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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Exfoliation Revealed

May 01, 2021 01:00PM ● By Susan Gonzalez

Exfoliation is one of the most necessary yet misunderstood concepts in skincare. There’s no disputing that it is vital to glowing skin—but the “when,” “why,” and “how” of exfoliation can be confusing.

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. As new skin cells form in lower layers of the skin, they push up the cells that are above them, and as those reach the surface, they die. Ideally, they fall away, but some want to hang on way too long. This gives skin a dull, drab appearance and can cause clogged pores, acne and other issues. Exfoliation loosens the “glue” that binds skin cells together and removes the lingering cells so the skin can be replenished with new, freshly formed, glowing cells. 

Proper exfoliation can have many benefits, such as:

  • improved skin texture and moisture retention
  • increased hydration
  • reduced fine lines and wrinkles
  • lightening of dark spots, sun spots or age spots
  • softer and smoother skin
  • improved conditions such as acne, clogged pores and dry skin
  • stimulation of collagen and elastin, the structures that keep skin plump and young-looking

Mechanical Exfoliation

Exfoliation can be accomplished in two ways, either mechanically or chemically.

Mechanical exfoliation is the process of removing the dead skin cells using physical means. For example, the use of scrubbing brushes or the use of crushed shells, jojoba beads, rice powder or similar substances helps to scrub the dead skin cells away. Let’s face it, scrubbing feels good and there is a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from a well-scrubbed face.

However, mechanical exfoliation can have a dark side. Improper abrasion can damage the delicate balance of the skin barrier that protects the skin’s function and keeps it healthy. Too much scrubbing or scrubbing with harsh means can actually damage the skin and cause redness, irritation and rebound acne. Flaking skin is usually a cry for help, not exfoliation.

Using a washcloth with a cleanser is a form of mechanical exfoliation, but it is not recommended as it can cause redness, dryness and irritation. Shaving is also a form of mechanical exfoliation.

One professional form of mechanical exfoliation is microdermabrasion. With small particles of salt or aluminum or a diamond-tipped wand hooked up to suction, dead skin can be removed by passing the wand across the skin and scraping the dead skin off and sucking it up into a machine. See a licensed esthetician to receive proper treatment with this method.

Tips for best mechanical exfoliation

  • Most people should exfoliate just once or twice per week and no more than three times.
  • Use gentler, smaller particles in scrubs, such as jojoba beads, instead of large abrasive ones like crushed walnut shells. (Please! Drop the apricot scrub and slowly back away!)
  • Use gentle, circular motions without pressure, and let the scrub do the work.
  • After use, your skin should feel cleansed but not raw. If the skin shows redness or feels like a sunburn, it’s a sure sign to lighten up the technique.
  • Those with skin conditions such as rosacea or swollen and painful acne should not use mechanical methods.

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation offers many benefits that mechanical exfoliation does not. While both offer the benefits of softer, smoother skin and improvement of conditions such as clogged pores and acne, only chemical exfoliation can increase moisture retention, stimulate collagen and elastin production and have a meaningful effect on dark spots.

Chemical exfoliation involves applying substances to the skin that dissolve the “glue” that holds the dead skin on the surface. No scrubbing is needed since the dead skin cells don’t stand a chance of hanging on.

The categories of chemical exfoliators are:

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) Forms of AHA that are more recognizable include glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, malic acid and tartaric acid. While these are chemicals, they are derived from foods. Mandelic acid, for example, is an almond derivative. AHAs are great exfoliators but must be used with care since they can be strong.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) BHAs include salicylic acid. BHAs are perfect for oily, acne-prone skin. They have soothing properties, are anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, too. Skin products sometimes contain salicylic acid and an AHA to address more issues.

Polyhydroxy acid (PHAs) PHAs include lactobionic acid and gluconolactone. These new chemical exfoliators are super gentle, so they are great for sensitive skin. They also hydrate dry skin.

Retinoids Types of retinoids include retinol, retinyl palmitate and Retin-A, which is the brand-name version of generic tretinoin. Retin-A is the strongest form of retinoids and is typically available from a dermatologist. Retinoids are vitamin-A derivatives in various strengths and are usually applied only at bedtime. 

Enzymes The three most commonly used enzymes are papain, which is a papaya enzyme; bromelain, which is a pineapple enzyme; and pumpkin enzyme. Enzymes are the safest form of chemical exfoliation, although skin irritation is still a possibility. Masks are a great way to use enzymes.

Tips for best chemical exfoliation

Sunscreen is a must! The use of chemical exfoliators makes skin much more susceptible to sun damage. All of the benefits of using an acid will be lost if skin is left unprotected from the sun.

Go slowly! There are many different skincare products that contain acids, such as cleansers, toners, serums, masks and moisturizers. To begin, pick one form of acid in one product and increase the potency over time or add another product after several weeks. It’s easy to irritate the skin if products are piled on.

If using pure acids, such as in a serum, apply to skin after toner. Oils block acid absorption, so apply oily products and creams after the acids.

When first using acids, light, mild tingling is normal, but nothing should burn or sting the skin. Any tingling sensation should be no more than a two out of 10 on a zero-to-10 scale. Pain is not the goal.

If you decide to start using a chemical exfoliator, stop using a mechanical one since it is not necessary.

Be sure to monitor your skin. If you develop irritation, address it right away with an additional application of your current moisturizer, by applying a moisturizing mask or by skipping a day or two in your routine to allow skin to balance.

Skin gets “used to” some chemical exfoliants after several months of use, so if the skin is slipping back to its old ways, it might be time to increase the percentage of the serum.

Proper exfoliation is a crucial step in any skincare routine and can be the difference between success and failure in reaching your skincare goals. If you need help choosing the right exfoliant, a licensed esthetician is recommended! ❧

Susan Gonzalez is a holistic licensed esthetician, author, nurse and owner of MOON Organics, a skincare company providing clean, healthy skincare and personal care products. Reach her on FB, IG and TW at @MoonOrganics or visit

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