If you're on a website about skin care, the chances are good you've heard of exfoliation. You might periodically exfoliate, or even incorporate it is as a part of a regular routine. But have you ever considered why exfoliation is "good" or looked into how to do it properly? Well, we have, and better yet -- we're sharing! We'll start at the very beginning in this guide, but if you already know what exfoliation is and how it works, head straight down to our overview of available tools & major ingredients or our guide on technique
In the beginning, there was...
To start firmly at the beginning, let's look at the most basic question: what is exfoliation? The life cycle of a human skin cell is about 30 days in the average adult, meaning new skin cells are created, move upwards through the dermis and die about once a month. The dead cells on the surface continually slough off, but sometimes this natural process needs a little help. Exfoliation is the process of removing the buildup of such cells through chemical or physical means.
Okay... But Why Would I Want To?
Remember how we just said that cell turnover occurs about once every 30 days? Well, we lied! This is (roughly) true for adults in their 20s and 30s, but is far faster in children and slows down dramatically as we age.
At the younger end of the scale, when skin is turning over more quickly, and sebaceous glands (i.e. the bits of your skin that produce oil) are at their most active, dead skin cells can get trapped against living skin by this oil. The combination of oil and dead skin from you, and bacteria and oxygen from the air create the perfect sort of sludge to clog pores and create acne. Regular exfoliation can remove this buildup, leading to clearer skin.
Skin at the older end of the scale shouldn't feel left out though. This slower growth and replacement cycle actually leads to a greater amount of dead cells building up on the skin's surface. Without the addition of significant amounts of oil however, this buildup is less likely to coalesce into acne, and more likely to simply sit on top of the skin, which tends to have a dulling and aging effect on skin's appearance. Removing this layer makes skin appear more luminous and smoother, gives one less layer for other treatments to sink through, and has a softening effect.
Let's Do 'What' Again
As hinted at, exfoliation can be split into two broad groups: chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation.
Chemical exfoliation means using some type of substance that chemically dissolves dead skin, allowing it to be easily rinsed away. This can range from chemical peels at the dermatologist, to 'brightening serums' that contain popular exfoliants such as Vitamin C, AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) or BHAs/Salicylic Acid (beta hydroxy acids).
Physical exfoliation means physically scrubbing away dead skin cells. This can include using a variety of tools such as scrub brushes, facial brushes, loofahs or pumice stones, or beauty products such as scrubs containing salt, sugar, micro beads or crushed walnut shells, among others.
While the word "chemical" might put those interested in the most natural interventions off using chemical methods, it is important to note that products containing either physical or chemical exfoliants can contain undesirable ingredients, and both methods include interventions that are harsh enough to damage skin. For instance, straight lemon juice is a chemical exfoliant, while a scrub containing plastic microbeads and synthetic binding agents would be considered a physical one.
The key to doing exfoliation in a way that benefits your skin, as opposed to simply wasting time, or worse, hurting your body, lies as much in choosing the appropriate tools as in employing the right technique.
Always use products that are intended for use on the type of skin you are trying to exfoliate, i.e., use a face brush on your face and a body brush on your body, rather than a foot peel on your body, or a body brush on your face. While most people are unlikely to do either of those extreme examples - mostly because it would hurt - this actually becomes more important to keep in mind if you are say, considering whether to use your face scrub on your lips. While you might not see ill effects the first time, damage can build up over time leading to redness, irritation and inflamed skin.
Never exfoliate the skin around your eyes or your genitals themselves. These areas are the most sensitive on your body, and the skin is too thin and delicate to do so without causing burns, bleeding, bruising or tears (depending on whether you use a chemical or physical exfoliant). For face, bikini area and lips, exfoliate with specifically designated products from reputable companies with ingredients you understand.
We have created a brief primer on the major categories of tools and ingredients on the market today that is a good starting place to get an overview of your options and basic information. This is not intended to be the final word on any particular exfoliation topic, nor is it an endorsement of any specific product. While we hope this gives a better feel for basic information, we recommend that if you are interested and looking to incorporate a new product or tool into your routine, you do additional research into that method for specifics on a product or approach.
Tools are relatively straightforward, but come in a vast and ever-increasing variety. Below are some of the major options available, and generalizations about their usage.
This is because physical exfoliation buffs dead skin cells off of you, but doesn’t necessarily then rinse them down the drain, meaning buildup on tools is an unsanitary given. Especially since most physical exfoliants are used with water, the combination of dead skin and water provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and pathogens, which are then ground back into the skin the next time the tool is used, if not properly cleaned.
- Stones - the most common exfoliating stone is pumice, and it is also one of the oldest. Today, exfoliating stones can range from natural rocks such as pumice, to synthetic abrasive materials in any manner of shape, color and roughness. Pumice itself, and similarly abrasive stones, should be used sparingly, and almost never anywhere but feet. While finer grain stones may be used elsewhere on the body, this is generally not recommended.
- Brushes - brushes can be natural fiber or synthetic, and can range in stiffness from incredibly stiff foot brushes, to medium hard back and body brushes, to very, very fine bristled face brushes. When using brushes, pay attention to whether the bristles are softer when wet or dry, and whether they are intended to be used on wet or dry skin, or with soap/lotion as lubrication. The gentlest way to exfoliate is to use brushes on wet skin with a generous amount of cleanser. Small, very fine-bristled face brushes may be used to exfoliate the bikini area (a critical step if you wax!) but brushes should not be used on the lips.
- Rotary Brushes - a relatively new variant of the brush is the rotary brush. Sometimes called an electric face brush, a facial cleansing brush, or a polishing brush, these are any form of electrified brush or silicon pad that is quickly spun by a motor like a human polisher. Mostly geared towards facial care, they can sometimes be found for body, or, combined with a stone, for the feet. In addition, there is a significant range in quality available on the market, and just because a brush is labelled “facial brush” does not guarantee that the brush will be gentle enough not to damage skin on the face. We therefore recommend that you research carefully before buying, and test before using.
- Cloths - this category is a bit of a misnomer, because the range of fabric exfoliators have moved well beyond the traditional terry cloth washcloth, which, believe it or not, has an exfoliating effect when rubbed in a circular motion on the face! Other examples include microfiber, or other advanced material clothes, bath poufs (also known as loufahs), or exfoliating gloves that can be made from a wide variety of scratchy synthetic materials.
- Scrapers - scrapers are somewhat less common than the other tools listed here, largely because they tend to be less effective than other methods. That said, there is a growing number of scrapers coming to market at the moment, some with truly extraordinary claims (in the bad way, in case our sarcasm wasn’t obvious). This is most likely because the category is fairly underutilized, leading inventors to see greater opportunity to create the next big thing in beauty tools. We don’t generally put much stock in this type of tool for exfoliating purposes for the simple reason that scraping along your skin does less to loosen dead skin, and more to stretch it out, than using a circular motion. Let’s just say there’s a reason you polish and sand things in a circle not by dragging products across the wood!
As already explained, exfoliants can be broken down broadly into chemical and physical exfoliants. Any physical exfoliant will rely on something gritty or grainy to scrub away skin… which is why they’re often called scrubs! Scrubs often come in either a cream or gel base, depending on the overall effect they are intended to have. These are some of the more common exfoliants we have come across:
- Salt - salt scrubs tend to be popular DIY gifts, but have largely gone out of fashion as part of an active beauty routine. One of the chief issues is that salt is highly abrasive, and often forms large enough crystals to scratch rather than exfoliate skin. You are most likely to see it available commercially as a hand or foot scrub, and salt, particularly dead sea salt scrubs can make wonderful foot care products.
- Sugar - sugar is a gentler alternative to salt, and (disclaimer!) Lacewing & Kettle’s physical exfoliator of choice, so excuse us if we wax a tad lyrical here! As compared to salt, sugar has a far lower melting point and sugar molecules are round rather than square. This means less abrasive crystals that easily melt away as you work into the skin. Sugar is also a natural source of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, one of the best chemical exfoliators out there) and a humectant, meaning it helps draw moisture into the skin. As a result, sugar packs a triple skin-benefitting punch, of polishing away the top layer through physical and chemical means while softening and moisturizing.
- Nut Shells - there is something of a controversy surrounding whether walnut shells in particular are safe to use, with two women launching a class action lawsuit in 2017. This was later dismissed due to a lack of evidence provided by the women that the product they had sued over caused damage, but you may have heard either about this case, or heard somewhere that physical exfoliators more generally cause damage as a result of this incident. As we’ve already said a number of times, using the wrong exfoliant or the wrong technique will absolutely damage your skin, with the type and severity of the damage depending on what the product was and how it was applied (more on application later). That said, at this point in time, it cannot be said that walnut shells specifically or physical exfoliation generally is dangerous. Whether a particular product is damaging will have a lot to do with the quality of the product/manufacturer, and how you are using it. We here at L&K find nut shell exfoliators by and large too harsh for faces, but see nothing wrong with using it elsewhere. Additionally, a lot of the issue comes down to how hard it is massaged into skin, and how coarsely ground the shells are.
- Seeds, Nuts and Grains - a huge variety of nuts, seeds and grains have become available as natural exfoliants. In fact, there are so many, that we can’t hope to cover them here. Some of these ingredients may be too abrasive for use on delicate skin, others may be perfect. Additionally, some may, like sugar, have other benefits either in the form of a natural chemical exfoliant, moisturizer, or astringent. Care should be used however in selecting any of these products. Make sure that they do not contain anything you are allergic to (this is particularly true if it is not immediately clear from the name/front of a product that it uses a nut flour to exfoliate).
- Microbeads - also known as bubbles, these are tiny particles of solid plastic that have been ground down to particular small sizes. Some also were advertised as being filled with other ingredients. Microbeads were all the rage in skincare some years back, before concerns about their impact on human health and the environment lead them to be banned outright in some countries, and generally fall out of favor elsewhere. Since they are washed down the drain, the use of microbeads could lead to a plastic buildup in runoff water, only to enter the food as animals of varying size ate either the plastic, or other animals containing it. Given the bad press, several beauty giants have made commitments to stop manufacturing products with microbeads. There have also been reported cases where consumers or individual doctors claimed that microbeads have scratched eyes, or cause gums to recede, although at this point, there is not a consensus that they are dangerous to human health from direct use.
- Natural Microbead Alternatives - owing to concerns about the safety of microbeads in particular, and about moves more generally away from plastic, manufacturers have come out with natural alternatives to microbeads made out of wax, or other materials. Generally speaking, the rounder and smaller the particle, the gentler an exfoliant is. As beads are manufactured, they can be made round and smooth, leading these beads to be advertised as a safe alternative for sensitive skin. However, it is important to note that these are too new for much evidence to accumulate as to either their long-term benefits or harm.
Chemical exfoliants use either acids or enzymes to loosen and remove dead skin cells. Exfoliating products that use acids are sometimes also referred to as peels, and include chemical peels administered by a dermatologist. Although physical exfoliation has its benefits and its devotees, at the moment, it is chemical exfoliation that tends to be trumpeted most loudly by consumers and experts alike. The key reasons are that chemical exfoliants can be absorbed by the skin, dipping into pores and beyond the top layer to loosen dead cells and dissolve oils. Related to this ability to penetrate deeper, chemical exfoliants tend to have a greater ability to brighten skin, giving a truly luminous effect. Finally, chemical exfoliants can oftentimes actually be gentler on skin, particularly for those with sensitive skin, rosacea, eczema, acne or other skin condition. This is particularly the case in situations where inflammation is the problem (the common denominator in many types of acne, rosacea and eczema). While the list of used and potential chemical exfoliants is far too extensive to possibly cover here, these are some of the more likely chemical exfoliants you might come across in at-home care.
We will cover the differences between the various AHAs, as well as their unique benefits, in more depth in a separate article, but there are a few quick tidbits to keep in mind. The smaller the molecule, the deeper it penetrates, and the more it exfoliates. Of the seven, glycolic acid has the smallest molecules, and is thus considered the strongest exfoliant, while mandelic acid has the largest and is generally recommended for those with sensitive skin. Counterintuitively, products containing more than one AHA tend to actually be gentler on skin at the same overall concentration of acid than products containing a single AHA. Finally, particular care should be used to protect the skin from sun after using AHAs. Studies have suggested that the use of AHAs increases sensitivity to sun, but does not increase the amount of cellular damage, and the jury is still out on whether or not this is a problem. It has been speculated that the act of removing part of the barrier of dead skin and exposing fresh skin may be responsible for this effect, although the precise mechanism has not been scientifically isolated and identified.
The upshot is that it is recommended to use AHAs in the evening, and to actually follow standard guidelines about avoiding sun exposure and using sunscreen if using an AHA regularly.
The other big problem with Vitamin C's popularity is that it appears in products that run the full range of the quality gamut. Aside from usual concerns surrounding product quality, Vitamin C degrades quickly and easily, and is particularly susceptible to air and light, meaning any product in a non-darkened or non-opaque container may not have any of the vitamin left by the time you open it. It also means that Vitamin C-containing products cannot have a terribly long shelf life as more air is introduced every time you open the container.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that products that contain Vitamin C for its other benefits and products that contain it as an exfoliant will contain dramatically different concentrations of the Vitamin, and are not interchangeable. The lower concentration will have no exfoliating effect unless used as a booster for another form of exfoliation, while the higher concentration will likely damage skin if used once or twice daily as a different product.
The use of enzymes in exfoliation is an even more recent trend than the use of acids. Enzyme exfoliation works by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily dissolved and sloughed off, and its main selling point is that it is marketed as being even more gentle than acid exfoliation and doing nothing to disrupt your skin's pH balance. Three enzymes dominate the market at present: bromelein, papain, and cucurbita pepo. We highly recommend this rather complete guide from Beautiful With Brains, although we want to note that this guide does recommend specific products, which we over here at L&K have not specifically tested, and have no position on.
… Retinol? - No, we didn’t forget retinol! Retinol is commonly believed to be a chemical exfoliant, but actually isn’t. It does have a number of benefits for skin, including the ability to retexturize, which is similar to the effect seen in exfoliants. Many people also believe that the redness and flaking that are possible side effects from poorly formulated products, or over-use of retinol itself, mean that retinol is exfoliating their skin. However, this is a sign of irritation not exfoliation! You should never experience either redness or flaking from using a chemical exfoliant, and if you do, it is a still a sign of irritation and you should discontinue use of whatever the product is immediately.
Assuming you’ve actually read this far and didn’t click the smart person’s link up at the top: congratulations, we’re almost to the end, and finally to the bit about how you actually exfoliate.
While you might have assumed that this was the easy part, it’s not quite as straightforward as going at it with a scrub brush from time to time. Remember, skin is an organ composed of living cells, treating it roughly will do damage. For acne prone skin, scrubbing too harshly can actually make acne appear worse by aggravating inflammation. Similarly, older, less-hydrated and slower-renewing skin is delicate, and can easily be burned or scraped by overly-enthusiastic interventions.
So without further ado, here's the do’s, don’ts and helpful tips:
It's better to exfoliate skin regularly, with a gentler method than irregularly with a harsher one. This method removes buildup gradually, and prevents it from returning. If possible, aim to exfoliate once or twice a week, and at absolute most three times, but avoid exfoliating daily.
You will get more noticeable immediate results from physical exfoliation, but a more noticeable immediate glow from chemical exfoliation. This is because you are likely to release more surface skin from physical exfoliation, but you will a deeper effect, and more glowy side benefits, from chemical exfoliation.
For faces, if you are interested in incorporating exfoliation as a regular part of your skin care or have a regimen, try alternating physical and chemical exfoliation, with a bias towards chemical. For instance, you might use a chemical exfoliant once or twice a week, and use a face brush or scrub on a different day once a week, every other week or even once a month.
Avoid using chemical and physical exfoliants on the same day, unless you have a product that specifically does both as this should be formulated to be gentle enough not to cause over-exfoliation.
If you wax, it is critical that you exfoliate the area regularly to prevent ingrown hairs and irritation. You should not exfoliate after waxing until the skin has calmed down (varies from person to person, but usually at least a few days), and otherwise wax regularly until hair has regrown. If you wax regularly, you should increase exfoliation before you wax again so that skin has the least buildup in the early days when you are unable to exfoliate. However, you should still make sure you are using products appropriate for the area you are waxing (so, face-specific products for face, bikini or face appropriate for bikini, and body appropriate for legs, armpits etc.) If you are unsure, always err on the side of less power than more.
Pay attention to whether your exfoliant is wash-off or not. We have yet to see a scrub that isn’t wash off, although that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist, but with chemical exfoliants, some are formulated to be left on and others are intended to be washed off. The concentration of the exfoliating agent is usually calibrated accordingly, so follow on-label instructions.
For chemical exfoliants, do not use more than directed, and pay attention to whether you are supposed to soak a cotton ball or apply with fingers. If applying with fingers, try to use your finger tips as this is harder to get out of the bottle, but easier to get onto your skin. In either case, pat gently until liquid is absorbed and do your best to resist the urge to rub. We know it’s tough, but rubbing is likely to just irritate your skin and won’t actually make it exfoliate more.
For physical exfoliants, always use a gentle touch (i.e. do not press). We know it’s tempting, but trust us, less is more! With the exception of the weird world of scrapers, you should also use a circular motion, as though you were polishing whatever bit is getting exfoliated.
Wet or dry: it is possible to exfoliate either wet or dry skin. Exfoliating properly wet (rather than damp) skin is the gentler as water will act as a lubricant, affording your skin some degree of protection. Additionally, when exfoliating wet skin, it is possible to use a cleanser to act as further lubrication. This has the added benefit of doing more to work the cleanser into your skin. If you choose to exfoliate dry skin, it is absolutely critical to use the lightest touch possible to avoid damaging your skin. You will also want to rinse your skin afterwards to remove loosened skin.
Always moisturize after you exfoliate. After all, the point of exfoliation is to remove a layer of skin and expose newer fresh skin, which will be more delicate and, well, exposed. Even if you have oily, ingrown hair-, or acne-prone skin, you still want to protect your skin’s moisture content (which, we swear, is a different thing) by applying a protective layer to your skin after you exfoliate.
Is That Supposed To Happen!?
Now that we've spent practically this entire guide teasing the dangers of over-exfoliating skin, how will you actually know whether you are going too far?
The classic signs are irritation, redness and inflammation. This may occur while you are exfoliating, or develop sometime afterwards. A good rule of thumb is that if you feel it, you've probably gone too far. While you might feel a bit of tingling when you apply a chemical exfoliant, you should never feel itching or burning, and your skin should never appear red, shiny (shiny is not glowy), inflammed or any combination thereof. Your skin should also not appear stretched or dry when you've finished, especially after you moisturize.
If you have been chronically over-exfoliating, you can develop dry, flaky skin; rough, bumpy breakouts; or even a rashlike texture characterized by uneven skin tone and texture.
If you have a darker skin tone, exfoliation (chemical or physical) could cause discoloration referred to as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.