Exfoliation 101

woman washing face

An ancient ritual described centuries ago to maintain healthy skin, exfoliation describes the removal of the outermost dead cells on the epidermis (top layer) of the skin. There are many ways to exfoliate the skin, but why is it necessary? Removal of dead skin cells and debris is crucial for helping to treat skin conditions such as acne, but it also helps maintain healthy skin in general as we age and is a vital part of a good skin care regimen. As part of the skin’s natural aging process, the cell turnover in skin slows down, which can lead to buildup of dead skin cells. As a result, aged skin can look dull, rough and sallow.

Another culprit to hardening and thickening of the dead skin layer is excessive sun damage. Ever notice how excessively tanned skin can look leathery? The skin reacts to long-term sun damage by thickening the dead skin layer which can leave it looking lifeless and uneven. Proper exfoliation can help restore glowing, more youthful-looking skin that radiates health. Types of exfoliation include mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical exfoliation involves using a physical abrasive to remove the dead skin cells by dislodging and washing them away. Microdermabrasion, a process by which fine crystals pummel the skin at a high velocity, is one of the most thorough exfoliation treatments performed at a spa or dermatologists office. However, there are many over-the-counter products and facial scrubs available, ranging from those for acne-prone skin to products with very fine, smooth particles to gently remove debris for people with sensitive skin. Hand-held devices with vibrating brush-heads are an excellent way to gently lift dead skin and debris and are available in a variety of styles ranging from deep pore cleansing to brush heads for the most sensitive skin. Exfoliation ingredients in facial scrubs include ground nuts and fruit seeds, sugar or salt crystals and man-made microbeads. For extremely sensitive skin, the best type of exfoliation may be a gentle, cotton washcloth in a slow, circular motion used with a mild cleanser to gently lift dead skin and debris without irritation.

Chemical exfoliation often uses glycolic acids (alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids) to help dissolve the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together, allowing the dead skin and debris to be washed away. Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid that can be particularly good for oily and acne-prone skin as it penetrates deeply into pores. Traditional gentle glycolic acids in a thick moisturizer may work well for aging skin as they can help dissolve the debris and moisturize the skin in a single product.

Once a good method of exfoliation is identified, how often is best? Most people should exfoliate only a few times per week. For those people with the most sensitive skin, once a week (or even less often) may be all that the skin can tolerate before becoming inflamed. Unfortunately, there are some who exfoliate to excess, leaving the skin red, raw and inflamed which is not beneficial to skin as excessive irritation over long periods of time can actually lead to accelerated aging! A good rule of thumb is that exfoliation should yield healthy, glowing skin, not red, inflamed irritated skin. If it does the latter, either reduce the frequency of exfoliation or find a different method of exfoliation.

After either type of exfoliation, it’s best to moisturize the skin immediately afterward to maintain moisture levels after the outermost skin cells have been removed. Also, be sure to wear broad-spectrum sunscreen every day to protect the fresh skin from damaging ultraviolet light. When performed properly, exfoliation is a vital part of a healthy skin care regimen.