At Home Exfoliation: Everything You Need to Know to Achieve Flawless Skin

Unlike fine wine, skin doesn't get better with age. "Skin cell turnover can become sluggish leading to a thickened outer layer, called the stratum corneum --  that can make the skin look dull and wrinkled," Dr. Doris Day. Once our cell turnover slows, we experience more transepidermal water loss resulting in dry, flaky skin.  This dry skin and dead skin build up can lead to fine lines and wrinkles, dull-looking skin and also prevent the absorption of your favorite moisturizers and serums. Exfoliation to the rescue! Exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. It is one of the most essential steps in any skincare routine, especially as you age.  

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You might hear 'exfoliate' and immediately think of a scrub with granules, gritty texture,  a brush or loofah. While there are physical exfoliants with various textures, our favorites are products containing Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) and Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) because they can be gentler on the skin and provide even exfoliation with minimal effort.  Exfoliant formulations vary from light-weight daily leave on products to cleansers, masks, and peels that are rinsed away.

Physical Exfoliants and How They Work

Konjac sponges can be used to exfoliate.

Konjac sponges can be used to exfoliate.

Physical exfoliants use a gritty, or sandy texture to scrub away dead skin cells.  Skincare brushes and dermaplaning devices also provide physical exfoliation. They work on the very top layer of the skin. One downside of the physical exfoliants such as brushes, loofahs, and products with granules, is that they can cause micro tears. No, micro tears aren't tears created by little people, they are tiny cuts in the skin that can occur during physical exfoliation. If you opt for a product that contains physical exfoliators, look for small granules, and apply even gentle pressure all over the face for the amount of time specified on the product package.   Harder, faster, longer may be beneficial in some activities, but facial exfoliation is not one of them. 

Popular Types of Physical Skin Exfoliants

  • Sugar 

  • Rice

  • Bambo

Chemical Exfoliants and How they Work

The two types of chemical exfoliants most commonly found in skincare products are Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs).  Another not so common chemical exfoliant is Polyhydroxy Acids. 

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

Both AHAs and BHAs can be derived from natural sources or can be made in a lab.  One of the more popular and effective AHAs, glycolic acid, is made from sugar cane. AHAs are water soluble, and depending on the concentration of AHA and overall formulation of the product, you can get results after just one use. A study by Dr. Chérie M.Ditrea et al. found that the use of AHAs in concentrations of 25% for 6 months "caused an approximate 25% increase in skin thickness [...] improved quality of elastic fibers, and increased density of collagen (1)."  What this means is that in addition to skin looking fresher, smoother and more radiant, the skin is also acting younger -- and that is the real #glowup.

Beta Hydroxy Acids

Beta Hydroxy Acids are oil soluble and thus are able to go deeper in the skin obliterating gunk from pores while sloughing away skin cells from the surface.  BHAs work by dissolving the desmosomes, not an 80s girl group, but rather the glue that holds cells together. More scientifically, BHA "works by disrupting cellular junctions rather than breaking or lysing intracellular keratin filaments." It does all this without damaging the skin. This is one reason it can be useful on sensitive skin. If you have oily, acne prone skin and you've never tried a BHA based product you aren't serious about being pimple free and radiant.

Polyhydroxy Acids

Polyhydroxy Acids are closely related to AHAs. The difference is that PHAs have a larger molecular structure than AHAs. This means they can't penetrate the skin to the levels that AHAs can.  The larger molecular weight is what makes them more tolerable by people with sensitive skin. According to Pearl E Grimes et al., "PHAs have been found to be compatible with clinically sensitive skin, including rosacea and atopic dermatitis, and can be used after cosmetic procedures."  PHAs have been proven to be significantly less irritating than AHAs; however, one study found that both show similar improvements to photoaged skin when used in similar concentrations over 12 weeks. While not scientific, we have noted better results with the use of AHAs than PHAs. We highly recommend PHAs for those with sensitive skin. 

Popular Types of Chemical Skin Exfoliants

Alpha Hydroxy Acids include:

  • Glycolic Acid  — made from sugar cane.

  • Lactic acid —  made from lactose

  • Mandelic Acid — made from an almond extract

  • Citric acid — made from citrus fruit extract

  • Tartaric — made from an extract in grapes

Beta Hydroxy Acid include:

Salicylic Acid  - Can be extracted from willow bark, sweet birch, and wintergreen leaves

Polyhydroxy Acids Include:

  • Gluconolactone 

  • Lactobionic acid

  • Galactose

Now that we have gotten most of the science out of the way, let's answer some common exfoliation questions.

How Often Should You Exfoliate? 

According to Doris Day, MD Board Certified Dermatologist and Author of Beyond Beautiful: Using the Power of Your Mind and Aesthetic Breakthroughs to Look Naturally Young and Radiant "It depends on your skin type and sensitivity. It could be as little as once every other week to as much as twice a week."  More often than not, following the instructions on the product packaging is critical. It sounds simple, but many people skip this very crucial first step. While you can customize your skincare and mix and match products, you also want to start using the product the way it was intended. It's also essential that you do a skin patch test to check for any allergies or adverse reactions.

What are the best types of products to use after exfoliating?

One significant benefit of exfoliating is that your skincare products absorb so much better. What's the point of that $100 serum if it just sits on layers of dead skin? There is no point. Dr. Day recommends using a "serum with growth factors and then a hydrating emollient."

What are the signs of over exfoliated skin?

There are exfoliants formulated for daily use, and sometimes even those can cause irritation if overused.  So, how do you know you've gone too far? According to Dr. Day, "when the product applied after exfoliating stings or burns, or if you have pinpoint bleeding." Yikes!

What are the best types of topical exfoliants for skin in your 20s, 30s, 40s 50s and beyond?

Your choice of exfoliants does not necessarily have to do with your age.  Your skin type and skin concerns are the drivers behind your exfoliant choice.  For example, try exfoliants with PHAs if you have more sensitive skin and BHA exfoliants for oily acne prone skin

Important Note About Exfoliants and Sun Exposure

Exfoliating makes your skin more susceptible to sunburn. So don't skimp on the sunscreen.  Don't undo all your hard work (and waste your money) by not wearing sunscreen daily. Click here for some suggestions.

If we've kept your attention this long, you're probably convinced of the benefits of exfoliating. Below is a handy graphic to remind you of why you need to exfoliate. Share it with your friends so you all can #glow!

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Our Favorite Products for At-home Exfoliation 

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant- A  Salicylic Acid based liquid exfoliator that clears pores, evens skin tone, and visibly reduces fine lines and wrinkles. Can be used up to twice daily.

THE ORDINARY AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution - This 10-Minute exfoliating facial combines both  AHAs and BHA to offer a deep exfoliation of the skin leading to clearer pores and more radiant skin.  Can be used 1-2 times per week.

Origins Modern Friction Nature's Gentle Microdermabrasion -  This creamy rice starch based gritty exfoliator is massaged over clean, dry skin.   May be used up to three times per week.

REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic - A daily use product that combines AHAs, willow bark extract and more to provide gentle exfoliation. 

DR. JART+ Dermaclear Micro Milk Peel -  A double-phase, exfoliator that combines AHA, BHA, and PHA to gently exfoliate.

DermaFlash - A physical exfoliating device that uses a proprietary Edge (razor) and a subtle sonic vibration to remove dead skin cells and peach fuzz. This great for use on all skin types, except if you have active breakouts.

Urban Skin Rx Clear & Even Tone Clarifying Glycolic Pads - Pre-soaked pads containing a combination of Glycolic Acid, Lactic Acid, Salicylic Acid, and more.  May be used 1-2 times daily.

THE ORDINARY Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution - a gentle, lightweight toner that uses a glycolic acid base to exfoliate while aloe and ginseng nourish the skin.

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Extra Strength Daily Peel -  A two-step system using pre-moistened mini pads containing AHA and BHA. It also contains moisturizers and antioxidants to balance and feed the skin.

DERMALOGICA Daily Microfoliant - A rice-based cleansing powder that activates with water.  It contains Papain, Salicylic Acid, and Rice Enzymes to exfoliate and smooth the skin. It also contains calming and skin brightening ingredients.

Golden Door Bamboo Face Scrub - A physical exfoliant that combines bamboo stem powder and berry extract to slough away dead skin cells. May be used 1-2 times per week.

Renee Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel - Potent blend of Mandelic, Lactic, Salicylic, Tartaric and Malic acids  and enzymes to clear clogged pores, fade blemishes, soften the appearance of scars, stimulate cell turnover and refine surface texture. 

Peter Thomas Roth Peptide 21 Amino Acid Exfoliating Peel Pads - Trifecta combination of Phytic Acid, Salicylic Acid and Sodium Lactate to exfoliate skin, purge pores and improve uneven skin tone. Can be used up to 3 times per week, to start...increasing to daily usage.

Share your favorite exfoliants below!