In all likelihood, you subjected the skin on your face to some extra-special care this weekend, no? A little scrub? A moisture-mask? Good to the latter, BAD to the former. Not because exfoliation in itself is bad, but because if you exfoliate weekly with a granular scrub you may be doing more damage over time than good. It is for this reason that there is a lot of noise about exfoliation at the moment and the chemical v. granular debate is raging: when once upon a time the general wisdom was to manually scrub weekly, experts are now weighing in on the side of gentle, daily, non-granular approach.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: your skin always feels smooth as glass after exfoliation and it seems to be working for you, so why switch it up? Well, because while the instant gratification of a vigorous scrub may be alluring, the long-term effects aren’t. For one, your skin is not uniformly smooth. It undulates. A scrub containing large grains will therefore slough away at both dead and living cells, with catastrophic results: your all-important skin barrier will be compromised and you will create what dermatologists call micro-scars, which are the result of overly harsh treatments that prompt an inflammatory response in the skin. Micro scars become macro and, as Dr. Perricone warns, macro-scars are the ‘birth of a wrinkle.’
The skin’s undulating surface.
I am painting a bleak picture. Exfoliation is not all bad. In fact, it’s crucial if you want your skin to glow. Removing dead skin cells and hastening the turnover of new ones will increase collagen production and the skin’s ability to hold moisture, as well as allowing pores to function normally. It will therefore help to tackle myriad skin conditions including acne, wrinkles and pigmentation. But how to approach? As the experts suggest, often and gentle is the way to go. As with all skincare, keep an eye on your skin – if it isn’t responding well, discontinue use.
How to Exfoliate Right //
If you cleanse well daily, the mechanical part of exfoliation will be taken care of – both a konjac sponge and muslin cloth (that must be changed DAILY) lift away dead skin cells and promote circulation.
After that, you can use a chemical exfoliating agent. This step will not only exfoliate but also restore a ruffled skin barrier (the skin has an acid mantle that protects us from bacteria and other potential contaminants, and a good acidic treatment works in synergy with this barrier) as well as pave the way for your next product – which ought to be either a gentle, refreshing toner or serum – to penetrate more deeply.
To augment the effects, use a chemical exfoliating mask on occasion – I tend to use mine biweekly depending on how my skin is behaving. Spot flare ups also respond well on the spot treatments/make-up containing a little acid.
A brief guide on the most common chemical exfoliating ingredients on the market //
– Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs). AHAs work by dissolving the glue-like lipids that hold cells together, allowing dead skin cells to slough off. The most popular in this group are lactic and glycolic acids, which are water-soluble and come from milk and fruit sugars respectively. Other common options include tartaric acid (from grapes, berries, currents and red wine), citric acid (from citrus fruits) and malic acid (from apples). AHAs are also commonly known as fruit acids.
AHAs are extremely popular, and work particularly well on dry and sun-damaged skin, though may irritate and sting a little. Of the group, glycolic acid has the smallest molecules and therefore works the most quickly, but it is also most likely to cause irritation. Lactic acid is my personal favourite of this bunch – as a bonus to exfoliating it also improves the skin’s natural water barrier and increases ceramides (barrier lipids).
As AHAs must be absorbed into the skin to work, these only work when applied to the skin and left on (so a face wash containing AHAs is almost wholly ineffectual). They work best at a concentration of 5-8% at a pH of 3/4 – as this information won’t be printed on the label, look for products where these acids are the second or third ingredient (see my below recommendations for some options).
While very good at reversing the signs of sun damage, AHAs – particularly glycolic acid – also make the skin anything up to 50% more sensitive to the sun. Sun damage is therefore a real danger when using an AHA, and using an SPF containing UVA and UVB coverage daily is vital.
– Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). There is in fact only one BHA – salicylic acid, which is derived from willow bark. Salicylic acid has been used for centuries – Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about its curative properties in the 5th century. The primary difference between AHAs and BHAs is that the latter is oil-soluble, and therefore a dab hand at cleaning out clogged pores. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, making it particularly good at treating acne and acne-prone skin.
BHA works best in a concentration of 1-2% but, as with AHAs, this won’t be printed on the label. Check the percentage online or look for the acid to be listed further down the ingredients list – too much salicylic acid can damage the skin and make it overly sensitive.
Finally, as with AHAs, your skin will become more sensitive to sun exposure during and after a period of use so for God’s sake wear an SPF. EVERY DAY.
– Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). Chemically and functionally similar to AHAs, though with larger molecular structures, these are popular as they are potentially less irritating than AHAs. Popular PHAs are gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, which are also naturally humectant (humectants draw and bind moisture to the skin from the atmosphere).
Recommended Exfoliants //
– Muslin Cloths, £8.50 for 6 here. I like the size of these, though suspect that cheaper versions may exist somewhere (please do enlighten me if you know of any – I get through an awful lot!).
– The Konjac Sponge Company, £7.99 here. There’s a konjac sponge from this company for everyone. Use either with water or a cleanser to gently lift away make-up and dead skin cells.
– Clarins Gentle Exfoliating Brightening Toner, £25 here. Exfoliating ingredient: tartaric acid (derived from tamarind fruit), salicylic acid and glycolic acid. This toner provides a gentle exfoliation that eliminates impurities and dead skin cells, and contains white nettle extract to tighten pores.
– REN Clarifying Toning Lotion, £12 here. Exfoliating ingredient: salicin (an anti-inflammatory agent that is, like salicylic acid, derived from the willow tree), glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid and tartaric acid. The host of acids in this toner are pretty comprehensive and a swipe of this whips dead cells off the skin with ease.
– SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense, £64.95 here. Exfoliating ingredient: salicylic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, LHA (a derivative of salicylic acid) and diocic acid. This oil-free serum smooths skin while helping to keep spots at bay.
– Alpha H Liquid Gold, £31.50 here. Exfoliating ingredient: glycolic acid.This overnight treatment also contains liquorice to soothe and reduce hyper-pigmentation.
Treatment Pads /
– Zelens Resurfacing Facial Pads, £65 here. Exfoliating ingredient: polyhydroxy acids (lactobionic), lactic acid, citric acid and salicylic acid. These pads contain a good combination of acids to exfoliate and draw moisture to the skin.
– Radical Age-Defying Exfoliating Pads, £65 here. Exfoliating ingredient: glycolic acid, salicylic acid and fruit acids. A daily swipe of these pads will also provide your skin with antioxidants and witch hazel.
Treatment Masks /
– Murad Intensive C Radiance Peel, £44.55 here. Exfoliating ingredient: glycolic acid. This mask also contains vitamin C and Indian fig to help protect from free radicals and myrtle extract to support collagen production, making it ideal for sun-damaged skin suffering from pigmentation.
– Nude Miracle Mask, £38 here. Exfoliating ingredient: glycolic acid. A combination of glycolic acid and small rice beads, this mask is designed to be gently rubbed onto the skin and then left to penetrate while the hyaluronic acid and jasmine flower in the formula absorb, helping to hydrate and provide antioxidant protection.
– Sampar Equalizing Foam Peel, £48 here. Exfoliating ingredient: citric acid. This mask claims to only need two minutes on the skin. I generally put it on for a little longer to let the essential oils (lavender, sage, thyme and geranium) soothe my skin. Do a patch test on this one if your skin is very sensitive.
– Jurlique Fruit Enzyme Exfoliator, £27.20 here. Exfoliating ingredient: glycolic acid, salicylic acid, citric acid and malic acid. This exfoliator by the fantastic Jurlique also contains marshmallow to soothe, liquorice to treat pigmentation and rose extract to moisturise.
Topical Treatments /
– Merumaya Concentrated Spot Treatment, £14.50 here. Exfoliating ingredient: salicylic acid. A spot treatment that also contains witch hazel extract to reduce redness and irritation, while the salicylic acid targets the plug of the spot.
– Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel, £14 here. Exfoliating ingredient: salicylic acid. This new spot treatment also contains a kind of algae and sea whip extract to normalise the excess production of oil, calm inflammation and reduce surface redness.
– Murad Treatment Concealer, £17.10 here. Exfoliating ingredient: salicylic acid. While covering and helping to clear blockages, this concealer also provides vitamin A to regulate oil production and antioxidant protection in the form of vitamin E, vitamin C and green tea.
– Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Liquid Make-up, £24 here. Exfoliating ingredient: salicylic acid. This foundation is oil-free and contains algae and caffeine to help regulate oil production, clear blockages and minimise irritation of the skin while wearing.