Before you exfoliate, read this
If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and felt like your complexion was looking more meh than magnificent, you can thank dead skin for that dull, tired look. Your skin has a natural life cycle of around one month, meaning the top layer gradually dies as new skin cells are revealed. “When we’re young, skin naturally sheds its dead cells daily,” says Beverly Hills dermatologist Harold Lancer, MD, “but as we age this process slows down. As a result, our skin appears dry, dull, uneven, crepey and with visible lines, wrinkles, and sagginess.”
In ye olde days (read: the ’90s and ’00s), the conventional thinking around exfoliating was the stronger the better and the more frequent, the more effective. But as we soon learned, using harsh, abrasive scrubs and acids on the daily is a one-way ticket to inflammation town. “Excessive exfoliation can cause the skin to be inflamed, sensitized, and more prone to sun damage, especially pigmentation,” says Lena Bratschi, founder of Carasoin Day Spa & Skin Clinic in West Hollywood and one of RHW’s go-to skin gurus. “Not only that, but constant exfoliation over time can actually speed up the process of aging, instead of halting it.”
"When we’re young, skin naturally sheds its dead cells daily."
Over the past decade or so, we’ve learned that you can effectively dissolve dead skin and de-clog pores in gentler, safer ways. Choosing the right method for you means playing close attention to your skin’s needs. “The most important things to consider are what type of exfoliation, whether that suits the skin type in question, and how often should it be done,” says Bratschi. “You have to choose the method and frequency to properly complement your skin.”
All skin types can and should exfoliate, even you dry and sensitive types. Many people with those skin issues think they are too sensitive for it. Au contraire, says Los Angeles aesthetician Shani Darden. “A lot of people are scared to exfoliate if they have dry skin, but it’s still so important to do so,” she says. “You may not be able to exfoliate as often, but it’s necessary to remove that layer of dry skin on the surface in order for products to penetrate the skin deeply.”
To take the guesswork out of restoring your glow, read on for an ultimate exfoliation guide, plus tips from our experts.
This type of exfoliation “can be anything from a washcloth to a scrub with tiny grains or crystals that rub off dead cells,” says Dr. Lancer. Exercise caution with this method, as using ones with sharp-edged seeds and stones can scratch the skin. Bratschi suggests products with perfectly round jojoba beads, like Luzern Laboratories Micro Exfoliant Deep Hydrating Scrub, while Dr. Lancer is fond of the super-fine quartz and sodium bicarbonate used in his signature The Method Polish.
They might sound scary, but acids are one of the most common and recommended exfoliating ingredients. They work by dissolving dead skin build-up and there are three main types: alpha hydroxy (AHA), beta-hydroxy (BHA), and poly hydroxy (PHA). We’ll let Bratschi break it down for you:
“AHAs, like glycolic and lactic acids, are generally preferred for normal to dry skin, as they enhance moisturization. BHAs, like salicylic acid, are similar in nature, but are oil soluble [meaning they penetrate deeper] and therefore preferred for normal to oily skin to also help declog pores. PHAs are a specialized group of AHAs that include lactobionic acid and gluconolactone. They function the same way as AHAs, but PHAs have a larger molecular structure and therefore don’t penetrate as deep, meaning there is less potential for [irritation].”
Some of our faves are Rodial Glycolic Drops, a powerful AHA treatment that gets rid of dead skin and softens the look of wrinkles; and Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid, a savior for oily, acne-prone skin. PHA is relatively new to the skin-care world, but it’s been gaining ground in Korea and can be found in newer K-Beauty products like Glow Recipe Avocado Melt Sleeping Mask.
High-concentration peels are an ideal treatment for hyperpigmentation issues.
A professional peel also uses acids, but at a much higher concentration—hence why it needs to be done at a derm’s office or medi-spa. “They use AHAs and BHAs to exfoliate the surface of the skin for smoother, brighter, more even toned skin,” Darden says. Dr. Lancer notes that high-concentration peels are an ideal treatment for people dealing with hyperpigmentation and texture issues caused by sun damage. They can also fade post-acne red marks and reduce blemishes; by removing the skin’s top layer, they also remove the oil and debris that clog pores.
This professional treatment is an extreme type of physical exfoliator that resurfaces the skin through the use of a special abrasive tool. “Microdermabrasion helps maintain naturally glowing skin by suctioning off the debris of dead skin from the surface, unclogging pores, and even softening the appearance of acne scarring,” explains Dr. Lancer. It feels a bit scratchy and can lead to some minor redness and sensitivity (it is sandblasting off the top layer of your skin, after all), but is generally well-tolerated by most skin types.
Retinol and Retin-A
These vitamin A derivatives aren’t technically exfoliators. They don’t directly remove dead skin, says Bratschi, but rather, they increase your skin’s natural cell turnover. Retinols are over-the-counter products activated by your skin’s natural enzymes to turn into retinoic acid, which is what encourages cell turnover; prescription-only Retin-A is pure retinoic acid. “Since Retin-A doesn’t require that extra step of conversion,” says Bratschi, “it is typically 100 times stronger than retinol.” But that’s not to say retinol isn’t powerful—Darden uses it as the key ingredient in her cult-classic Resurface Retinol Reform to “smooth the texture of your skin, boost collagen, and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.”
Now that you know the nitty-gritty of exfoliation, we’re sure you can’t wait to add it to your routine. But, a word of warning from our experts: Be diligent with your SPF. “You have to make sure you’re wearing sunscreen every single day,” Darden cautions, “as [exfoliating] can make your skin more sensitive to sun.” Armed with your new understanding of all things exfoliating, you’re ready to go forth and glow. —Megan McIntyre