A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Exfoliation

A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Exfoliation
Photo: ImaxTree

What do popular products like the Clarisonic brush and Glossier’s New Solution have in common? They both fall under the exfoliating category, which means they’re supposed to slough away dead skin cells, either gently or more aggressively, to leave us with renewed skin that’s softer than a baby’s bottom.

Even those with minimal beauty expertise know that scrubbing away the gunk is an important part of the skin-care process, but as with almost any other beauty category, exfoliation exists in many different forms. Ahead, Kelli J. BartlettGlamsquad’s director of artistry, and Dendy Engelman, MD, SkinCeuticals partner dermatologist, provide a comprehensive guide to understanding what it is, why it’s beneficial, and where to start if you haven’t already.

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Natural Exfoliation

Did you know that your body is already helping you out? According to Engelman, cell turnover, another term for exfoliation, is “the process by which our skin produces new skin cells, which travel from the lowest layer of the epidermis to the top layer and then shed off the skin.” Essentially, this naturally occurring process is what keeps dead cells from building up on the skin’s top surface.

Unfortunately, this process does slow down as we age. If you want a better idea of just how slow cell turnover becomes, it starts off at 14 days when we’re infants and grows to 21–28 days as teenagers, 28–42 days at middle age, and 42–84 days over 50 years of age.

So, this is why experts are constantly telling us to keep a topical exfoliant in rotation, especially as we enter our 20s.

The Benefits

Bartlett adds that, beyond removing the top layer of dead skin cells, regular exfoliation also simply allows the skin to breathe while killing bacteria that might have been trapped under clogged pores.

Engelman says that it works wonders for “increasing collagen production because of the removal of dead particles. By stimulating the lymphatic system with exfoliation, blood increases in that area and eliminates waste, which can reduce inflammation.”

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The Misconceptions

And while exfoliation is associated with a host of benefits, there are some alternative facts floating around, too. One of the biggest, according to Bartlett, is that it “must be manual or abrasive to skin, roughing it up to remove the dead cells.” Remember that the process can also be done more gently through natural chemicals like lactic acid. 

Over time, harsh exfoliation will only weaken the skin’s barrier function and lead to more inflammation. “If the barrier function is damaged,” says Engelman, “skin becomes vulnerable to infection from microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungus, and leads to sensitivity and irritation.”

And even if the damage isn’t visible to the naked eye, your skin can still experience a low amount of inflammation (called chronic inflammation) that prematurely ages skin.

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Physical vs. Chemical

How many ways can you exfoliate? Allow us to count the ways. From water-based solutions to creamy cleansers and even face masks, the avenues are in large supply. If you have the access, we always say start with a dermatologist who can properly assign you the correct ingredients and products. And while you’re there, Engelman recommends a yearly skin peel or microdermabrasion to target your specific skin needs.

“In-office peels have a higher concentration than at-home-use products and thus penetrate further into the skin yielding greater results. My go-tos are the Oxylight Facial (at my office) or a SkinCeuticals Skin Peel.”

Otherwise, there are products galore. Generally speaking, chemical exfoliants (i.e., creams, gels, liquids) are the best options for ridding your face of dirt and grime, while physical exfoliants, like a Clarisonic, act as a buffer by physically removing the deadened skin cells on contact. However, keep in mind that the latter should be done properly and not too frequently.

According to Engelman, those with sensitive skin should bypass a chemical exfoliant and instead use a brush or washcloth along with their normal cleanser. “Both of these make it easy to control the abrasiveness based on the pressure you use, and you won’t have to worry about any ingredients you might be allergic to,” he says.

To the contrary, if your skin is acne prone, reusable devices can actually make your acne worse since they harbor bacteria. This type of skin reacts best to chemical exfoliants. “Exfoliating helps with acne lesions and cleanses pores. AHA and BHA acids (such as salicylic, lactic, and glycolic) fight oil and remove pore-clogging dead skin cells. I love SkinCeuticals C+ AHA for the antioxidant and the exfoliating properties.”

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Best Chemical Products

Exfoliating Cleansers

If you decide to roll with a chemical exfoliant, look for a gentle cleanser that’s safe enough to use on the skin every day. If you’re scared of potential irritation, start with something softer, like a cleansing oil (Engelman recommends this one) to remove all makeup and bacteria. Then, follow with the cleanser, such as SkinCeuticals LHA Cleansing Gel, to target buildup. Bartlett prefers the Biologique Recherche P50 Lotion.

The most underrated and least understood exfoliators are AHA and BHA acids. Both do the same job—exfoliate—but in different ways. Alpha-hydroxy acids exfoliate the top layer of the skin, while the oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acids are able to more deeply penetrate. If you need product recs, we’ve got plenty of them in our acid cleanser guide.

Exfoliating Pads or Masks

Another way to enhance cell turnover and up your exfoliation game even more is to use a pad with around 5 percent glycolic acid (derived from sugar cane) two to three times a week, depending on your skin’s sensitivity, to eliminate dryness and dullness. Engelman’s go-tos are the Elizabeth Arden Skin Illuminating Retexturizing Pads. There are also plenty of other glycolic-acid-infused options to choose from.