When I was a kid, my mom would make it a point to use a rough cloth to scrub my entire body, but once my mosquito-bite boobs started to sprout, those weekly scrub downs were not welcome anymore. It was up to me to continue that tradition in the bathtub, but instead, I used what all my friends used, which was a nice, soft loofah and a big bottle of fruity body wash. But after I started making trips to the sauna as an adult, a wimpy loofah wasn’t enough. Now I use a washcloth to scrub from head to toe in the shower and have learned that exfoliating doesn’t just feel good, but that it’s actually good for you. Let’s get technical for a second. Your skin naturally sheds billions of skin cells a day, which actually contributes to dust. Gross, right? But if it doesn’t shed properly, or if the shedding slows down, your skin can become dry and dull, and you may suffer from clogged pores and develop whiteheads, blemishes, and an uneven skin tone. This buildup of skin cells can even be the cause of those flaky skin flare-ups that are responsible for your makeup looking patchy and that can’t even be tamed with moisturizer. Exfoliation gives your body’s natural skin-cell shedding a boost and encourages cell regeneration, which results in a brighter and more even skin tone and smoother skin texture. You can exfoliate daily, weekly, or even just once a month, as it really depends on the condition of your skin. Removing excess skin cells also helps your moisturizers and other products absorb more easily. Not having to fight through a layer of dead cells, your products can go straight to the epidermis, which ultimately means your skin will retain more moisture. The act of exfoliating can also help stimulate collagen production (to keep skin firm), improve circulation, and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you’ve got oily or acne-prone skin, exfoliating helps clear away the dead skin cells that can get trapped in pores and cause blackheads and congestion
Mechanical: The Right Exfoliator for Your Skin
When talking about cleansers, the skin on your body is thicker than the skin on your face, so you don’t want to go to town on your elbows and cheeks with the same vigor, or tools. Exfoliators mostly fall into two categories: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliation uses products such as sugar scrubs or brush bristles (such as a Clarisonic) for the face, or Korean moms armed with Italy towels for the body, to physically slough off dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Mechanical exfoliation is good for normal to combination skin, but be cautious of using these methods if you have active breakouts or dry or sensitive skin.
The downside here is that the physical nature of the mechanical exfoliation process can irritate skin, causing it to produce more oil and leading to more acne. If you have active pimples (such as those with a white tip), avoid mechanical exfoliators, as you don’t want pimples to burst and spread bacteria to the surrounding skin. Even without acne, you should still handle mechanical exfoliators with care. For example, if you’re using an electric rotating brush, limit the amount of time and pressure you press the rotating brush on your skin. Also, be careful of what mechanical exfoliants are used, because if the material used to make the scrub isn’t high quality, the rough, sharp edges of the granules can actually cause micro-tears in your skin.
In general, look for ingredients such as sugar, jojoba beads, or oatmeal, as all are fairly gentle on skin. Walnut and apricot scrubs, while popular, have uneven and odd-shaped granules that can have sharp edges and spell bad news for your skin. If you’re using a rotating brush or exfoliating cloth for your face, you can use it during the second step of your double cleanse with your water-based cleanser. If you’re using a separate exfoliating scrub, do your double cleanse, then use the scrub on wet skin, wash it off, and follow with your toner. On the flip side, chemical exfoliation uses acids or enzymes to remove dead skin cells. Acids and enzymes break down and dissolve the lipids that act like glue and hold the dead skin cells together. Some acids can even work deep into pores to remove sebum, which is an extra bonus, because dead skin cells aren’t just on the surface—they can settle deep into pores. Acids used in chemical exfoliators are categorized as alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA). Some common AHAs include glycolic acid and lactic acid, and both can be found in skin-care products in concentrations from 5 to 15 percent. Starting at 12 percent, it’s considered a chemical peel.
Glycolic acid is a smaller molecule than lactic acid, so it penetrates into your pores very quickly, which can lead to irritation. Lactic acid is a larger molecule, penetrating more slowly, and is thus gentler than glycolic. A popular BHA is salicylic acid, which is great for acne-prone and oily skin types because it breaks down oil and clogged pores and is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Most salicylic acid skin-care products can be applied and left on throughout the day if they have concentrations of 1 to 2 percent; anything higher than that should be rinsed off. Once again, moderation is key, as overusing salicylic acid can dry out your skin. For chemical exfoliants, you’ll want to apply them after washing your face and using your toner. Be careful to avoid the eye area, since this is extra-sensitive skin, and then follow with the rest of your skin-care routine in order. If you’re using any retinols or prescribed products, double-check with your doctor to make sure that these products can be used together safely.
Dead Skin: Your Body’s Natural SPF
After you use chemical or mechanical exfoliators, you mustn’t forget to moisturize! Exfoliation weakens your skin’s barrier, and you want to rehydrate and protect with a good moisturizer. As important as it is to exfoliate, dead skin cells do act as your body’s natural defense against the sun, and banishing them makes you extra sensitive to UV rays. You’re more susceptible now to hyperpigmentation and sun damage, so it’s incredibly important to regularly use at least an SPF 30 after you exfoliate. But let’s be honest, you should be using an SPF every day regardless of whether you’ve exfoliated.