Exfoliation is using an exfoliant to clean the deeper pores of your skin. There are 2 types of exfoliants: Physical (facial scrubs, exfoliating brushes) and Chemical Exfoliants (AHAs, BHAs and PHAs).
Exfoliation is extremely necessary for cleaning up the gunk deep in the pores of your skin and getting rid of the dead skin cells, however, if it is not done using the right products or if it is done more than required, it can do more harm than good for your skin. It can cause irritation, acne and if you have eczema it can really get you in trouble.
You should exfoliate once every week or once every 2 weeks if you have sensitive skin. And you should use Chemical exfoliants as they are much gentle on the skin than physically rubbing the skin with a scrub or a brush.
Our skin cells turnover in about 30 days and we get a fresh layer of skin cells. This cell turnover cycle becomes longer and longer with age. For a 40 year old, it takes 40 days for the new skin cells to come to the surface. For an 80 year old, it takes 80 days. Cell turnover is very quick when we are younger. When new cells take so much time to come to the surface, we have layers of dead skin cells accumulated on the surface of the skin which leads to dull-looking skin.
We want these dead skin cells to be removed from our skin that make our skin look dull. They also prevent effective penetration of active ingredients into our skin. Exfoliation is very important for us, especially as we age.
Benefits of Exfoliation
- Texture: Improves the texture of the skin
- Pigmentation: Improves the appearance of pigmentation as it removes the pigmentation that is trapped in the skin cells.
- Pore size: BHAs penetrate deep into the pores of the skin, unclogging them and reducing the appearance of enlarged pores.
This is something we all have probably done unintentionally, not knowing that this is not the best way of exfoliation. These are our scrubs, DIY homemade whole grain, sugar, coffee and walnut scrubs, exfoliating brushes and even rubbing your face harshly with a towel (instead of patting) - these are all the examples of physical exfoliation of your skin.
Physical Exfoliation also includes the use of blackhead and whitehead removing tools that strips the blackheads and whiteheads, and also strips the skin away.
In chemical exfoliation, you dissolve the skin cell bonds so the dead skin sheds by itself. With physical exfoliation, you are ripping the top layer of your skin. That leads to irritation of the skin.
The problem with scrubs (especially the walnut scrub) is that the size of the particles is not even and too large. If you are using a scrub at all, scrub gently and use a scrub that has very thin scrubbing particles. To keep your skincare effective, just use a Chemical Exfoliant and ditch all your physical exfoliators.
Chemical Exfoliation is a way of exfoliating your skin using acids. There are 3 types of exfoliating acids: AHA, BHA and PHA. AHA exfoliates the top of your skin. BHA goes deeper into the pores and exfoliates all the excess oils, dirt and dead skin cells. PHAs are the most gentle form of exfoliants for sensitive skin type.
AHAs are Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid and Mandelic Acid. BHA is Salicylic Acid. What these acids do is that they dissolve the bonds between the skin cells so the skin cells are washed off. In terms of products, they are available as individual acid serums or a mixed complex of acids as leave-on exfoliating products. You will also find exfoliating Masks that you rinse off after 5-10 minutes of application.
Chemical exfoliation is the recommended way to exfoliate your skin as it is less irritating for your skin and does not have unforeseen side effects that are attributed to physical exfoliation.
Salicylic Acid (BHA)
Salicylic Acid (BHA) is oil soluble and is great for Acne prone oily skin as it focuses on the pores. Salicylic acid focuses on the oily areas of the skin really well. A 2% Salicylic Acid concentration is recommended.
- Removes the sun damaged skin cells
- Smoothes out the surface layer of the skin.
- Brightens dark spots and pigmentation
- Helps with oiliness and clogged pores
- Removes blackheads
Alpha hydroxy acids (Lactic Acid, Glycolic Acid or Mandelic Acid) are water soluble acids and penetrate the skin deeply. AHAs can also hold on to water in the skin, so it also has some moisturizing properties that will retain moisture in your skin. This kind of exfoliation is good for people with dry skin with accumulated dead skin cells.
If you have Keratosis Pilaris (dryness with rough red bumps on the cheeks), AHAs are best suited for this condition. A cream with lactic acid can soften those rough bumps and also help in hydrating the skin
It is a form of AHA which is also a humectant (hold water in the skin) so it is exfoliating as well as hydrating for the skin. This ingredient is really good for dry skin.
Glycolic Acid is the smallest AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) that is derived from sugarcane. This colorless, odorless, and hygroscopic (water-loving: holds water) crystalline solid is highly soluble in water.
Glycolic Acid can easily penetrate the skin so it is used as a chemical peel in skin care treatment and products. When you apply glycolic acid onto your skin, it reacts with the uppermost layer of the skin (the epidermis) and then it weakens the bonds that are present in the lipids which hold the dead skin cells together. This causes an exfoliation of the upper most layer of the epidermis (stratum corneum). So basically, Glycolic acid peels work on the surface layer of your skin and do not exfoliate the deeper pores of your skin.
A form of AHA exfoliants that has larger molecules compared to other AHAs. This means it takes time to penetrate into the pores and is gentle exfoliant. It is also very hydrating.
PHAs are Polyhydroxy acids that are mild exfoliants suitable for sensitive skin. They don’t exfoliate as deeply as AHAs and BHAs but they help in providing hydration to the skin and gently exfoliate the top layer of the skin.
Gluconolactone and Lactobionic Acid are the popular PHAs. PHAs have larger molecule size which means it takes much more type to penetrate the skin. This also means they will be less irritating and more hydrating than AHAs.
Best Chemical Exfoliation for Dry Sensitive Skin
Use PHA because it is more hydrating and less irritating than AHAs. This is the most gentle form of exfoliation you can do if you have a dry skin that is sensitive too. Even BHAs can be quiet drying for you.
Best Chemical Exfoliation for Oily Acne-prone Skin
If you have oily acne-prone skin, the best way to exfoliate your skin and get rid of excel oils and sebum from your skin would be to use Salicylic Acid.
Best Chemical Exfoliation for Combination Skin
If you have combination skin, use AHA and BHA. Mandelic Acid and Salicylic Acid together will unclog your pores and also removes the top layer of dead skin cells.
How to Exfoliate
Double Cleanse -> Toner -> Exfoliator-> pH neutral Actives (Treatment) -> Moisturizer -> Oils (to seal moisture)
- Always exfoliate at night. Exfoliation can cause sensitivity to Sunlight and exfoliation is best done at night time as it is also the healing period for our skin while we sleep.
- Before you exfoliate, make sure to double cleanse.
- Double cleansing your face can make your skin dry so hydrate it with a non-alcohol toner before you move on to the exfoliation step. We add a Toner into our routine because we want to soothe the skin from the irritation that might have arisen because of double cleansing and adding humectants into the skin before using the exfoliator.
- The pH goes from 1 (acidic) to 14 (alkaline). Our skin likes to stay at a pH of 5.5. Any ingredient with a lower pH is going to irritate your skin. After exfoliation, do not use any low pH ingredients.
- Double Hydration: After using a moisturizer, use oils like 100% Plant-derived Squalane from The Ordinary to seal in that moisture and prevent water loss throughout the night - especially if you have your air conditioning on.
How often to Exfoliate
The frequency of exfoliation depends on what your skin type is and what are you using for exfoliation. For example, if you have an acne issue and you are using salicylic acid for it, you can exfoliate every night. However, if you are using AHAs for exfoliation, try once a week and slowly build up to a maximum of 2-3 times a week. You should reduce the frequency of your exfoliation if you feel that your skin is compromised, dry, itchy or inflamed. This is generally an indication that you don’t have much dirt and oils to exfoliate and you may be over exfoliating your face.
Type of Skin
Frequency of Exfoliation
Dry & Normal skin
Twice a week
Oily or Acne prone skin
Salicylic Acid every night for acne
Twice a week
Don'ts for Exfoliation
- Avoid getting exfoliants around your eye area and close to the mouth.
- Skin of the neck doesn’t have many oil glands so any kind of exfoliating ingredient can cause a lot of irritation on the neck.
- When you have exfoliated your skin, you have taken off the top layer of protection from your skin. Whatever you feed to your skin now can either benefit or harm your skin. After exfoliation, do not use any low pH ingredients.
- Avoid exfoliation if you have sensitive eczema skin or any form of dermatitis or if you have had any form of barrier damage. At this time, you need hydration more than exfoliation.
- Your exfoliators should not have exfoliants in it. Fragrances in skincare products are irritants.
Top 10 Exfoliating Products
The Ordinary 2% Salicylic Acid ($7 | 30ml)
Recommended By: Dr. Vanita Rattan, Hyram, James Welsh
The Ordinary AHA 30% BHA 2% Peeling Solution ($9 | 30ml)
Recommended By: Hyram
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($29 | 118ml)
It’s moisturizing as it contains Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Cyclopentasiolxane and Dimethicone. It has no fragrance, no essential oil and no denatured alcohol.
Recommended By: Dr. Vanita Rattan, Dr Dray, Cassandra Bankson, Hyram, James Welsh
Krave Beauty Kale-Lalu-yAHA Resurfacing AHA exfoliator ($25 | 200ml)
Main ingredient is Glycolic Acid
Recommended By: Hyram, James Welsh
Herbivore BlueTansy Mask ($48 | 70ml)
This is great for resurfacing your skin and when you use it, you will feel that all the texture is gone and you literally feel dead skin cells being taken off of your skin. Use 2 times a week for 15 minutes.
Recommended By: Hyram
Table of contents