- Exfoliation is the mechanical or chemical removal of dead skin cells from the surface of the skin
- This treatment works to reveal new skin cells, and reduce hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles
- Including exfoliation in your regular skin care routine can make skin care products more effective by helping them better penetrate the skin
Every month or so, your skin cells naturally turnover with the outer layer shedding to reveal the new skin underneath. It’s common, however, for some dead skin cells to adhere to the skin’s surface causing skin to appear rough, dull and dry. Additionally, a buildup of dead skin cells in your pores can make them look enlarged.
Exfoliating either mechanically with a scrub or face brush, or chemically with a leave-on hydroxy acid can improve your skin’s overall tone and texture. In order to exfoliate your face properly, there are certain steps you must follow.
Why Exfoliate Your Face?
As you age, your body sheds skin cells and generates new ones at a reduced rate, causing dead skin cells to remain on the face longer, leading to a dull or rough appearance. Regular exfoliation can not only counteract this, but provide numerous skin care benefits for the face, including:
- Fading hyperpigmentation such as age spots or sun spots
- Releasing oil clogged in pores
- Minimizing the look of acne scars
- Reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- More efficient penetration of moisturizers, serums and acne treatments
A word about acne
Regular exfoliation can help improve skin of any age or skin type, but for best results it’s best to factor in your specific skin type and concerns when selecting an exfoliant. This is particularly important for those who suffer from acne, because abrasive physical exfoliants can inflame skin and worsen acne symptoms.
Products containing both glycolic and salicylic acid are recommended for those with acne, as they do double-duty by treating blemishes and exfoliating at the same time. Both ingredients fall into the category of hydroxy acids, which are among the most commonly used chemical exfoliants.
If you have acne, some areas of your face may be more sensitive. Always do a spot-test with your chosen exfoliant before you apply it to your entire face.
When Should You Exfoliate Your Face?
Depending on your skin type and routine you can exfoliate either in the morning or at night.
If you have sensitive or dry skin, you should exfoliate your face in the evening before going to bed so you can follow-up with an appropriate night moisturizer and allow your skin to replenish while you sleep.
Additionally, if you wear makeup daily, exfoliating at night can help lift away any remaining particles from the skin to ensure your skin care products are absorbed more effectively.
If you have oily skin, or your face is dull upon awakening, exfoliate in the morning to get rid of dead skin cells and excess oils. This will allow for a brighter complexion and help prevent an oily buildup from occurring as the day progresses.
Whichever you choose, it is best to exfoliate your face after cleansing.
How often should you exfoliate your face?
Typically, exfoliating your face, with either a chemical or physical exfoliant, can be done once or twice a week. This is sufficient to keep your pores clean and clear without causing any irritation.
These numbers vary, however, depending on your skin type. Those with dry or sensitive skin should opt for once a week; oilier skin types up to three times.
How to Choose a Facial Exfoliation Product
There are two distinct types of exfoliators: mechanical and chemical. Deciding which to choose will depend on your skin type.
Mechanical exfoliation is an exfoliative method that physically removes the outermost layers of the skin. Exfoliators such as grainy scrubs, face brushes or Konjac sponges fall into this category, as they mechanically scrape off dead and damaged skin cells.
Although these options work well for those with normal or oily skin, they are generally too harsh for those with sensitive or dry skin. For the latter two, they are likely to cause redness, irritation, or increased dryness which can lead to minor tearing of the skin’s surface.
Chemical exfoliation removes dead skin cells that are adhered to the skin’s surface by initiating a chemical reaction that promotes skin shedding. Cleansers, serums, toners or peels all fall under this category.
The most common types of chemical exfoliants are leave-on hydroxy acids, either alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). You can purchase these acids to use at home in low concentrations (below 5%) and are found most often in the form of toners or at-home chemical peels.
AHAs such as glycolic acid are gentler than BHAs, making them a good choice for people with sensitive or dry skin. While BHAs such as salicylic acid tend to be harsher because they penetrate more deeply into the skin, they have potent anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties which will benefit those with oily or acne-prone skin.
Many exfoliators often contain harsh ingredients such as alcohol, which can quickly dry out more sensitive skin. However, there are a number of natural ingredients that have been shown to exfoliate effectively and safely.
Enzyme exfoliants tend to have larger granules that don’t penetrate too far into the skin, making them well suited for sensitive skin. The most popular enzymes are papain (from papaya), pumpkin, bromelain (from pineapple), and Bacillus bacteria. You can find these natural ingredients in a wide range of skin care products.
Coffee is a mildly abrasive, yet powerful exfoliant. It will remove the top layer of skin without damaging the skin underneath. Caffeine works to decrease puffiness when used topically, so a coffee scrub, whether purchased or created DIY may tighten your skin and fight wrinkles.
Lemon contains citric acid, an AHA, so it is a powerful natural ingredient to use as an exfoliant. However, pure lemon juice can be too harsh on the skin, and should be mixed with a soothing ingredient such as honey. When used as a facial scrub, the soothing effects of honey and the antimicrobial effects of both ingredients makes this scrub appropriate for sensitive and acne-prone skin.
How to Exfoliate Safely at Home
It is important to exfoliate gently to avoid causing any damage or irritation to your skin. Before beginning, cleanse your face to remove any makeup and debris.
- Apply exfoliator: Wet your face with warm water and apply your chosen exfoliator to the forehead, nose and chin area
- Begin with your forehead and nose: Gently massage the exfoliant in a circular motion, eventually working your way outward to reach your temples
- Work the scrub toward your cheeks: Move across your cheeks toward your ears using an upward, circular motion
- Move on to your jaw: Travel along your jaw bone to your chin, massaging both sides with gentle strokes; stop at the neck
- Rinse your face: Rinse with lukewarm water; gently pat dry
What to Do After Exfoliating Your Face
While there are many benefits to exfoliating regularly, it can make your skin more sensitive to irritant contacts, bacteria and sun damage because it removes the dead skin cells and the natural oils that normally provide a layer of protection and hydration.
To avoid increased sensitivity, it is advisable to apply a moisturizer while your skin is still slightly damp. While it is always important to use sunscreen with an SPF on a regular basis, it is doubly so after exfoliating to avoid increasing your risk of burning or other forms of sun damage.
Whether you exfoliate in the morning or at night, liberally apply a moisturizer designed for your skin type after doing so.
When to Stop Exfoliating
Some people with sensitive skin may have an allergic reaction to exfoliating agents or methods. If you experience itching, redness or inflammation soon after using your exfoliant for the first time, you are likely allergic to your product. If this is the case, switch to another exfoliant with different ingredients.
Overexfoliating, as well as exfoliating too vigorously in the case of mechanical exfoliants, can also cause skin irritation, redness, peeling or dryness. If you experience these sensitivities after having exfoliated multiple times with the same product, stop doing so until your skin clears. Then, wait another few days before slowly and carefully trying again.
You may also wish to try alternative exfoliation products and reduce your number of exfoliation treatments.
Quick Facial Exfoliation Tips
Whether using a mechanical or chemical exfoliant such as a leave-on hydroxy acid, following a few quick facial exfoliation tips can help you get the best results from your session:
- Use a gel or cream cleanser before exfoliating to prevent additional dryness
- Apply your product gently using small, circular motions for about 30 seconds; if using a brush or sponge, use short, light strokes
- Do not exfoliate with open cuts, wounds or sunburned skin
- Most exfoliants will alter your skin’s pH level which can lead to irritation; apply a serum afterward to bring your skin back to its normal level
- Follow-up with your regular moisturizer to hydrate your skin
- Generally, the deeper the exfoliation, the less often it needs to be done; find a schedule that works for you and your skin type
Exfoliation is the mechanical or chemical removal of dead skin cells and excess oils from the skin’s surface. When included in your regular skin care routine, exfoliation can improve your skin’s overall tone, texture and appearance.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, exfoliate in the evening to give your skin time to regenerate as you sleep. You should also opt for chemical exfoliants rather than mechanical ones, because they are gentler and less likely to damage your skin. Using natural ingredients would also be an appropriate choice, as they can be less irritating than commercial products.
If you have normal or oily skin which has a tendency to look dull in the mornings due to oil and skin cell buildup, consider exfoliating in the morning. You can choose any exfoliator, but for oily skin, mechanical exfoliation is ideal as it will help remove layers of oil buildup.
Regardless of your skin type, it is important to not overexfoliate because it will damage your skin. Start by exfoliating once a week if you have dry or sensitive skin; those with normal or oily skin may exfoliate up to three times a week. If you notice signs of inflammation such as redness or excessive peeling stop exfoliating and try another product once your skin recovers.
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