Exfoliation is having a big moment right now. There are more options than ever and they can get a little confusing. Ingredients like acids, retinoids, and various chemicals can sound effective and technical but how do they actually work? If you want to skip the science lesson for the goodies, I promise I won't judge, because they are worth checking out. If you're on board to learn about your skin, let's take an in depth look at what these products really do and then find the best exfoliants for you.
The basics of exfoliation are pretty simple. Your skin is constantly creating and losing skin cells. Exfoliation is removing the dead cells that accumulate on the upper layer of your skin to expose the healthy layers underneath. The specifics on exfoliation gets more in depth.
You have lots of layers of skin that make up your epidermis, and cells work their way to the surface one layer at a time. The outer couple layers is made up of keratin-rich cells embedded in a glue-like matrix which weakens and sheds in a process called desquamation. This process is very complex, but just remember that it's the outermost layers that have been alive the longest, and have had the bonds between them weakened. These are the cells we want to remove. When you're younger your skin sheds more easily, hence a youthful glow.
To get this glow you can desquamate in various ways. Mechanical exfoliation is simple enough, use a little gentle elbow grease to break up these cells and get them off. Chemical exfoliation works on weakening those cell bonds to make it easier to remove these outer layers.
There are lots of ways you can incorrectly exfoliate. It is possible to be too harsh and end up taking off too many layers, which can damage and irritate the skin. But when you do it properly, it can work wonders by giving you a healthy glow, preventing dull or acne prone spots, and helping the product absorb into the skin.
The Types of Exfoliation
Let's Get Physical
In my youth, I tried to furiously scrub my acne away with St. Ives Apricot Scrub. Everything about that could not possibly have been more wrong. Physical exfoliation needs to be gentle, or you'll get micro-tears in your skin, eek! You need small grains, no ingredients with sharp edges like fruit pits or nut shells, or you can use a gentle brush to mechanically exfoliate without exfoliating unevenly or harshly.
Chemicals For Me, Thanks!
Chemical exfoliants can be really strong, but they also can provide a more gentle and effective exfoliation than your typical physical exfoliants. It's all about helping to break up the outermost cell bonds and promote cell turnover. Let's start with the acids which are all the rage - alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA).
AHAs and BHAs are similar, but not the same. AHA's are derived from natural substances and remove the glue-like matrix holding the cells together. They are water soluble and don't penetrate deep into the pores. BHAs are oil-soluble and can reach deep into the pores. They have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and provide a stronger exfoliation. BHAs are great for acne-prone oily skin. Because they do different things you can use them both, and many serums will even provide you with both.
If you want to go with enzymes instead of acids, then you can try fruit enzymes. These are great for sensitive skin because they're gentler than AHAs and BHAs. These don't work on the glue matrix, instead on the keratin rich cells. These are more at risk of losing potency in their environment, and they can affect layers underneath the ones you want to remove, so see if they work well for you.
Retinoids are exfoliants for people who aren't really looking for an exfoliant. They're used to increase cell turnover and combat signs of aging, wrinkles, and dark spots. When you use one and your skin isn't used to it there will be a period of red skin and flakiness. For some people these symptoms might not go away.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Glycolic Night Serum
This nighttime serum is quickly becoming a cult favorite, and I speak from experience. This AHA/BHA serum is so gentle you can use it everyday but is incredibly effective. It works for every skin type and will get rid of your dull and uneven skin tone in no time at all.
Neogen Gauze Pads
These are a great choice for people looking for a quick fix, or a product that uses both physical and chemical exfoliation. The gauze pads are soaked in an acid solution that you can rub in before you use the rougher side to rub. They come in different scents which all smell amazing, though I am partial to my wine scented one. Pro-tip from this cheap gal, you don't need the whole pad for your face so cut if in half or even quarters to prolong the products lifespan.
The Ordinary Peeling Solution
This stuff packs a punch! With a 30% AHA and a 2% BHA solution, you can only leave this product on for ten minutes tops only once a week. It is strong and powerful but don't be afraid because it is more gentle than you think and will make your skin unbelievably baby soft. The best part, the price! Everything from The Ordinary is incredibly priced so it makes it more affordable.
Caolion Cleansing Blackhead Steam Pack
This product says it's for blackheads, but it's very diverse. . It's an interesting mask because it warms up as it sits on your face. Just rub it in for a little while to get that physical exfoliation, let it warm up and penetrate your pores, then wash it off and enjoy your soft skin! There are a lot of exfoliating options that can help you get youthful glowing skin. Now you have the knowledge you need to help you choose the best method. Go and enjoy your beautiful new complexion.