At its most basic, to exfoliate is to remove dead cells from the surface of your skin. But there are myriad ways to eliminate these dead cells, seemingly infinite processes, tools, and products that all call themselves by the singular name “exfoliant,” which often leaves people wondering, So, what does this really mean, and which is the best method for me?
Let’s break it down.
Physical exfoliation is the act of scrubbing or buffing the skin with a granular product, such as something formulated with brown sugar, sand or pulverized shells, rock or fruit pits (such as Goldfaden MD's Doctors Scrub blended with ruby crystals), or polishing the skin with an exfoliating tool, such as Goop’s G.Tox Ultimate dry brush.
While these physical methods can be extremely effective in removing the dead cells from the surface of your skin, it is worth mentioning that too harsh of a physical exfoliation- particularly ones containing non-dissolving granules, such as ground-up nutshells, can be irritating and/or inflaming to the skin, can have harmful effects on certain skin conditions, such as eczema, and can create microtears on the surface of your skin, which often precedes other skin problems.
Chemical exfoliants are most commonly acid-based products that essentially detach the dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, and in some cases penetrate below the surface to eliminate excess oils. The two most common acids utilized in these chemical exfoliants are AHA’s and BHA’s.
AHA, otherwise known as Alpha Hydroxy Acid, is a water-soluble acid naturally derived from cane sugar, fruits, nuts, milk, and other natural resources. While there are 6 types of AHA’s that all perform slightly differently, they are across the board considered gentle and suitable for all skin types. AHA’s are notable for breaking down the dead cell layer on the surface of your face effectively while nourishing your skin by promoting blood flow and collagen production. AHA’s are also known to diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles, prevent breakouts, correct age spots and scars, and increase product penetrability. Though many products utilize AHA alone, such as Decree’s Weekly Decree Airbrush Acid Exfoliant, AHA is often paired with its impressive cohort, BHA, as in Lernberger Stafsing’s AHA/BHA Peel Gel Mask.
BHA, otherwise known as Beta Hydroxy Acid, or its secondary title well known to acne fighters, Salicylic Acid, is an oil-soluble chemical exfoliant, which means it can deeply penetrate below the skin’s surface. While it’s most notably discussed for its acne-fighting and breakout-preventing power, and its ability to deeply penetrate pores to eliminate oil and sebum, its magic is much more than we might know.
Remarkably gentle considering its effectiveness (while other methods of acne combatting and breakout prevention can be harsh and irritating), BHA’s are anti-inflammatory and increase your skin’s ability to absorb, which is essential for an effective skincare routine. While any skin type can moderately use BHA’s, they are largely recommended for oily skin, while AHA’s tend to be recommended for a drier disposition.
It’s important to note, though, that chemical exfoliants can be serious business if not handled according to proper usage and instruction. Depending on the potency and PH of a product and your skin type, it’s important to establish a weekly minimum of usage that’s right for you to avoid skin irritation and long-term skin sensitivity. In some cases, you may need to work up to ideal usage by integrating it into your skincare routine in phases. It’s critical to understand what products should be used or avoided on the days you’re exfoliating. Products with no active ingredients are often recommended for the days you choose to use these acids, as the skin can be temporarily sensitive post exfoliation and we want to avoid skin irritation and skin overwhelm.
Many exfoliating products are hybrids, whether that means combining BHA’s and AHA’s, such as Augustinus Bader’s Exfoliating Toner (The Essence) with Salicylic acid and a blend of AHA’s, or acids blended with physical exfoliating scrubs, such as Lernberger Stafsing’s Volcanic Rock Scrub fortified with Salicylic acid. Alternatively, there are also enzymatic exfoliants that employ the use of enzymes to dissolve the dead cell layer on the surface of your skin gently, such as Irene Forte's Apricot Face Peel Enzymatic. This is considered to be the gentlest form of chemical exfoliation.
Rarely (if ever) in skincare is there one solution or method for all skin types or needs, which is why your understanding of products and their effects on the skin is crucial for choosing what’s right for you. Understanding the overwhelm is essential for parsing through it. Informed skincare is good skincare. Exfoliate on!