Exfoliating your skin is an integral part of a good skincare routine. Exfoliation aids in the removal of dead skin cells and provides a lot of benefits. These include:
- Improve the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation by aiding in skin turnover
- Help skin that is dull and rough look brighter
- Reduce the number of clogged pores
- Prepare your skin and help treatments and moisturizers penetrate more deeply
Once you decide to add exfoliation to your skincare routine, there are a lot of options to choose from. In general, there are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Both types remove excess dead skin, and your own preferences will help you decide which ones to select.
The first physical exfoliant we all experienced was probably a washcloth. Anything that scrubs your skin will help get the job done. However, people with dark skin tones need to be very careful about using physical exfoliants to avoid irritating their skin, which can lead to hyperpigmentation.
Skin cleansing brushes and pads are very popular, and many people who use them claim they see big improvements in the cleanliness of their skin. It is important to be very gentle when using these devices and to not over exfoliate. They usually provide options for the type of brush you can use, and we recommend using the gentlest options available.
Face scrubs are lotions or soap products with tiny grains of material that physically scrub your skin to clear it of debris. While you can have a nice sense of immediate gratification from scrubbing your skin, these products must be used with caution. Some can be too rough and can irritate your skin to the point of triggering post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. While we loved to use nut kernel-based scrubs when we were younger, those jagged edges on the particles can create micro-cuts that inflame the skin and most skincare professionals recommend against using them. An additional drawback with the physical scrubs is they are not good for the environment. Many scrub exfoliants contain micro-beads, which are tiny beads of plastic that are very good for scrubbing your skin, but they go into the water system and take years to bio-degrade.
So, the bottom line with physical exfoliants is -- take a gentle approach when using them. You do not have to use them every day, and depending on the needs of your skin, can use them as infrequently as once a week.
Chemical exfoliants remove dead skin cells with the use of natural acids that aid in cell turnover. They are created from natural sources like sugar, fruits and milk. We like to use these as exfoliants because you cannot over scrub with these ingredients, making them a great option for people with sensitive skin. However, they do make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so you should wear sunscreen when using these products. The two types of chemical exfoliants used in skincare products are alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA’s).
The most common AHA’s used in skincare are glycolic acid, which is made from sugar, and lactic acid, which is made from milk. They are both water soluble and work to gently release dead cells and debris from the surface of your skin. Glycolic acid is a smaller molecule and penetrates more deeply into the skin, while lactic acid is a humectant attracting water to the skin, and is gentler, making it great for sensitive skin. Both are effective in reducing the visible signs of sun damage.
BHA’s include salicylic acid, which works on skin’s surface and inside the pore; as it is oil soluble. It is the preferred exfoliant for normal to oily acne-prone skin and helps relieve clogged pores and bumps, prevents blemishes, and enlarged pores.
You can regularly use products at home that contain AHA’s and BHA’s. However, if you want a more aggressive exfoliation, skincare professionals can use these ingredients in high concentrations for a deeper skin peel. If you decide to get these services, make sure the skincare professional has experience in taking care of dark skin. When these peels are too aggressive, they can cause burns and leave hyperpigmented scars. If in doubt, a gentle approach is always best.
Exfoliants: When and How to Use Them
You should integrate an exfoliant into your skincare routine at least 1-2 times a week. In our recommended cleanse-treat-moisturize routine, an exfoliant is one of the treatments you can use after cleansing and before moisturizing. When using a chemical exfoliant, always start with a lower concentration and a gentler ingredient to avoid over exfoliation. Your skin should not be irritated or burn when using one of these products. This is especially important for those with dark skin tones to avoid irritation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Physical exfoliants can be used in the morning or the evening. However, since chemical exfoliants cause sun sensitivity, we recommend using those at night only. And while you should be using sunscreen everyday, it is especially important while using a chemical exfoliant. Adding an exfoliant to your skincare routine will take your skin from good to great, and will make an important difference in improving your skin texture to create a smooth surface that helps reflect your glow.
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