Exfoliation is an extremely important part of any skin care routine, but it is critical for skin remodeling. Even if you want to take a low risk approach and avoid aggressive techniques like peeling and needling, you’ll need to incorporate some type of exfoliation. The active ingredients in effective skin care products can get trapped in a layer of excess dead skin cells and other debris that adheres to the surface of functional skin. Exfoliating removes the problematic layer and allows your active to work as intended. Some types of exfoliation will stimulate collagen production. It also increases blood flow to the skin, which helps the skins healing processes.
Warning: Any strong exfoliation treatment or any product that contains alpha hydroxy acids will cause your skin to become photosensitive. It will burn and discolor easier than normal and you must use sunscreen. It’s best to exfoliate in the evening when your skin will have a few hours to recover before being exposed to sunlight.
Mechanical Exfoliation Methods
Mechanical exfoliation, also known as manual or physical exfoliation, uses an abrasive material to remove excess dead skin.
Scrubs – The most common type of exfoliation is scrubbing. Everyday sugar scrubs aren’t sufficient for skin remodeling efforts. Look for scrubs that contain microdermabrasion crystals made of corundum, aluminum oxide, or silica crystals. These tiny crystals are ideal for scrubbing compared to sugar or other common exfoliants. Don’t use excessive pressure when you scrub. If you’d like your scrub to be more intense, polish your skin for a longer period of time. Some lingering redness is okay, but it shouldn’t hurt. Go easy when you start exfoliating; you often don’t know you’ve scrubbed to hard until hours later.
Microdermabrasion – Microdermabrasion is the best mechanical exfoliation method. When done correctly, microdermabrasion can remove the stratum corneum, which allows your skin care actives to easily penetrate the epidermis and increases cellular turnover. Microdermabrasion is also the best exfoliation method to improve blood flow and collagen production.
Your skin may be too sensitive to use your strongest skin care products immediately after a strong treatment. Don’t worry if you have to wait a day or two, you will still get the benefit of increased absorption.
There are several options available for microdermabrasion treatments. Most kits use a handheld wand with a rotating head that is covered with a microdermabrasion scrub containing the crystals. The intensity of these systems varies, but most will give you a good treatment. Do not use this type of microdermabrasion around the eyes, mouth, or nose because the microdermabrasion crystals can be inhaled or damage your eyes.
Another convenient option is a microdermabrasion cloth. The cloth is more powerful than it seems and you can get a deep exfoliation treatment. It’s also easy to go too far and irritate your skin, so use caution in the beginning until you figure out the right amount of time and pressure for you. This option is the most affordable and allows you to treat the area around the eyes. It’s also convenient because there is no scrub to rinse off.
If you can afford it, the best option is to purchase a machine that has a diamond headed wand. This is the closest you can get to a professional microdermabrasion treatment. You can usually use the wand around the eyes and mouth because there is little chance of irritation from stray crystals.
Chemical Exfoliation Methods
Chemical exfoliation uses an chemical agent, usually an acid, to break up the bonds holding the skin cells together, allowing them to slough off freely. You may need to use a mild mechanical exfoliation method like a scrub or loofah to remove the excess skin. These agents can also fade discoloration like age spots. When used regularly they can increase collagen production and possibly increase skin thickness. Chemical exfoliation products are also ideal to help prepare your skin for a chemical peel.
Many people can tolerate using strong chemical exfoliation products and the strongest concentrations of regenerating actives, but it takes a lot of strength building. Some people layer their exfoliating and regenerating products, while other use them in separate sessions or on alternate days.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids – Alpha hydroxy acids, often abbreviated as AHAs, are the most frequently used agents in chemical exfoliation. Glycolic and lactic acid are the most common AHAs, but you can also use malic and mandelic acid. They are usually delivered in a lotion, cream, or serum. AHAs are the same ingredients used in chemical peels, but most products containing them are formulated at a lower concentration and higher (milder) pH. Strength building is required for the strongest formulations. A 15% concentration is typically the strongest concentration you’ll find before moving to peels. Chronic use of these products can lead to weakening of the skin barrier. If you are going to use these products for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to use a skin barrier repair product.
Salicylic Acid – Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is oil soluble. It is ideal for oily and acne prone skin. It works very well combined with alpha hydroxy acids for exfoliation, especially for those skin types. Salicylic acid is stronger than AHAs in a lower concentration. 5% is a very effective product, where 10%-15% is likely to produce a peel.
Enzyme exfoliation is a form of chemical exfoliation that relies on natural plant enzymes to remove dead skin cells. This form of exfoliation is often just as effective as using low levels of hydroxy acids, but has a very low chance of irritation. Many enzymes also contain nutrients and antioxidants to enrich your skin.
Enzyme exfoliating products can be lotions or creams, but they are usually masks. These are sometimes marketed as peels, but they are only comparable of reaching the very superficial level. Many of these products will contain alpha hydroxy acids along with enzymes, so be sure to check your ingredient label if you don’t want to use AHAs. The products are often blended with other helpful natural ingredients like fruit extracts, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
There are lots of enzymes available, but they all work in basically the same way. Bromelain, which is derived from pineapples, is the strongest enzyme used for exfoliation. It also has healing and antiseptic properties. There is some chance of irritation for sensitive skin, but that can usually be avoided with strength building. Papain, from papayas, is another common enzyme that has antibacterial properties. Ficain, also called ficin, is derived from figs. It is almost as potent as bromelain, but non-irritating.
Incorporating Exfoliation into Your Routine
The “Topical Only” approach combines normal level exfoliation with rejuvenating actives. This method can greatly reduce and possibly eliminate fine lines, discoloration, and mild scarring. It isn’t strong enough to remove wrinkles, stretch marks, and many scars, but there should be some improvement. Skin care routines based on this approach take a while to work on all types of skin damage. You are unlikely to see significant improvement with exfoliation alone; you must use regenerating actives. Since most of these products are irritating in the beginning, it is very important to strength build. Scrubs and enzyme exfoliation work well with this method. An occasional mild microdermabrasion treatment will also be helpful.
Skin care regimens that rely on stronger methods of exfoliation performed frequently combined with regular use of regenerating actives can be very effective on all types of skin damage. If you choose this “Regular Strong Exfoliation” approach, be sure to use a barrier-restoring product every day or every other day. Gradually increase the frequency and intensity of your exfoliation to avoid irritation, especially when you are using strong actives.
The easiest way to incorporate this level of exfoliation into your routine is to use a low level alpha hydroxy acid product like a lotion or cream daily. An 8-10% concentration is typical for the face and a 12%-15% concentration is often necessary for body skin. Some research suggest that using these products daily for 6 months or longer will give equivalent results to a single medium peel. This concept seems to work better for some people than for others.
Some skin care enthusiasts prefer to use a stronger treatment once or twice a week, like a superficial peel or microdermabrasion treatment instead. This method tends to be less risky on body skin. People seem to have more difficulty finding a balance between exfoliating and regenerating when they are treating facial skin.
Note: Sometimes, pitted scarring will get covered up with a thick layer of dead skin and removing it will make the full extent of the damage visible. It is common for pitted scars to look a little worse for the first few months before they get better as the matrix regenerates.