Exfoliation is the step in skincare that is most misunderstood, most controversial and when done poorly can wreck your skin more than any other and that’s largely down to human error.
There is so much sharing now of skincare routines online that exfoliation has become something of a competitive sport.
I will give you some examples of behaviors that won’t to get you closer to great skin days.
So let’s get down to basics.
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What is Exfoliation?
When we think about our skin and exfoliation, we’re thinking about our epidermis, which is the outermost layer of our skin.
The outermost bit of our epidermis is called the stratum corneum, which is made up of a number of layers of dead skin cells, which helps give skin its resilience, it helps give skin its waterproofing.
When we age, that process of skin cells turning over and being shed away, which is natural exfoliation, that process slows down.
When we slow down exfoliation naturally, it means the outermost layer of cells, which are dead, are less reflective of light and more prone to roughness, which translates into dull textured skin.
When we’re trying to exfoliate, we’re trying to get rid of that appearance.
How to Do Exfoliation
We can do exfoliation in one of two ways.
The first is mechanical or what is known as physical exfoliation. We literally do a grinding action of particles on the skin in a physical scrub. Removing those dead skin cells, revealing the lighter, brighter looking, more optically effective skin cells underneath.
The other approach to it is chemical exfoliation, either through enzymes or acids. We are dissolving those bridges between those skin cells to allow them to come away through the action of both the chemical but also the pH of the product.
It will help improve the appearance of that outermost layer, again revealing brighter, lighter skin cells underneath.
So where are we going wrong?
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Mistake 1 – Inappropriate Use of Physical Exfoliation
The first scenario is overdoing physical exfoliation and this in my mind is pretty much any skin condition. Acne, rosacea, pigmentation prone skin, like melasma, sensitive skin.
Physical exfoliation in my mind is simply not the right way to go about this.
Take acne for example. One of the commonest skin disorders around.
We know that friction and irritation simply winds up the acne process, making inflammation and the post inflammatory pigmentation worse.
Likewise melasma. We have hypersensitive melanocytes that are wanting to drop pigment into your skin cells, in your epidermis, and basically produce more and more pigment. Anything physical exacerbates that process further.
Rosacea. We already know we’ve got a damaged skin barrier that tends to lose more water, leading to dry, brittle and sensitive skin that’s prone to redness. Why will you make that even worse?
Sensitive skin barrier dysfunction is part of why products can sting and burn.
So let’s not aggravate that with a mechanical force used with brute force.
Mistake 2 – Combo Chemical + Physical Exfoliation
The next way that we go wrong with exfoliation is by trying to combine chemical and physical exfoliation into one step.
I think that just leads to an increased risk of irritation, with less likelihood of benefit, which in the end isn’t really what we’re after.
We want the benefits and the best benefits come from using a product in a precise way at a precise dose that you titrate up gradually over time. Ideally to daily use to get maximum benefits.
A wash off product that’s both chemical and physical isn’t going to give you the same results and the combination might well just wind up your skin, leading to redness and irritation.
Mistake 3 – Physical + Physical
The next scenario that I see quite often is the combination of physical plus physical. What I mean by that?
Using a a cleansing brush is a form of mechanical exfoliation. It’s obviously going to be rougher than just using your finger pads, which is what I generally advocate.
It’s actually surprisingly common for someone to use one of those devices in context of their physical scrubs. They’re actually amping it up and probably getting close to microdermabrasion at home treatment.
Please be careful that you’re not amping up with the potential for harm by doubling up with your physical exfoliation.
Mistake 4 – Divide + Conquer With Actives
When it comes to ingredients that shouldn’t go together at the same application, I think that there is a
problem with acids and retinoids used at the same sitting.
It’s perfectly fine to separate them out and use acids in the morning to chemically exfoliate and retinoids at night, if needed. But I think that the combination of the two on top of each other is high-risk behavior.
I think that you’re much better off separating them out, controlling for one active ingredient at a time.
Try trading it up to its maximum benefit and point of tolerance and then adding in the second active ingredient. And always go retinoid first and acid later because you get far more benefits from your retinoid.
But bring the acid in separately at a different time of day to reduce the risk of harm and increase the chance of benefits.
Mistake 5 – No One Needs Daily Physicals
The final point I want to make is that I don’t think that anyone needs to use a physical exfoliator every single day. There are still lots of product on the market, for acne for instance, where it’s considered appropriate to use a physical scrub twice daily to tackle your acne.
I’m here to say no. No more of this behavior. It’s not in anyone’s interest. If you’re going to do an exfoliation step, it should be much more measured.
So there you have it – a big list of don’ts.
I think that exfoliation is something that I really do have mixed feelings about as a general theme simply because I think that there are other active ingredients that work inside skin cells to change their behaviors that have more of an impact.
However they definitely do have their place.