Although our skin naturally sheds itself of the outer layer, it’s a process that unfortunately slows down as we age. Giving the skin a helping hand with scrubs or acid peels is the key to revealing brighter, smoother skin. But with so many options now available, it pays to become well-versed in which method best suits your skin for optimum results – and to avoid any damage.
Manual exfoliation 101
Whether using natural seeds, crystals or specialist tools, manual exfoliation involves using a physical source to buff away dead skin while also stimulating blood circulation. Unlike chemical exfoliators or peels – which may need multiple uses – physical exfoliators instantly remove dry, dull skin. Size matters with scrubs, as smaller granules are often gentler on the face and polish the skin. To banish dry lips, dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch recommends an even more gentle option: “Exfoliation of the lips is limited because there is no epidermis. Use something very gentle and apply a thicker moisturizing product on top for results in days.” As you can exfoliate from head to toe, don’t ignore the scalp. Often overlooked, scalp health is key for healthy hair, and regularly exfoliating is key to removing product build-up and dead skin that naturally collects there.
When chemical exfoliation is best
“Chemical exfoliation involves the use of products such as hydroxy acids or enzymes to break the bonds between the cells that attach them,” says Hirsch. By lifting the ‘glue’ between the cells, dead skin can be removed, which helps to fade hyperpigmentation, brighten dull skin and minimize the appearance of fine lines. With acids found in everything from wash-off cleansers to peels that would rival a professional treatment, this is the sage advice from Hirsh: “The exfoliating acid that is best for you is dependent on your goals, tolerance and skin type.” She suggests glycolic acid for normal skin, salicylic for oily or blemish-prone skin and gentler lactic or polyhydroxy acids for dry or sensitive skins. As acids come in different strengths, it’s important to build up your skin’s tolerance rather than opting for the strongest in the hope of faster results. “Always start with a lower strength and use less frequently – you can always add, but you can’t undo.”
How to exfoliate safely
Given its almost instant skin-smoothing results and the undeniable glow it gives, exfoliating is easy to overdo and can have detrimental after-effects on the skin. “Overusing any type of exfoliator can severely impair your protective skin barrier,” says Hirsch. “Tell-tale signs are redness, irritation and burning, or an overly waxy face, which is a result of removing too much dead skin and natural oil.” Despite the main goal of exfoliating to remove dead skin cells, your skin barrier does rely on having them there as a cushion. To reverse any damage, stop using any exfoliators, acids or retinol-based products that can contribute to further damage. Hirsch also recommends stripping back your routine to the basics by using a very gentle, non-foaming cleanser and using reparative, soothing ingredients such a ceramides and niacinamide, which are proven to strengthen the skin barrier. “Never peel or exfoliate inflamed or sunburnt skin – and don’t exfoliate a cold sore, as it can easily be spread,” says Hirsch.
“Applying moisturizer should always be the final step after sloughing off the top layer of dead skin,” says Hirsch on replenishing the skin. And sun protection is a must. “It’s vital to use sunscreen when using exfoliators, as you would when using retinol, since they can make your skin more photosensitive.” A mild tingle is completely normal when exfoliating, especially when revealing newer skin cells. Incorporating hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid into your post-exfoliation skincare injects some much-needed moisture, minimizes irritation and also helps to prevent skin getting dry in the first place. Integrating high-performing skincare products, especially serums, goes hand in hand with regular exfoliation, as active ingredients can penetrate deeper into the skin rather than sitting on the surface’s dead layer.