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Acne

What's the Best Exfoliant? Types and Techniques Explained

What's one of the best ways to get brighter and smoother skin in one step? Exfoliation. 

Done right, exfoliation is an important step in a good skincare routine, helping to remove dead cells and dirt that contribute to a duller complexion and help give you a vibrant glow. In much the same way that cutting grass causes it to grow deeper roots new sprouts, speeding up your skin's cell removal process helps your body naturally work to strengthen and improve skin health. 

No matter your skin type, there's an exfoliator and process out there for you. 

But when done improperly, exfoliation can damage your skin and even be dangerous in some instances.

In this article, we'll take a look at the types of exfoliation, which to choose for your skin type, and how to get the best results from regularly exfoliating your skin. 

Summary

  • Exfoliation removes dead skin cells and dirt to help speed up regeneration and improve your complexion.
  • Exfoliation comes in a few primary forms––chemical methods, like peels and masks, and physical or mechanical methods, like salt in a facial scrub, pumice stone, washcloth, or professional dermabrasion. We've broken this second "physical" approach into two categories: physical and mechanical.
  • Done too aggressively or too frequently, exfoliation can damage your skin. Make sure to consider your skin type and other products you’re already using when beginning to exfoliate. 

What is Exfoliation and Why Is It Important?

Exfoliation is a skincare technique that removes dead skin cells and encourages new skin cell generation. If your skin is prone to dry patches, rough areas, or you suffer from acne, exfoliation may be able to help improve the appearance and texture of your skin. And while this technique is especially effective at combating and improving dry and acne-prone skin, exfoliation is suitable for everybody when done right.

Even if your complexion looks bright and feels smooth without exfoliation, you'll be amazed at the difference a scrub or face peel can make. 

As one research article explains, exfoliation kickstarts “skin and epidermal regeneration from the adjacent epithelium and skin adnexa. Moreover, through an inflammatory reaction and the activation of the inflammation mediators, an increase in fibroblastic synthesis and in the production of new collagen and glycosaminoglycan fibers is induced.” 

Exfoliating is also good for the pores. If you suffer from blackheads or whiteheads, adding an exfoliant to your beauty routine can help keep problem pores clear. That's because exfoliants help to whisk away dirt, debris, sebum, or product residue from deep down in your pores. For some, that can be as simple as using a gentle washcloth rather than just your hands when cleansing. Exfoliation doesn’t have to be (and really shouldn’t be) aggressive.

Interestingly, when the outer layer of dead cells is removed, the skin's surface is more clear, smoother, and even able to reflect more light, which makes the skin appear more radiant. 

The Three Types of Exfoliation

There are three types of exfoliation and each one works best with particular skin concerns, types, and needs. Here's a quick breakdown:

Chemical Exfoliation

  • The lowdown: Chemical exfoliation uses acid-based formulations that exfoliate the skin by dissolving the protein bonds that exist in and between dead skin cells. This allows dead cells to be completely removed from the surface of the skin and helps to encourage and accelerate the natural, healthy turnover of new cells. 
  • The products: Chemical exfoliation treatments might include cleansers, face peels, toners, masks, and serums.
  • The ingredients: These products will contain one or a combination of active ingredients, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or more gentle enzymes derived from fruits such as papaya. Our newest over-the-counter options care formulations include a unique natural exfoliator - take a look at our Aquabeautine XL® line

Physical Exfoliation

  • The lowdown: Physical exfoliation can take a few forms, and we’ve chosen here to break this category into two, including mechanical exfoliation techniques below. Physical exfoliation involves the use of granular scrubs that physically buff, polish, and smooth the skin. They are great at removing cell build-up and often contain more natural ingredients than their chemical counterparts. 
  • The products: Physical exfoliation products typically include facial scrubs with some level of abrasive quality, and “polishes.”
  • The ingredients: The great thing about physical exfoliants is that you can choose to buy ready-made products or make your own formulations at home. From fine salt and sugar to ground nut shells and jojoba beads, physical exfoliators come in many, many forms. 

A woman exfoliating her skin

Mechanical or Device-Based Exfoliation

  • The lowdown: Mechanical exfoliation involves the use of devices or machines that slough away dead skin cells. They can include face polishers, washcloths, and brushes that you can use at home, and professional microdermabrasion and laser treatments in a salon or dermatology office. 
  • The products: There are many products on the market today. You can choose to get back to basics with brushes and loofah pads or use more innovative electrical exfoliating products at home or in the salon. 
  • The ingredients: No ingredients here but mechanical exfoliators work really well when combined with physical exfoliating products like scrubs and facial polishes. 

What Type of Exfoliation is Best?

Whether you're just starting out with exfoliants or you've been exfoliating your skin for years, you could be doing more harm than good if you choose the wrong products or methods. What's more, over-exfoliating your skin can cause redness, irritation, and even dryness, especially if you have sensitive skin. 

Still, exfoliating can (and should for many) be a regular part of any skincare routine––it just needs to be done properly. 

Now that we've explored some of the exfoliating methods available, let's help you to choose the right one to suit your specific skin type. Get this right and you'll have clearer, brighter, and smoother skin with regular use. 

Here's how to choose the right exfoliation method for your skin type. 

Choosing the Best Exfoliation Technique

When choosing the right exfoliator for your skin type, keep in mind that (as with many health techniques), exfoliation can take some trial and testing. While these are good starting points, one approach isn’t always good for everyone. Our dermatologists recommend starting with gentle approaches, using them infrequently, and revising based on what’s working and what’s feeling good for your skin. Consider the following tips as starting points for refining your exfoliation process. As always, learn as you go.

Dry Skin

If you suffer from dry skin or flaky patches, a physical exfoliant is often a good choice to begin. Choose a product that has fine granules to start, as these will gently improve texture without causing inflammation. Mechanical exfoliators can also work well, such as a facial polishing brush on dry areas.  

Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin needs to be treated with great care and respect. The good news is that you can still use an exfoliator no matter how sensitive your skin gets. Look for physical exfoliant products that are specifically made for your skin type. Foaming exfoliators and toners will treat your skin gently while removing dead skin cells and helping to unclog pores. 

Oily Skin

Oily skin types need to be careful with the products they use as the wrong product could cause a barrage of breakouts. Opt for chemical exfoliators that contain BHAs or a combination of physical and chemical ingredients. We love fruit enzyme exfoliators that also contain nutshell granules.

Combination Skin

If you're blessed with combination skin, you'll be pleased to know that you can usually use physical, chemical, and mechanical methods of exfoliation. If you have mature skin, choose a chemical exfoliant that contains AHAs as these are specifically designed to combat the signs of aging to boost radiance and smooth fine lines. 

Get Your Exfoliation Schedule Down

While exfoliation is a great way to care for your skin, you can have too much of a good thing! Just as it's important to choose the right exfoliating method for your skin type, you also need to get your exfoliation routine down too. How often should you exfoliate?

  • Chemical exfoliants: Due to their sometimes harsher ingredients, it's wise to limit the use of chemical exfoliants to once a week. They can be applied in the morning or evening after cleansing, however always read the instructions that apply to your product. 
  • Physical exfoliants: These exfoliators can generally be used two to three times a week due to their more gentle formulation if they contain fine abrasives like sugar. Use in the morning or evening after cleansing. 
  • Mechanical exfoliants: Manual mechanical exfoliants such as brushes and loofah pads can be used two to three times a week. You might want to limit electrical device exfoliating to once a week as it can be more harsh on the skin than manual versions. If you’re working with a dermatologist directly, they can advise on the right regularity of more intensive techniques like in-office laser or microplaning.

No matter what your skin type or what product you choose, it's always good to follow manufacturer recommendations on the label. And if any product causes irritation, it could be time to switch out or use it less often. 

Remember, dialing in your beauty routine should be a process, not once-and-done. Be prepared to learn as you go, but make sure to stick with an exfoliator for a month or two before changing tactics if it doesn't appear to be enhancing your skin: skin healing takes time, after all, and your skin cells turn over naturally every 30-60 days depending on your age. And, always keep things gentle to begin. 

Is Exfoliating Dangerous?

Exfoliation, when done right, shouldn’t be dangerous for your skin. But if you spend every evening scrubbing your cheeks and forehead with a pumice stone, you should expect your skin to be sensitive and red. 

You should also probably avoid aggressive lasers and devices sold online that might damage your skin in the absence of a professional to help you.

Exfoliating can leave your skin sensitive for some time after, so a good moisturizer is central to helping your skin get rehydrated. For most people, your exfoliation process should include a quality moisturizer after.

Conclusion

Exfoliation is one of the best ways to look after your skin and improve texture, luminosity, and cell rejuvenation. When you get the technique right for your skin type, exfoliation can be a great component of your weekly (or more) routine. Start slowly and learn as you go.

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References

https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-secrets/routine/safely-exfoliate-at-home

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31804050/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18688104/