Exfoliation is a natural process of healthy skin, where the body sheds dead skin cells, allowing brand-new, fresh skin to be revealed beneath. Surface layers of skin naturally go through a near-constant process of shedding and renewal, but sometimes this can result in unevenness or may happen slower than we'd like.
Skincare products can help speed up that process up, but what are the benefits of exfoliation for skin?
Essentially, as we age, that process, often called cell-turnover, can sometimes start to slow down, allowing dead skin cells to build up, and eventually resulting in dullness, more visible wrinkles, and clogged and/or enlarged pores.
When we speed up the process of cell-turnover, we can help skin look younger, smoother, and brighter!
There are two types of exfoliation used in skincare: chemical and mechanical. The goal of both types of exfoliation is to reveal new, fresh skin cells beneath the upper surface of the skin. The difference is in how they accomplish that goal.
Chemical exfoliators are solutions that are slightly more acidic than the skin, allowing them to gently loosen dead skin cells from living ones. You can think of them as ingredients that loosen the “glue” between skin cells.
Mechanical exfoliation, on the other hand, involves utilizing a slightly rough surface (like a washcloth, a face scrub, or a cleansing brush) or exfoliating substances (such as granules of salt, sugar, or even ground coffee) to slough off the top layer of skin.
There are two major types of chemical exfoliators: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Oily, acne-prone skin often responds best to BHAs like salicylic acid.
For combination skin, AHAs like glycolic or mandelic acid can be extremely effective, as their moisture-binding properties allow them to keep skin from becoming dehydrated. For sensitive skin, lactic acid - the gentlest AHA, is a good starting point.
The battle against blackheads and acne can be a difficult one, particularly if your skin is prone to over-producing oil. Acid exfoliants can dive deeply into pores, loosening clogs and leaving behind a clearer, fresher appearance, while simultaneously helping to fight the bacteria that can cause acne.
BHAs, in particular, can help reduce closed comedones - small bumps under the skin that haven’t yet erupted into inflamed acne. AHAs can also help fight acne, as they help increase cell turnover and healing rates.
They can also exfoliate a little more gently than manual scrubs, which can abrade skin's surface and make it more vulnerable to breakouts.
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are a great place to start for treating oily, congested skin, and the most common one is salicylic acid. All BHAs work as chemical exfoliants, increase cell turnover and healing rates, and can help kill bad bacteria.
They also have the ability to travel deeply into pores, helping to purge excess “gunk” and preventing acne at its source. Studies have shown that salicylic acid use greatly reduces the number and severity of acne blemishes. One major benefit of salicylic acid is its lipid-solubility, allowing it to cut through sebum and oil in the skin, unlike glycolic and lactic acids, which are water soluble.
BHAs can be a bit drying, but the benefits can be immense for oily, clogged skin - just be sure to use a moisturizer.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) also operate as exfoliants; the most common ones are glycolic acid, mandelic acid, and lactic acid. All work to speed cell turnover (thus allowing skin to heal itself faster and reveal fresh, brand new skin beneath), while also having the added benefit of being moisturizing for drier and/or combination skin types due to their water-binding properties.
Lactic acid is the gentlest AHA (due to its large molecular size, which doesn’t allow it to penetrate skin quite as deeply as some other acids), which makes it ideal for sensitive skin. Glycolic acid is perhaps the most common AHA, and has the ability to travel the most deeply into the layers of skin due to its small molecular size.
AHAs have even been shown to help boost collagen production, leaving skin firmer and plumper. All can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, leaving users with a more youthful, revitalized appearance!
Chemical exfoliants come in a wide range of concentrations, which can be very confusing for first-time users. A good rule of thumb is to start by using products with low concentrations of acid.
For salicylic acid products, look for around 1-2% concentration of acid to start. Glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid concentrations can be a bit higher while still remaining gentle, but around 10% concentration or lower is enough to see benefits.
Using lower concentrations and incorporating new products slowly gives your skin time to adjust to a new routine, and if needed, you can always increase the percentage of acid in your products later.
You may see products on the market that are one-time-use “peels”, and those often have a much higher concentration of acid (around 20-30%). It’s best to leave those higher concentrations alone unless under the supervision of a dermatologist, as you can unintentionally give yourself severe chemical burns.
While they may seem appealing due to promises of speedy results, you can also speedily lose a great deal of skin - not just the upper layer you were hoping to exfoliate away.
Using products with the lower concentrations of acid, however, can be completely safe for use at home when used as directed, though the results may take a bit more time to be visible.
Before starting any chemical exfoliant regimen, make sure to add sun protection to your routine. Freshly exfoliated skin is more sensitive to sun exposure, so sunburns are much more likely - and sun damage can be difficult to reverse!
To begin utilizing a chemical exfoliant in your routine, make sure you do a patch test first. Use the product as directed on a small area of skin and wait 12-24 hours to see if any unexpected breakouts or reactions result.
Even if you don’t see any reactions in your patch test, only use your exfoliant two to three times per week at first, allowing yourself at least a day between each use to avoid sensitivity.
As your skin becomes more accustomed to the acid treatment, you can slowly increase your weekly usage. While it’s best to start your usage on the low end of acid percentages (1-2% for salicylic acid, and 8-10% for glycolic or lactic), you can eventually increase your acid percentages if needed—but remember to do so slowly and gradually, paying careful attention to your skin’s appearance and feel.
Chemical exfoliants have a pH that is slightly lower than that of the skin, so for best results, apply your exfoliant product after cleansing and allow it to dry for a few minutes before applying any other products on top.
Purging, a temporary worsening of your skin’s condition, can sometimes occur when first using a chemical exfoliant or acid product. Because the acids penetrate deeply into the skin, they can often cause deep blemishes and impurities to come to the surface, resulting in temporarily broken-out skin.
Keep in mind, though, that this result is actually a move in a positive direction, as your skin is finally able to rid itself of any deep clogging! Typically, the skin’s condition improves within a few weeks, and will continue to look better and better with time.
If you’re planning for a big event, make sure you start using your chemical exfoliant a couple months ahead of time. You don’t want to be in a purging stage if you’re planning for something important. Give yourself plenty of buffer time to make sure you can get through the purging stage and start to see the benefits of your exfoliant.
Mechanical exfoliation is often achieved through the use of a slightly rough washcloth, facial scrub, or cleansing brush - loosening the uppermost layer of skin. While mechanical exfoliation can have many of the benefits for skin that chemical exfoliation does, you have to be careful about the tools you may choose to use.
A gentle rotating brush or washcloth can be excellent choices, but many facial scrubs, especially those containing microbeads or particles with jagged edges, can cause tiny, invisible cuts in the skin, causing increased inflammation and a higher chance for infection.
Make sure any scrubs you choose to use are gentle, and don’t contain sharp ingredients like ground nut shells or microbeads. When rubbing a scrub onto your face, use light pressure and go slowly. Where the skin is concerned, the gentler the tool the better!
Mechanical exfoliation can be a life-saver for peeling, dehydrated lips! Using chemical exfoliants is not typically recommended for lips, so gentle mechanical scrubs can help reduce dead, peeling skin and leave a smooth surface for lip balm or cosmetics.
Once again, look for products that contain gentle exfoliants (like sugar) rather than sharp ground shells or plastic microbeads. Products that have moisturizing ingredients like natural butters and oils help lift off dead skin and hydrate new kin beneath as well. After a gentle exfoliating massage, your lips will be soft and ready for the day!
No matter how tempting it may be to try at-home DIY skincare treatments, always remember, you can seriously damage your skin if you don’t do your research first! The pH scale, which describes the acidity of a solution, ranges from 1 (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline).
Skin’s normal pH is around 5.5, which is slightly acidic, allowing it to protect itself from bacteria and pathogens. However, solutions that are too acidic can cause serious burns—and on the other hand, if skin becomes too alkaline, it can become dehydrated, causing disruption in its barrier capabilities.
Some at-home skincare DIY projects claim to help exfoliate and cleanse skin, but keep in mind that an effective chemical exfoliant (an AHA or BHA) has a pH of around 3.5-4 (slightly lower than that of the skin).
Baking soda, a popular ingredient in DIYs, has a pH of around 9 (highly basic/alkaline). White vinegar, another popular at-home skincare ingredient, has a pH of around 2.5-3.5, leaving you at risk for chemical burns. Lemon juice has a pH of 2, and should never be applied directly to skin (in skincare, extracts and products are buffered to protect skin). Remember, these ingredients are chemicals - coming from a natural source doesn't automatically make something safe!
When used improperly, even ingredients commonly found in the home can cause severe skin damage. When possible, especially for things like chemical exfoliants, it’s always best to leave skincare formulations to professional, ethical brands rather than risk your skin’s health and safety.
Chemical and mechanical exfoliants can have many fantastic skincare benefits, in fact, there are many people who feel their skincare routines would be incomplete without them.
Remember: everyone’s skin is different, and it can take time to find a skincare routine or exfoliating product that will work best for you. Take your skin type into consideration, and make sure you purchase products that match your skincare goals.
Whether you choose chemical or mechanical exfoliation, be gentle with your skin, and don’t expect dramatic results overnight. However, if you give your new products time to work, you’ll soon be surprised at how smooth, clear, and healthy your skin will look!