Exfoliating is the breakthrough step that your routine needs. It doesn’t need to be scary, but in order to exfoliate, you may need to do a little trial and error to settle on the formula, method and routine you like
A lit-from-within complexion is the most universal beauty goal, and smooth, exfoliated skin is the easiest way to get there. But the rules of exfoliation aren’t that cut and dry—how do you know if you’re scrubbing too much? Could you be doing too much, too fast? What is the best way to exfoliate if you’ve never done it before? We investigate, so you don’t have to get it too wrong again.
Why you need to exfoliate, and why you shouldn’t be nervous to do it
Skin cells are constantly regenerating. Exfoliating ensures that the skin cells that have built up on the surface are removed. Jagged edges and build-up don’t reflect light, so when you’ve gotten rid of it, the skin looks brighter almost immediately. It’s easy to make mistakes with exfoliation though. If you use too strong an acid, you could burn your skin and have it feel red, inflamed and itchy. If you scrub a little too hard with texture that’s too grainy, your skin can peel, and you could cause micro-tears in your skin. This can ruin with your skin’s moisture barrier. If you take it slow, give your skin a break and phase products in, you could brighten your skin, rev up cell turnover, increase collagen production and improve overall skin health.
Picking the right product for you is key. If you have peeling or dry patches on the skin, a little manual exfoliation can help. You’d use a product that contains seeds, nuts, beads or crystals to slough off the top layer, and rinse it off. But when you scrub too hard, you could cause those dreaded micro-tears. Enter chemical exfoliation, in which you use an acid or a retinoid to break the bonds between dead skin cells and sweep them away.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids like lactic, glycolic and malic acid dissolve the intercellular glue that makes damaged, old skin cells stick to the epidermis. Once they work their magic, the brighter, more active cells can take their place. Poly Hydroxy Acids work similarly. Their large molecules exfoliate on the surface, so they’re able to brighten without disturbing the deeper layers and causing irritation. They also fight glycation, therefore boosting collagen production as well. Retinoids too—they break down bonds and improve cell turnover. Beta Hydroxy Acids are oil soluble, so they can get deep in the pores and clear them out. This prevents sebum and dead skin cells from getting inflamed.
The exfoliator you can use based on your skin issue
If you have dry skin and prefer physical exfoliation, a finely milled scrub can help slough off any particularly dry bits. So your creams and oils can get to work where they need to. When it comes to chemical exfoliation, the mild strength and moisturizing properties of lactic acid make it a safe choice.
If you have blackheads, whiteheads and clogged pores, you’ll want to exfoliate with salicylic acid or a retinoid. The former is able to regulate oil production, while the latter works on a cellular level to help kickstart your cell turnover rate and prevent clogging. If you have pigmentation left over from acne, you’ll want to use glycolic acid. It has super small molecules, so it penetrates the skin deeply and quickly to dissolve the bonds between the pigmented cells, allowing the newer cells to take their place.
If you have sensitive skin, reach for PHAs. They penetrate the skin slower than the other acids, thus creating less irritation or redness. Plus, they have humectant properties, so they can draw in moisture and eliminate dryness.
How should you exfoliate, and how often?
Some pros like using a chemical exfoliator to loosen things up, and then a manual scrub to sweep it all off. For the first, apply your exfoliant after the cleanser and toner steps in your routine. If it’s a liquid, apply it with a cotton pad; if a lotion, cream or gel, apply it with your fingers. Wait a few minutes to soak in and then continue with your routine. To start with, these are best used once or twice a week, after which you can build up a tolerance to thrice or 4x. For physical exfoliation, you can make small, circular motions using your fingers to apply a scrub. Alternatively, use a tool or washcloth. Make short, light strokes and then rinse off with lukewarm or cool water. Then, make sure to moisturise extra well to prevent transepidermal moisture loss.
How do you know your exfoliator is working?
Is your makeup pilling on your skin? Do you feel like your multiple steps skincare routine isn’t getting you anywhere? Is acne getting you down? You might need to exfoliate. But if your skin is feeling itchy, inflamed, red or patchy, you might actually be overdoing it. If your face stings after (anything more than a pleasant it’s-working tingling sensation is counted), you might be going too hard, too fast. If you feel like that’s happening, stop all your skincare products and stick to the basics: cleanser, moisturiser, sunscreen and nothing else, till your skin barrier repairs and rejuvenates. Then, try again!
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