Physical, chemical, enzymatic... what type is best? How often should I exfoliate? Gemma Watts answers all your exfoliation questions.
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Published: November 2022
If your goal is to reveal a fresh, smooth, bright complexion, exfoliation is the skincare step to take you there.
While apricot scrubs and microbeads are relics of our collective beauty pasts, a new generation of physical, chemical and enzymatic exfoliants are here to help us reveal our freshest skin ever.
Despite its history (exfoliation is believed to have first been a skin ritual employed by the Ancient Egyptians), there is still much mystery surrounding this skincare step.
To prepare your skin for a new season, I’m here to answer all of your exfoliation questions.
Exfoliation is the removal of dead and dry cells from the skin’s surface. Cell turnover is a process our skin actually does naturally, on its own, so exfoliation allows us to speed up that process.
Our skin functions on a cycle that lasts around 28 days. During that time, our body forms new skin cells deep within the layers of the dermis. Over the 28 days that follow, those new cells mature and make their way to the outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis, before dying and shedding naturally.
Once our skin cells are “dead,” they can take on a hard, dry quality which can give our skin a rough texture and a dull appearance. Exfoliation allows us to remove that textured layer to give the skin a smooth texture and a fresh, bright appearance instead.
Given that our body does turn its cells over on a natural skin cycle, exfoliation actually isn’t entirely necessary!
How often you need to exfoliate really does come down to personal preference, however most skin professionals agree that exfoliation should not be done every day.
This is because over-exfoliation can be of detriment to the skin barrier, leaving the skin open to environmental stressors and aggressors and potentially worsening any existing skin conditions. It’s also recommended that those with rosacea, eczema and dermatitis (or related conditions) keep exfoliation to a minimum to ensure the skin barrier remains intact.
That said, it’s always worth visiting a dermatologist or dermal clinician in these instances to ensure you’re receiving personalised advice.
Skin type and conditions aside, your existing skincare routine also dictates how often you should (and can) exfoliate.
A basic rule of thumb is to ensure you aren’t using an exfoliant and a retinol based product on the same day.
While you technically can use both (as retinol is not an exfoliant - it does work to speed up cell turnover, but it can’t physically remove dead cells), retinol is a highly potent active ingredient so using it in conjunction with an exfoliant has the potential to cause irritation.
Another consideration is, of course, the product and formula itself. Some exfoliants (particularly chemical and enzymatic, which I’ll get to shortly) are gentle enough for daily use, so always check the instructions and pay close attention to the way your skin responds.
Truly, not a lot. Your skin is naturally turning its cells over, however skipping exfoliation entirely can leave you with flakey, dull skin and blocked pores, which is why it’s a worthwhile step.
For some context, I personally exfoliate my facial skin once per week (as I use a retinol every second evening), and I find that my body can tolerate exfoliation twice per week as the skin on body gets significantly drier and more textured than my face. It’s all about examining your own skin and being aware of what you can and cannot tolerate.
When we talk about exfoliation, many people think only of physical scrubs (or even mitts!) that manually work to slough away dry skin cells.
Physical scrubs contain tiny particles or grains that work to buff and polish away those dead cells to reveal a smoother texture.
These particles can be made from ingredients like oat or sugarcane, depending on the product. Physical exfoliants are fabulous for those who have visibly flakey skin or skin with a high tolerance that isn’t easily irritated.
Personally, I find physical scrubs can be slightly too abrasive for my facial skin, however I love using a scrub for my body.
Chemical exfoliants (a slightly confusing term, as technically everything is a chemical) refers to liquid exfoliating solutions.
These products contain acidic ingredients, the most popular being AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic and lactic acids), BHAs (beta hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid) and even PHAs (polyhydroxy acids, like lactobionic acid) that work to dissolve the dead cells, rather than physically buffing them away.
These exfoliants are usually applied by dampening a cotton round with the product and gently sweeping it across the face. AHAs are a great option for those with dry skin, as they work to dissolve cells on the surface of the skin, while BHAs are a favourite amongst those with oily or acneic skin as they work deeper within the pores to dissolve blockages.
Enzymatic exfloliants have gained popularity in recent years, as they work in a similar way to AHAs but are slightly gentler.
Enzyme exfoliants also “dissolve” the bonds that hold dead and dry cells together, rather than using abrasive granules, however enzymes are gentle enough to cause little to no detriment to the skin barrier.
Working exfoliation into your routine is surprisingly simple. Exfoliation should be performed after cleansing and before applying any essences, masks, serums or toners. This is because an exfoliant will leave the skin fresh and ready to absorb the steps that follow- think of it as a deeper cleanse.
Personally, I use either a “chemical” or enzymatic exfoliant once per week in the evening, in lieu of a second cleanse. An example routine would be:
+ Step 1. First cleanse to remove makeup
+ Step 2. Exfoliate
+ Step 3: Essence (an optional step if my skin is feeling dry)
+ Step 4: Serum (not a retinol- I prefer not to exfoliate and use retinol on the same night)
+ Step 5: Eye cream and moisturiser