Exfoliants are a necessary skincare addition to every skincare regime. The use of exfoliants dates back to ancient civilizations. American Indians used dried corn cobs; Native Comanche tribes used sand; Polynesians used crushed seashells; and Egyptians used pumice stone.
Exfoliants were designed to smooth out and remove debris from the surface of the skin. The original formulations in modern times were usually formulated with a cream or gel base, with sugar, salt, sand, or some kind of crushed up shell from a nut or seed. But you can now also find non-abrasive exfoliants that contain active ingredients that do the work for you.
25 years ago, as a pimple-faced teenager, I remember using the most abrasive exfoliants on my skin. I wanted to scrub the acne right off, but no matter how hard I tried - how much I scrubbed - my skin only got more red and agitated.
It wasn’t until my mother took me to a skin specialist at age 15 - after two years of struggling with my skin - where they showed me my skin on a microscopic level, and educated me on how to effectively tackle my skin concerns. I began to understand the damage I was doing, and why my skin hadn’t improved.
Like a Snake...
A snake sheds her skin between four and 12 times a year. Although we are mammals, humans are not so different from these reptilian slugs. Every 2-4 weeks, humans will shed their entire outer layer of their skin!
Shedding is a protective mechanism that is designed to protect us from diseases. In addition, studies show that shedding also improves air quality around us. The oils and squalene found in our cells reduces the amount of ozone in the air. Ozone is a pollutant that can irritate our eyes, nose and throat.
Because the skin sheds over a period of 2-4 weeks, it does so in an uneven fashion. So our complexion, and our overall skin can look dull and feel coarse in different areas. Makeup won’t go on as smoothly, and products won’t absorb as well.
The Benefits of Exfoliating
The human body is pretty darn amazing at keeping us healthy and alive. But it doesn’t hurt to help it along the way. Removing, or “sloughing off” - as the professionals call it - the dead skin cells through exfoliation accelerates the shedding process, which, in turn helps:
- Unclog pores: although our skin sheds naturally, it can sometimes remain in small amounts that can seal or block our pores, causing things like blackheads and whiteheads;
- Prevent acne: not only does it unclog pores, but it aids in management of acne, and stops it from forming underneath the skin. Exfoliant removes bacteria that cause acne before it has a chance to infect the follicles;
- Allows for better penetration of skincare products: exfoliation unclogs pores and removes debris from the skin surface will giving products a clearer path to infiltrate the epidermis without anything interfering with the process;
- Evens out skin tone: exfoliation smooths out any rough patches, while helping with any pigmentation or dark spots, as it sloughs off the dry, dead cells;
- Boosts circulation: exfoliation stimulates blood flow to the area it is working on. This helps with oxygenation of the skin, and draws red blood cells - which create collagen - to the surface, which can also aid in skin repair;
- Stimulates cell renewal: exfoliation invigorate cells to encourage them to replenish; and,
- Collagen synthesis: exfoliation stimulates collagen production, minimizing fine lines and keeping the skin looking juicy.
The Types of Exfoliants
You’ll find an abundance of exfoliants available on the market today, in various forms, for different uses, and for different skin concerns. So how do you know which ones are best for your skin type, and for your needs?
There are two ways you can exfoliate:
- Physical exfoliation. This is the traditional style of exfoliation, where a product contains small particles, such as sugar or coffee grounds. This product requires manual application, or rubbing of the skin, such as the Santal Dual-Action Enzyme Cleansing Powder by MS Skincare. This can also include microdermabrasion, where a machine is used to physically work over the skin’s surface to remove the cells.
- Chemical exfoliation. These are an acid in liquid form that you apply to the skin, either as a mask in a treatment that is to be removed after a certain amount of time, such as MS Skincares Enlighten Retexturizing Glycolic Treatment; or as a step in your regime that stays on the skin. An example is the Hawaiian Beauty Water from Honua Skincare.
Physical Exfoliation Damage
Any good esthetician will tell you that you need to be very careful with any kind of exfoliation. When it comes to physical exfoliation in particular, it’s so easy to damage the skin and not even realize it. The reason being is that the particles in these kinds of exfoliants are not always ground up fine enough, and the particles are not perfectly round meaning that they likely contain sharp edges.
Speaking of round particles… For anyone who is old enough to remember skincare 20+ years ago, almost every product on the shelf contained plastic microbeads instead of organic particles. Skincare companies claimed it was better and safer to use, because the beads could help remove the product from the skin, and the microbeads were not as sharp or damaging to our skin. Fast forward to the beginning 21st century, it became evident that we had a very real microplastics problem in our environment as a direct result of industries - like Cosmetics - using microplastics in their products. Microplastics are such a problem now that they have been found everywhere in our waterways and even in the food we eat.
When you manually exfoliate with these kinds of products, you have control over how hard you press into the skin, and how much you scrub. So most of us will go to town on our face to dig into those areas that are really bugging us.
Over-exfoliating and exfoliating with low-quality products will damage your skin’s microbiome. You’ve probably heard the word microbiome before to describe your gut or other parts of your body. A microbiome is just the name given to the ecosystem of bacteria - whether it be your skin or your gut or some other area. The sound of having these little bugs crawling all over your skin might sound disgusting, but they are actually extremely important to the health of your skin.
Signs that you have damaged the skin’s microbiome will be evident on your skin fairly quickly. Your skin may look or feel:
- Bumpy (with breakouts)
- Dry and flaky
- Patchy or blotchy
- Premature signs of aging (fine lines)
Not only that, but there will be things going on with your skin that you won’t be able to see.
On a microscopic level, over-exfoliating with a manual exfoliant can cause micro-tears (cuts) in your epidermis. But, why does that matter if they’re so small that you can’t even see them with your naked eye?
Well, as I said at the beginning of this post, when I was a teenager, I used abrasive scrubs to try and remove my acne. It wouldn't clear it up, so I kept on scrubbing, and all I was doing was causing micro-tears all over my face, and I didn’t even realize it.
A great example of a well-known skincare product that is known to cause micro-tears in the skin is St Ives Apricot Scrub.
This product contains crushed up corn kernels - yikes! Imagine how jagged those particles are. When you use it, your skin feels incredibly smooth - and it should, seeing as you buffed all of the debris, plus pieces of your epidermis away. But this is not how you safely, and effectively treat your skin.
Chemical Exfoliation Damage
There are three kinds of chemical exfoliants:
- AHA’s (alpha hydroxy acids) - water-soluble compounds, great for treating surface conditions such as fine lines, pigmentation and skin texture; and,
- BHA’s (beta hydroxy acids) - oil-soluble compounds, that work deeper in the skin to unclog pores and treat acne; and,
- Fruit Enzymes - comes from fruit, and works by breaking down, or “eating” the dead skin cells.
Damage can also occur with chemical exfoliation. But as long as you follow the instructions for these products, including patch testing the product before using it, it is less likely that you will damage your skin.
Signs that you have over-exfoliated with a chemical exfoliant will be somewhat similar to physical exfoliation damage. The only thing that can’t occur are the micro-tears in the skin. But it is possible to get chemical burns from products if left on the skin too long, or if you have a reaction to the chemicals.
Which Exfoliant Should I Use?
As an esthetician, I always recommend everyone use an exfoliant at least once a week for sensitive, or normal to dry skin; and at least twice a week, if you have particularly oily or blemish-prone skin. This will facilitate your skin’s natural shedding, and will ensure your other products can effectively penetrate the skin.
If you see things like fine lines, sun damage, pigmentation, uneven skin texture and large pores, you’ll want to get yourself an AHA or Fruit Enzymes exfoliant. Our top picks are:
- MS Skincare’s Santal Dual-Action Enzyme Cleansing Powder - gentle enough to use daily, this incorporates physical and chemical exfoliation, and removes a daily build-up of dead skin cells to maintain the integrity of your skin;
- Honua Skincare’s Hawaiian Beauty Water - apply up to 5 times a week, after cleansing, do not rinse off, continue with other products in your regime;
- MS Skincare’s Enlighten Retexturizing Glycolic Treatment - use once or twice a week, apply after cleansing, rinse off after 1-5 minutes, continue with other products in your regime;
- MS Skincare’s Jaipur Brightening Enzyme Mask - use 1-3 times a week, apply as a mask after cleansing, rinse off after 3-5 minutes, continue with other products in your regime.
BHA’s are great for concerns such as acne, clogged pores, or oily skin. You could try something like Paula’s Choice BHA Exfoliant. However, these days you can find products that contain combinations of AHA’s and BHA’s. So why not kill five birds with one stone?
I haven’t been able to find a BHA exfoliant that is in a 100% plastic-free container. The Ordinary comes in a glass dropper bottle with a plastic lid, and Paula's Choice unfortunately comes in plastic. Nevertheless, both products are very effective:
- The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution - use twice a week, apply after cleansing, rinse off and continue with other products in your regime;
- Paula’s Choice 25% AHA + 2% BHA Exfoliant Peel - use once a week for 10 minutes after cleansing, rinse off and continue with other products in your regime.
As always, patch test any new skincare product before you use them. Chemical exfoliants contain very active ingredients and are known to cause uncomfortable, and sometimes severe skin reactions. Use with caution.
Written by Emma Masotti. Emma is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.