Exfoliation 101

08 29 2016

Here are our tips and tricks for achieving exfoliation success and avoiding exfoliation disaster, plus a lesson on the physiology of skin.

There’s no denying that a little mindful cell-shedding now and again makes your skin look and feel better. Unfortunately, too many "experts" suffer from exfoliation exaggeration, claiming that it tightens sagging skin, removes wrinkles, eradicates sun and age spots, and makes your skin glow. No surprise this leads to excessive exfoliation. While exfoliation is a good skin care tool, overdoing it creates sensitized, dry, dehydrated skin and worst of all, skin that’s more susceptible to sun damage. A little lesson in the physiology of skin will help explain why, and our do’s and don’ts will help you exfoliate wisely.

The physiology of exfoliation

We all exfoliate naturally, shedding millions of dead skin cells daily. Approximately every 28 days, the top layer of skin (consisting of keratinous cells held together by lipids—think of roof tiles and grout) is sloughed off and replaced by new fresh cells. This top layer is your environmental protection barrier, and it has a heavy-duty workload. It protects you from climate, sun and microbial assault and is responsible for holding in moisture. With all of these duties, it’s no wonder that after a short time the skin’s top layer starts to show wear and tear— making skin appear blotchy and rough in texture. Aging doesn’t help matters. That’s because as we age and get exposed to the elements, our skin becomes drier and duller. When we’re young, our cell turnover rate keeps the top layers fresh, but as one gets older, the turnover rate slows down, from a normal of 28 days to 45 or even 50.

Out with the old, in with the new

When natural exfoliation isn’t enough, people turn to chemical or mechanical means. This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, keeps skin clean, and helps reduce acne outbreaks. Gentle exfoliation with lactic acid triggers an increase in cell renewal, rapid shedding of dead skin cells and an accelerated cell turnover rate. As fresh skin cells replace the old, the top layer of skin gradually becomes smoother, softer and more pliable, never leathery, and with less dryness and flakiness overall.

Too much of a good thing

The skin only has so many layers and if you strip them all off before they’ve been replaced, you can cause more harm than good. Over exfoliating can result in thin skin, redness, irritations and rashes, hyperpigmentation, and increased vulnerability to sun damage. People often think that rougher, harsher exfoliation methods will get more dead skin cells off, so it’s the better way to go. The opposite is the case.

Do’s and don’ts for exfoliating wisely

When to exfoliate

DO: Exfoliate at night only. And use a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day. Even on cloudy days, UVA rays will damage skin, especially skin that has been recently exfoliated.

DON’T: Exfoliate more than 1-2 times a week.* Really.

* Monitor how your skin is reacting, not necessarily after the first time you exfoliate, but after the 50th time. Anytime it starts looking red or irritated, it’s time to back off. Go from two times a week to one, or from once a week to every other week.

What ingredients to exfoliate with

DO: Choose gentle exfoliants such as lactic acid, found in beets. Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that works best on aging skin because it stimulates production of natural ceramides to prevent moisture loss and helps lighten skin.*

DON’T: Use glycolic acid. It doesn’t have any more cell-turnover stimulus effect than lactic acid and it is far more irritating.

* If you suffer from breakouts or razor bumps, use a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) like salicylic acid. Salicylic acid can be used every day—in your cleanser and/or your pre-shave or aftershave moisturizer.

How to exfoliate

DO: Follow instructions. If it says to remove the mask after two to five minutes, do not keep it on for ten. AHA’s penetrate very quickly, so by the time your mask is removed it will still be working at deeper layers.*

DON’T: Over exfoliate. Or confuse “squeaky clean” skin with healthy skin. Or overuse electronic exfoliation devices. Skin stripped of its environmental protection barrier is harmful...not healthy.

* Some people will experience tingling and even irritation very quickly—if this happens wash it off as soon as you feel uncomfortable. If you are using a safe AHA like lactic acid you do not need to worry—your skin is just extra-sensitive and you need to bear that in mind for next time.