I’ve been noticing an increasing interest in exfoliating acids lately, and a lot of lovely ladies asking for advice about them (and exfoliation generally). As someone who loves exfoliation and how it makes my skin feel I certainly understand the excitement! I also, however, have skin that can easily become over-exfoliated. I am also very aware that exfoliation products can be confusing - there are many different types to choose from, and some may suit your skin better than others.
So today I thought I’d help try to distill some of the ins and outs of exfoliation down for you, with some specific recommendations for different needs and skin types. I’ll keep it fairly high level in the first instance (this subject can become complex quickly!) but do let me know if you’d like a more detailed post on any of the specifics, and I’ll look into some follow up posts.
For now, here you go: My quick guide to exfoliation.
I hope you find it useful!
MY QUICK GUIDE TO EXFOLIATION
Why is exfoliation great?
I love exfoliation for the same reason I love sheet masking - it has an immediate effect! Exfoliators help remove the dead skin cells (and debris) that build up on the skin’s surface. Removing dead skin cells has a lot of benefits for all skin types.
A build-up of dead skin cells can make the skin’s texture rough, dry and uneven. Dead skin cells that build up in pores can clog them, making pores appear larger and causing breakouts and bumps that can become acne. Dead skin cells also tend to dull the skin and can make fine lines and wrinkles more obvious.
Using the right exfoliators to remove these dead skin cells reveals younger skin cells and makes skin look and feel smoother, softer and glowier. It can keep pores clear, reducing the appearance of pores and helping to prevent acne. It can also help reduce acne discolouration and uneven skin tone, and even help fade sun spots and pigmentation.
Exfoliation also helps your other products (sheet masks, serums, essences and creams) work better. Those dead skin cells can act as a barrier reducing the ability of your skin care from penetrating your skin, so removing them helps your other products get to work in your skin more easily.
What are the different types of exfoliation?
There are a few different types of exfoliants used in skin care - the most common are acids, enzymes and manual exfoliators (eg. scrubs/granules).
There are a few different types of acids generally used to aid exfoliation - AHAs, BHAs and (the newer) PHAs. All of them work by lowering the skin’s pH and dissolving the bonds, or “glue”, that holds the cells of dead skin together - making them easier to remove or shed naturally more quickly.
These acids can be used in different types of skin care products - including cleansers, toners, essences, serums and creams (and some sheet masks!). I like to use acids as early in my skin care routine as possible, when the skin’s pH is lower, as it helps them work more effectively. So I tend to preference acids in cleansers, toners, peeling masks and essences that can be used during, or immediately after cleansing.
But what acid is right for you?
AHAs. AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids - they include lactic, glycolic and malic acids. These acids are water soluble and great for breaking down dry, dull, surface dead skin cells. They are particularly good for helping reduce pigmentation, rough skin and uneven skin tone.
BHAs. BHAs are beta hydroxy acids - they include salicylic acid and betaine salicylate. These acids are oil-based and can penetrate into pores to break down dead cells that clog them - leading to blackheads and acne, and larger-looking pores. These are particularly good for oily, acne-prone and congested skin types.
PHAs. PHAs are poly hydroxy acids - new forms of alpha hydroxy acids with a larger molecular size - they include lactobionic acid and gluconolacctone. Because PHAs are larger molecules than the traditional AHAs they can’t penetrate into the skin very far and work towards the skin’s surface. They are also natural humectants, so draw water to the skin, increasing its hydration. They are a great alternative to AHAs for sensitive skin types and many people can use them more often.
When might acids not be right for you?
Because acids chemically dissolve cell bonds, and penetrate the skin to varying degrees, you can overdo their use. It is important that you start slow, and pay attention to your skin to determine how often you can use these products.
If you are pregnant, you may be advised not to use BHAs (or retinol) during your pregnancy.
Most importantly, acids (and retinoid products) can make your skin more sensitive to sun damage. While you really should use a sunscreen every day anyway, it is really imperative that you make it a daily part of your routine when using acids. If you can’t trust yourself to do this, it may be better to start with one of the other exfoliants below. Personally, I don’t like using acids for body exfoliation - because while I wear sunscreen on my face religiously, I am less trustworthy with other parts of my body!
Enzyme exfoliators work slightly differently to acids. These products break down the proteins in dead skin cells to help them shed more easily. Enzyme exfoliators are generally fruit derived - especially from pineapple and pawpaw. They are good for more sensitive skin types, and very unlikely to irritate, as they only work on the skin’s surface. They are usually water-activated (eg. an enzyme wash). They can help all skin types, and are a great option for those whose skin cannot tolerate acids (or can’t be trusted to wear sunscreen every day).
While acids and enzymes break down the structure of dead skin cells, manual exfoliators actually lift off and remove them. A scrub with a face cloth or brush (eg. clarisonic) can act as a manual exfoliation. But I love well formulated, very gentle scrubs for manual exfoliation.
I love using a scrub every now and then to ensure I am actually removing the skin cells that are being broken down by my acid or enzyme exfoliants. It is also by far my preferred body exfoliation method.
The important thing to remember with scrubs is very gentle pressure only. You don’t want to overly tug or rub at your skin. Very fine particle peeling masks can be excellent for sensitive skin, or those already using acids.
Scrubs are also a great option for younger skin, skin that can’t tolerate acids or those that can’t be trusted to use sunscreen.
How often should you exfoliate?
All skin is different. Gentle acid toners may be able to be used daily, or every second day. However, peeling masks, scrubs and stronger acids are ideal to be used 1-2 times per week.
My advice is to start slow and see what your skin likes best.
Most of all, if you can, exfoliate early in your skin care routine to ensure that the product can work as effectively as possible - and help prepare your skin for your treatment skin care products so they absorb as effectively as possible. I personally love to time my exfoliation days with treatment sheet mask nights!
SCRUBS AND MANUAL EXFOLIATION MASKS
ACIDS - BHAs
ACIDS - AHAs
ACIDS - PHAs