of the dead skin cells. As we age, shedding becomes uneven, leading to dull, rough skin. Exfoliating aging skin speeds up this process and helps to reveal a layer of new, healthy skin cells. Exfoliation also prepares skin to absorb other skin care ingredients, such as retinol and vitamins, more effectively.

The best exfoliating skin care product

If you’re ready to get started with regular exfoliation, you may be overwhelmed by all of the different exfoliating skin care products available. That’s why we want to share with you our top recommendation for exfoliating: Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum.

Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum is a lightweight, non-drying serum that is expertly formulated to gently exfoliate, clean, and refine pores, as well as help remove dead cells and visibly reveal the brighter, healthier skin beneath. One of the key ingredients in this serum is an active AHA complex (glycolic acid). As mentioned above glycolic acid breaks down dead skin cells to reveal smoother, brighter skin. Plus, glycolic acid also helps to improve skin hydration. While exfoliation is typically associated with skin dryness and peeling due to the removal of the upper layers of dead skin cells, AHAs like glycolic acid are known to have the opposite effect. AHAs contain a hydroxyl (-OH) group in their chemical structure, which enables them to function as a humectant. Humectants draw moisture into the upper layers of skin and therefore improve skin hydration. Lastly, glycolic acid has been found to stimulate collagen production, which helps to promote a more firm, youthful complexion. Overall, Formulyst Retexturing and Perfecting Serum delivers perceptible improvement to the tone and texture of your skin, while also helping to reduce the appearance of uneven, blotchy skin.

References: AAD.org “How to safely exfoliate at home”, Indian J Dermatol 2011 Jan-Feb; 56(1): 7–13.

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