Your Expert Guide to Exfoliation
An AHA, a BHA, and a facial scrub walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Thank God you’re here. It’s a rough crowd tonight.”
If you got the joke, congratulations, you know what exfoliators are, and your skin is benefitting from that knowledge. If you’re still trying to figure out what an AHA and BHA are doing in a bar, don’t worry. You’re about to get the full monty on the topic of exfoliation.
What is exfoliation?
The skin is basically in a constant state of regeneration, forming new cells and shedding off the old dead cells. The complete cell cycle takes about 30 days. Things like age and environmental factors can stretch the process to 45-60 days, allowing a buildup of dead cells.
When dead skin cells buildup, it creates a snowball effect of issues. First, skin appears dull. Fine lines and surface wrinkles become more pronounced. Pigment darkens. Dead cells clog pores and trap oil, which more pores more visible. Clogged pores create an impaction that feeds bacteria and leads to breakouts. And finally, the layer of cellular debris creates a barrier that stops your products from penetrating the skin to deliver their beneficial ingredients.
Exfoliation removes dead skin cells from the outer layer of skin (the epidermis) to reveal healthy new skin and kickstart rejuvenation. Incorporating exfoliation into your regimen accelerates the skin’s natural process, shedding the dead layers and regenerating fresh new cells more rapidly. To maintain skin health, revive radiance, and ensure optimal product absorption, exfoliation is critical, especially in the winter months.
Not exfoliating is not an option. So exactly how do you employ exfoliation in your skincare routine? Let’s look at the tried and true methods of exfoliation.
The Methodology of Mechanical Exfoliation
Mechanical (or physical) exfoliation relies on friction to manually dislodge and sweep away dead cells from the surface of the skin. It involves using a physical agent such as granules, a scrub, a brush, a buffing pad, or for the more adventurous among your, a dermplaning device. Even shaving is a form of exfoliation.
The most important thing to keep in mind when using physical exfoliation is the potential to overdo it. Large or rough particles, overly abrasive pads, or over-zealous scrubbing can cause irritation and redness. Stick to scrubs with smooth granules and soft brushes or pads. Avoid combining a cleansing scrub with the use of a pad or brush. Fingertips are fine. Let the granules do the work and use only gentle pressure. You’re not scrubbing linoleum.
All skin types benefit from mechanical exfoliation, including dry skin, which has a thicker layer of dead skin cells than more hydrated skin.
Good for all skin types. Can be used on its own or added to any targeted cleanser for maximum radiance.
Combines smooth, biodegradable buffing granules with benzoyl peroxide to fight acne above and below skin’s surface.
Clears cellular debris, kills acne bacteria, and promotes a bright, smooth complexion without drying or irritating.
The Chemical Reaction
Chemical exfoliators, like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), are natural substances that break down the “glue” that binds skin cells together, causing them to slough off to reveal bright, healthy new skin. Generally, they come from natural sources like food and plants.
Unlike their mechanical counterparts, chemical exfoliators can work above and below the skin to refine surface texture and improve cell function. AHAs significantly improve skin condition by smoothing, tightening, firming, thickening and brightening. They help promote the production of collagen and elastin, lift excess pigment, clear and refine pores, and diminish signs of aging.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
These glow-boosters loosen the upper layers of skin to produce a micro-peeling effect, which helps fade dark spots, smooth out rough patches, and reduce the appearance of fine lines. There is a range of options depending on skin type and goals. Mandelic acid is one of our favorites for its multi-tasking abilities and gentle action. Its larger molecular structure means it’s absorbed more slowly (a good thing if you have sensitive or reactive skin). Its melanin-inhibiting properties make an excellent brightener, and its antibacterial action makes it good for targeting acne. Glycolic acid is mandelic’s more intense cousin. By contrast, it has the smallest molecular structure of the acids, so it penetrates more quickly to rapidly improve tone and texture.
Transformative glycolic acid and skin-softening lactic acid decongest pores, smooth texture, and bring a radiant, luminous tone.
Gently clears pores and refines surface texture while targeting acne, hyperpigmentation and signs of aging. Ideal for sensitive or reactive skin types.
A daily vitamin A serum, which combines glycolic acid with brightening kojic acid and skin-softening lactic acid to accelerate cell renewal, decongest pores, smooth texture, bring a radiant luminous tone. Best for skin already acclimated to vitamin A.
Beta Hydroxy Acids
These less common exfoliators are fat-soluble rather than water-soluble, meaning they can penetrate through the sebaceous follicles, which makes them particularly good for oily skin. The most common BHA is salicylic acid, which comes from the inner bark of the willow tree. Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and capable of deeply penetrating the follicle to force out acne impactions, salicylic acid is ideal for acne-prone skin.
These textured pads combine mechanical and chemical exfoliation in one with a cocktail of acids, including lactic, mandelic, and salicylic, for a glow-boosting mini-peel in a swipe.
An advanced toner that pairs salicylic acid with witch hazel, plus lactic, glycolic and citric acids for refined texture and brighter, clearer tone.
This high-performance serum brings the full-complement of acids—glycolic, salicylic, citric, kojic, and lactic, plus vitamin A—together in one intensely transformative formula for superior exfoliating effect with less irritation. Best for skin already acclimated to vitamin A therapies.