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Guide to Skincare: Exfoliation

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So you’ve read our guides to hacking your morning and evening skincare routines and you’re feeling fairly confident that you’ve got your skincare game down pat. Cleanse, tone, moisturise, sheet mask and exfoliate regularly…right? Then you look at the individual steps and realise that there’s more than meets the eye – what you thought was a fairly straightforward process of choosing the right exfoliator has now evolved into a dilemma between choosing a chemical or a physical one. It’s like when you’re playing a game and getting so close to clearing a level when you realise that you actually have to get past some pretty major obstacles before you can proceed. For those of you who’ve been there, you know what I mean.

Fortunately, while the path to levelling up is an obstacle fraught one, the path to good skin doesn’t have to be.

We’ll be starting a whole new series that answers all your questions on how to navigate your way around the different steps of your skincare regime.


In this post we’ll be looking at exfoliation. Exfoliating is the closest you’ll get to time travel skincare wise - it sloughs off dead skin cells and encourages skin turnover and renewal, taking you back to the days of baby soft, smooth skin.

As with everything, practise in moderation. While exfoliating twice or thrice a week for oilier skin types is great for unclogging pores, overdoing it (more than three times a week) is more counterproductive than effective. So stay within the safe range of two to three times a week and you’ll soon be on your way to achieving that much coveted glow.

There are many kinds of exfoliating products in the market but they generally all fall under two major categories – chemical and physical.

 

Physical (or Manual) Exfoliators 

True to its name, physical exfoliators are products that contain little bits of physical particles such as grains or microbeads. These bits can have a bumpy or gritty texture that mechanically scrub dead skin cells off the skin surface.

Keep in mind that your skin is an ally not a foe, so treat it with care and only choose formulas that contain fine or smooth particles. Super abrasive bits are harsh on the skin, and do more harm than good - they create micro-cuts on the skin surface, leaving your skin more susceptible to bacteria and infection.

When exfoliating, exfoliate using gentle, circular motions, this massaging action stimulates blood circulation, giving you a natural, rosy radiance. Take care not to apply too much pressure when massaging the exfoliator into your face – exfoliating too aggressively leaves skin irritated, red and raw. So don’t poke the sleeping dragon and use soft, gentle motions only.

 

Physical exfoliators contain grainy ingredients like microbeads and ground up material. These bits mechanically scrub dead skin cells off the skin surface (Pierre Bourrier/Getty Images)

 

If the thought of applying gritty exfoliators makes those of you with sensitive skin feel slightly squeamish, you might want to consider the next type of exfoliators.

 

Chemical Exfoliators

Unlike physical exfoliators that contain grainy ingredients, chemical exfoliators include exfoliating acids.

Before you recoil in horror at the thought of voluntarily applying acids on your face, it’s important to note that they include but low-percentages of gentle acids = safe to use. In fact, since the acids contained in chemical exfoliators do not rely on mechanical action to exfoliate skin, they are actually more gentle than traditional face scrubs (physical exfoliators). So sensitive skin types rejoice!

Essentially, what these acids do is break down the ‘glue’ between dead skin cells, thus encouraging improved skin cell turnover. Doing more than just smoothing your complexion, chemical exfoliators also help to stimulate collagen production, reduce wrinkles, and brighten and firm skin.

Chemical exfoliators typically include either AHAs or BHAs. Before you let all this science-y terminology turn you off, allow us to explain.

AHAs or Alpha Hydroxy Acids include acids like lactic acid and glycolic acid. These acids help to clear the uppermost layer of skin of dead skin cell debris, enabling new skin cells to surface. If you have normal/sensitive skin and have skin concerns related to sun damage, uneven skin tone, and pigmentation – AHAs are your best bet.

Glycolic acid leaves your skin more sensitive to the sun, so always remember to apply SPF the day after. SPF should be a staple in your daily skincare arsenal anyway, so for those of you who don’t, please do.

BHAs or Beta Hydroxy Acids include acids like salicylic acid. One of the more prominent BHAs, those acquainted with salicylic acid will be familiar with its active acne-fighting properties. For oilier, acne-prone skin types or those of you with skin concerns such as blackheads, large pores, and milia, BHAs are the answer for you. BHAs intensely penetrate through pore-clogging material, tackling these skin issues head-on.  

What’s more, chemical exfoliators come in all different forms, from cleansers to toners, serums, and even moisturisers, making them easy to incorporate into any skincare routine.

A word of caution: be careful when mixing targeted topical treatments, like retinols or retinoids, with chemical exfoliators. The combined effect of both may be too harsh on your skin and it could lead to flaking, redness, and irritation. While we all have a budding skincare guru within us just waiting to emerge, always be sure to read the labels before mixing and matching products.

 

Chemical exfoliators include exfoliating acids like AHAs (e.g. lactic acid, glycolic acid) and BHAs (e.g. salicylic acid) - ideal for sensitive skin types as it exfoliates without being abrasive on the skin

 

Now that we’ve dissected the whole business of exfoliation, we hope you better understand how to go about approaching this step. Always remember, with exfoliation, less is more.  Less about frantic scrubbing and more about choosing the right exfoliator that best suits your skin’s needs.

Here’s to happy skin!



TL; DR

  1. Exfoliation is great for sloughing off dead skin cells and encouraging skin cell turnover

  2. Exfoliate not more than two to three (for oiler skin types) a week

  3. There are two types of exfoliators - physical and chemical

  4. Physical exfoliators contain grainy ingredients like microbeads and ground up material. These bits mechanically scrub dead skin cells off the skin surface

  5. Chemical exfoliators include exfoliating acids like AHAs (e.g. lactic acid, glycolic acid) and BHAs (e.g. salicylic acid) - ideal for sensitive skin types as it exfoliates without being abrasive on the skin.

  6. Make sure to check the labels! Don’t mix exfoliating toners with targeted topical treatments like retinol or retinoids as it may be too harsh on your skin.