I’ve gotten a lot of skin care advice in my tenure as a beauty editor. Routines have come and gone. Product reviews have been completed and expert advice has been divulged. Still, no tip or trick has served me better than the one that says to exfoliate. True, it’s a simple and kind-of a “duh” statement, but it wasn’t until I started using AHAs and BHAs that I saw a significant improvement in my skin worth talking about. Since then, I’ve sung the praises of my go-tos and encouraged my inner circle to hop on the chemical acid bandwagon. But as of late, one question has crossed my mind: how do you exfoliate without acid?
Though it rarely happens, there are certain occasions when friends will tell me that an acne cleanser made with salicylic acid or glycolic at-home peel makes their skin painfully blotchy. And even if I tell them to try a mechanical exfoliator like a brush or silicone scrubber, it’s just as irritating. But given all the expert-approved hype around these types of products, the prospect of an alternative seems bleak at best. As it turns out, I’m sort-of right. We should be exfoliating, but there are caveats to keep in mind if you’re sensitive or simply want to avoid these exfoliants as much as possible.
Slow Your Frequency
Let’s start with those who actually want to keep using chemical acids, but avoid incessant irritation too. The downside to them–regardless of how often you’re using–is that they make your skin more photosensitive since they’re removing cells from the top layer of skin. This means as your skin is getting smoother, it’s also becoming more vulnerable to sun exposure, which in turn requires ample SPF. So if you’re someone who keeps forgetting this part of your routine, that could explain why chemical acids leave your skin feeling taut and in pain. Also, stop leaving the house without applying sunscreen!
You also could just be using too much, too frequently. Most product labels instruct using just a couple times a week. But even I am guilty of bypassing the instructions and going H.A.M. every night because I’m so happy with the results. That alone is creating a cycle of hurt for your skin and ironically, will keep the product from giving you the right results. So slow down and know that the product will still brighten, even and smooth-out your complexion in time.
“Using too frequent or too harsh exfoliation can disrupt the natural biome on the face, changing the pH and stripping the natural oils, two things that keep the skin in its balanced state. When the skin is out of balance, then the skin has to create inflammation in order to protect itself,” says Dr. Jame Heskett, Holistic MD and author of The Well Path. “This is what manifests as red, irritated skin and broken blood vessels and acne. Of course some people have more sensitive skin than others, but even those who have less sensitive skin, can make themselves sensitive through too aggressive exfoliation.”
Switch to an Alternative
Now let’s get to the good stuff. If you want to put a full-stop to alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids in your routine, there is an alternative. According to Dr. Heskett, Vitamin C can slough away dead skin cells just as well as any of the popular fruit acids (lactic, malic, tartaric, citric and glycolic). Yes, it’s also an acid–an absorbic acid to be exact–but it’s also way gentler and renowned for its antioxidant properties. This means that when used regularly, it will actually build up protection against environmental stressors (like sun exposure)–something chemical acids definitely don’t do.
“My favorite exfoliative product is the Anti-Wrinkle Polish & Plump Peel from HydroPeptide. Not only are you getting the exfoliation from two very gentle but effective sources of vitamin C and lactic acid, but the exfoliative process ends with plumping peptides that visibly plump up the skin,” adds Dr. Heskett.
Be Careful With Physical Scrubs
There’s also the option of switching out chemical exfoliation for mechanical exfoliation. Dr. Heskett’s only caveat is to be mindful of the type of mechanical exfoliant you’re using. Her favorite go-to is a natural bristled dry brush for the face because you’re not only lifting dead cells from the face; you’re also “draining the lymphatics and stimulating the circulation which is powerful strategy for vital skin.”
“Cleansing your skin right after dry brushing will remove the dead cells and emulsify anything trapped in the pores,” she says, “but plastic beads found in conventional scrubs are a horror for the environment and natural scrubs like apricot are horrors for your face in that they are not round and can create micro tears in the skin.” Instead, opt for products made with jojoba beads, like the HydroPeptide Exfoliating Cleanser, since they are biodegradable and gentle, but still effective.
If you’re looking for a natural exfoliant, stick with a super-fine sugar or even oatmeal. “Remember the body exfoliates itself to a certain extent naturally, so scrubbing hard or using harsh scrubs is totally unnecessary to give the skin a little boost in cellular turnover and reap the benefits.”
Treat Yourself to Regular Facials
Finally, if you’re looking to use chemical and mechanical exfoliants even less, there’s also the option of investing in regular facials. Just keep in mind that in most cases, your face will require more frequent exfoliation.
“I think for the majority of people this is true, a therapeutic peel twice a year at the end of the summer and at the end of the winter is sufficient. However, some people have slower turnover and they may need something more regularly at home to keep the skin vital,” says Dr. Heskett. “But always better to err on the side of too little than too much because you can always do more, but repairing the skin is more difficult. “
The moral of this story? Start small and work your way up until you find what your skin’s most comfortable with.