Exfoliating: How To, Dos & Don'ts
I truly love exfoliating and it has made all the difference in my skin.
But why don't some people have the same benefits? Why doesn't everyone enjoy exfoliation as much as I do?
First, let's get a better understanding of the purpose of exfoliation, and then we will dig into how to exfoliate, and why some people may not like it.
As we age, the rate of collagen that we produce begins to slow down. But the action of exfoliation creates a mild trauma in the skin (similar technique in microneedling, although to a lesser extent). This increases the formation of new tissue by activating the body’s wound healing cascade (hemostasis-inflammation-proliferation-tissue remodeling). Quite literally this action kick-starts your collagen production. This in turn activates the fibroblasts, so even more elastin and collagen is synthesised in the dermis.
In technical terms, when your skin is injured even in small, miniscule ways, histamine is released by mast cells. This action then triggers an inflammatory response in which blood plasma, which contains nutrients, oxygen and macrophages, rush to the site of the injury, stimulating the wound healing process. Then the fibroblasts also begin to synthesize collagen fibres.
The immediate benefits of exfoliation are: unclogging of pores of dirt, dead skin, sebum, product, etc; preventing breakouts by removing the pore buildup which may harbour bacteria; and removing dry patches of skin that are unsightly and hard to cover with makeup.
The long-term benefits of exfoliation are: it may help to smooth fine lines; make the skin appear more supple and firm and help the skin retain moisture.
Exfoliation can also help the skin absorb other skin care products better and allow them to work more effectively on the skin by removing any dead skin that might prevent optimal product penetration.
Exfoliation can be an important part of a skin care routine in keeping skin healthy, young and glowing.
How do I choose which type of exfoliant to use?
Human skin is all the same to some extent, but it’s still different enough that no product will ever work for everyone the same way, and using the wrong product can even make your skin worse. So don’t blindly follow someone on social media who has great skin and scrubs with diamond dust for 5 hours a day – but at the same time, if there’s someone with similar skin concerns as you, and a particular product worked fantastically for them, then it could be a good starting point.
The two major categories of exfoliant are physical/mechanical exfoliants, which buff away dead cells with manual movements, and chemical exfoliants, which remove dead cells by unsticking the glue holding them together, or by correcting the rate at which the skin produces skin cells. Chemical exfoliants (or chemical peels) can be done at home, or at a dermatologist's office.
Both types of exfoliation have their benefits, and different types of physical or chemical exfoliation have their advantages and disadvantages. All skin types can benefit from both physical and chemical exfoliants, when used properly and appropriately for your skin.
Here are some good options for mechanical exfoliation:
- oatmeal (for all skin types)
- coconut sugar + olive oil (for normal skin)
- face brushes like the Soniclear Petite for every day use and all skin types
For chemical exfoliation:
- professional treatment
In general, people tend to see greater effects using a professional chemical exfoliation, as the results are longer-lasting since they work on the deeper layers of the skin. However, if you're not into spending big bucks or you're just more of a DIY kind of person, the chemical exfoliants that you do at home will present results comparable to those done with mechanical exfoliation.
If you have sensitive skin that is highly damaged or skin that has regular breakouts, try to steer clear of the harsher mechanical exfoliation options and instead use a gentle chemical exfoliation product or the gentlest options on the Soniclear Petite.
How do I exfoliate?
How you will exfoliate depends on what type of exfoliant you choose.
First of all, you should be cleansing before you exfoliate, and moisturizing afterwards. Always. Fudging always.
If you're doing a chemical exfoliant it's usually as simple as applying the product in a thin, even layer on all the areas of your face (avoiding the eyes and mouth), and leaving it on for the specified amount of time, then rinsing it away.
For mechnical exfoliation, if you're using a scrub product you would apply it to damp skin and gently (I can't stress this enough) work it around in smooth, circular motions, letting the scrub do the work and not applying any pressure.
Same goes for the cleansing/exfoliating brush heads - move it around in a circular motion without applying pressure.
Try out a chemical (something with enzymes to slough away dead skin) or physical exfoliant (a brown sugar scrub; a skin brush) for a couple of weeks, once a week and see what you think. If you don't notice a difference, switch to a different exfoliant. If you like the way it makes your skin look and feel but you think you need to use it 2x a week, then start integrating it more often.
I like to use my cleansing brush at night, and before a mask I will either use it on the higher setting, my peppermint walnut scrub, or my coconut sugar + olive oil scrub for a "deeper" exfoliation. I will opt for a chemical exfoliant on lounge days when my skin is feeling exceptionally dull.
It's always, always, always best to use very gentle exfoliating options. Anything that is too harsh or abrasive will only serve to damage the skin and that's not what we want. So pick soft brushes and rounded granules, and gentle, ideal pH chemical exfoliants.
How do I know if I am exfoliating too much or too harsh?
The problem is that when people try exfoliating and they see amazing results, they want to exfoliate all the time - more often than they should. I'm guilty of falling into this trap, too. At one point I was exfoliating daily with sugar scrubs! Yikes.
Generally, more abrasive or heavy duty exfoliants should only be used once a week. When you're starting out with a new exfoliant, start at once a week and decide if your skin needs it more after that.
There are a lot of tell-tale signs that your skin is over exfoliated or you are exerting too much force. The first red flag is if it hurts your skin to exfoliate. That should be obvious - it shouldn't hurt.
Your skin may also feel sensitive and red, probably also tight and that weird dry-shine that your skin gets after over-cleansing. Your skin may also feel itchy, sensitive, parched/dehydrated, and even inflamed.
This means that you've likely exfoliated your skin too much, too often, or too harsh - and you've probably scrubbed off the top, protective layer of your skin. If you scrub this off, it can damage your skin's moisture barrier which can lead to your skin becoming overly dry and dehydrated (which can result in oilier skin!). If this happens, you need to stop exfoliating (stahp!) and really give your skin a little TLC moisture until it gets back to normal. Then you can reintroduce exfoliating again, preferably with a gentler option.
Remember, you're not scrubbing the dishes, you're scrubbing your face.
In conclusion, there are a lot of reasons people might not be "into" exfoliation. Perhaps they aren't doing it properly (being too abrasive, using the wrong things to exfoliate, doing it too often), or perhaps they haven't found the right product for their skin (maybe the products they've used are too harsh, or too gentle), or maybe their skin is damaged and sensitized and they need to repair their skin before carrying on with exfoliation. Either way, I hope that all of your exfoliation questions have been answered, and that you can appreciate how useful it is as a skincare tool.