Understanding The Process
Think of it like this: your skin has its own little timer when it’s ready to turn over, called a cell renewal factor (aka CRF). Everyone is different, but on average, new cells come to the surface between 28 to 40 days—the younger you are, the faster the process is. That’s how the saying smooth as a baby’s bottom came into play.
As we age, it takes longer for these cells to travel to the surface, allowing dead skin cells to accumulate over time, exacerbating skin conditions ranging from acne and hyperpigmentation to keratosis and eczema or psoriasis. Essentially, it's a traffic jam of old skin cells because they are not proliferating as fast as they naturally should.
“We need to slough off or exfoliate the dead skin, because we don't want dirt, grime, and bacteria on the surface,” explains Heyday Skincare Educator, Glenise Gomez. “[Dead skin cells] cause us to have impacted pores, acne, and congestion. In some cases, if we don't exfoliate properly, it will actually make us look older.”
The Different Types of Exfoliation
In essence there are two main types of exfoliation: physical (also known as mechanical) and chemical. Both can/should have a place in your skincare routine, and if done properly, result in new, dewy skin cells on the surface.
Physical exfoliation is the process of utilizing a textured medium to slough off dead skin, revealing the regenerated skin underneath. This can be achieved by using a scrub, dry brush, pumice, loofa, etc. or via treatments like microdermabrasion, dermaplaning, or even shaving/waxing. According to Gomez, physical exfoliation is any action you take to remove, rub, or slough off dead skin.
A word of caution, choose a medium that will give you an *even* exfoliation. The reason dermatologists and estheticians alike cringe at products like St. Ives Apricot Scrub is because they aren’t spherically shaped. “As skincare professionals, we prefer using the bead shape or a medium that is round, as opposed to something that might have sharp edges and could cause irritation,” explains Gomez
“If you over-exfoliate your skin, you can actually cause more damage—especially when it comes to physical exfoliation. You can cause micro-tears, bleeding, capillary damage, irritation, and an impaired skin barrier.”
Exfoliation is fundamental in a good skincare routine. It's a must, like sunscreen. It’s a simple addition that provides the most dramatic change within your skincare journey.
Another option is chemical exfoliation which relies on plant enzymes or AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids like glycolic, salicylic azelaic, mandelic, and lactic to name a few) to penetrate the skin and break up the bonds between dead skin cells to release them. “Chemical exfoliants penetrate the skin, loosening the intercellular cement—the sticky glue component that holds the skin cells together,” explains Gomez. “The enzymatic action is going to loosen those tight bonds to allow dead skin cells to dissolve and fall away.”
It can be a delicate dance with chemical exfoliation. Pending your lipid content (read: moisture levels and oil production cycle), overuse of certain ingredients can cause more damage than planned by destroying the acid mantle.
So, Which One Is Better?
Well, honestly, it depends on your skin type.
“Thicker, more resilient, or oilier skin types that aren't easily irritated benefit really well from physical exfoliation,” explains Gomez. “Those with thinner, mature, drier skin types benefit more from chemical exfoliation. And of course, some skin types can benefit from dual exfoliation.”
Need a cheat sheet? Oily skin types should anticipate exfoliating a bit more often, landing around 3x per week. Drier types should aim for 2x week, while sensitive skin types should opt for 1x per week. But don’t get carried away, either—there is too much of a good thing.
Signs of over-exfoliation including burning, sensitivity, itchiness, breakouts, swelling (aka inflammation), or soreness. Gomez recommends keeping the skin cool and reaching for hydrating products that contain humectants like aloe vera or honey. Emollient-rich moisturizers can also help seal the skin barrier to avoid harmful bacteria entering the epidermis while the skin is compromised. On top of a regular moisturizing regimen, wearing sunscreen daily is also imperative—especially if you’re also using an exfoliant, which can increase sensitivity to the sun
Meet The Winner’s Circle of Exfoliants
This Exfoliating Peel
Gomez is a fan of this gentle, multi-acid peel particularly for clients who pigment easily. The clinically-tested formulation relies on lactic acid to help revitalize dull skin to reveal more radiance without irritation.
These Easy-to-Use Pads
Think of this as the perfect marriage between a chemical and physical exfoliant. These peptide-packed pads feature a blend of glycolic acid and glycerin to gently brighten and hydrate skin in a few swipes.
This Exfoliating Powder
Give your daily cleanser a boost with this enzyme-meets-hydroxy acid powder designed to stimulate cell turnover, unclog pores, and smooth uneven texture. Gomez calls this out for having a high vitamin C and antioxidant content.
This Multitasking, Exfoliating Mask
If you want to find a mask that packs a punch, look no further. A trio of glycolic acid, retinol, and peptides help gently remove dead skin cells, while ingredients like peppermint and menthol hold both antibacterial and antiseptic properties.