What is an exfoliant and why do you need one?
An exfoliant is a product that removes the dead skin cells that build up on your skin and cause it to look uneven, rough and dull. Regularly removing those dead cells keeps your skin looking young, fresh and clear. Your skin sheds these dead skin cells roughly every 28 days, but as we age, that cell turnover slows down and is compounded by environmental factors such as pollution, sun exposure and indulging in the bad things, you know, like junk food, smoking and drinking.
How do you know if you need to exfoliate your skin? If you have:
- congestion (little bumps on the surface of your skin)
- milia (small white or yellow cysts)
- oily skin with open pores
- white heads
- acne scarring
- dry or rough skin
- mild sun damage
- fine lines
- dull and uneven skin tone
- dehydrated skin
If you have any or many of the above skin conditions, you really should keep reading.
Two types of Exfoliants
There are two main types of exfoliants available one is not massively recommended and the other is highly recommended. There are mechanical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants.
Mechanical exfoliants are known as ‘scrubs’ and contain small particles suspended in a cleansing or emollient base. In many cases the particles are apricot seed or kernels and walnut shell, of which neither can be broken down by rubbing them against your skin and can cause ‘micro-tears’ and at the very least irritation, especially on already inflamed skin.
There is a lot of debate rolling about this last point. All you have to do is google ‘St. Ives’ and ‘lawsuit’ and your lil brain will be overloaded with the pros and cons of ‘expert’ opinions. I have personally seen the damage it has done to my skin which was pointed out to me by my dermatologist years ago at the height of my acne epidemic. One apricot scrub I used permanently enlarged pores on my nose that weren’t wide prior to its use. 30 years later, they are still enlarged.
By and large, mechanical exfoliants do not evenly exfoliate the skin and can easily be overused causing further damage or irritation to delicate areas such as around the eyes and sides of the nose. Some products contain particles like small beads marketed as ‘microbeads’ which do little to nothing for exfoliation. Marketing claims like ‘gentle exfoliation’ can be interpreted as underwhelming in their performance at best and didn’t do a damned thing to total waste of money at worst. Others contain particles that break down like oatmeal but again, are mostly ineffective by comparison to the second type of exfoliant mentioned further on. Some just burrow their way into your pores along with some talc or mica or titanium dioxide and then were on a lovely trip to blocked pores and further breakouts! Hoorah! These ingredients are sometimes included in skin care so your skin ‘feels’ smoother afterwards and are fine in make-up but not recommended for skin care.
Having warned you of the shortcomings, there are a couple of other ‘scrub’ options that I do recommend for once a week or once a month. The first one is cheap as chips but comes with a warning. Paula used to recommend it and then it disappeared from her material. I get why. It’s Bicarbonate of Soda. If used improperly it can irritate skin if rubbed to long or too hard and eyes (stay away from your eyes). It can also discolour towels, sheets, pillowcases and clothing. If you promise to rinse it off REALLY thoroughly I’ll tell you how to use it. Mix a small amount (about a teaspoon) in with your rinseable cleanser and massage all over your face, avoiding the eye area. Get a soft face cloth or facial sponge and massage it all over. Then rinse, rinse rinse and rinse again with lots of warm water. Towel pat dry and apply a light moisturiser if needed. Remember, Bi-carb is an alkaline, which means it will break down skin if left on too long or rubbed in too much.
A couple of other products I love for a special occasion, and they are technically scrubs but the particles are really minuscule. Again, don’t rub too hard or too long or you’ll be flaying your face rather than removing dead skin cells. They are:
Nutrimetics Microdermabration Kit https://www.nutrimetics.com.au/portal/skincare/treatments/ultra_care~_micro-dermabrasion_kit_60ml,_40ml.aspx RRP $94. I received one of these as a gift after working on one of their commercials. I was instantly in love with it.
On the more budget side Avon Anew Microexfoliant RRP $25 https://shop.avon.com.au/product/11531/?level2Slug=anew-clinical&level2Id=332 Pretty darn good for a microdermabration imitation. Not as good as the real deal but great for an end of week pick me up or a special occasion.
Chemical exfoliants are a topical solution that are generally applied nightly and left on the skin to do their work. The benefits of chemical exfoliants are that they provide even exfoliation, cannot be over used when used as directed, are easy to use and can provide many additional benefits to the skin over mechanical exfoliants such as imparting moisture, antioxidants and can have anti-inflammatory properties.
The main ingredient in exfoliants is usually an acid of some variety. You may have heard of AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) or BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acids), PHA (Poly Hydroxy Acids) and Bionic PHAs and Mandelic acid (a form of AHA). They might sound a lil’ scary but they do a mean job of getting skin in great condition. All of these acids are good for different skin types so here goes:
AHA – Best for dry, thickened or sun damaged skins. They are water soluble and do not penetrate into pores. Are usually glycolic or lactic acid formulations.
BHA – Best for oily, blemish prone skins, congestion, blackheads and open pores. They are oil soluble which means they penetrate the oil in pores to dig deep and clean them out. They are formulated with salicylic acid which has further benefits of being anti-inflammatory.
PHA – Best for very sensitive skin that is easily irritated, dry, dehydrated skin and first time users of chemical exfoliants a bit nervous to try and AHA or BHA. Can be used in conjunction with microdermabration, peels and light source treatments.
Mandelic acid – Is a form of AHA and is often touted as the most gentle exfoliant due to is large molecular size and slower penetration into the skin. Best suited to sensitive skin or those who are wary of dipping their toe in the exfoliating pool.
The two brands I highly recommend are Paula’s Choice for all your AHA and BHA desires and Neostrata for PHA formulations. Many more recommendations can be found on Paula’s other fabulous website Beautypedia.
I have personally been using Paula’s BHA 2% Liquid (and Balancing Skin Cleanser) for over 15 years for my very oily and breakout prone skin. If I skip it for even a day I can see and feel the difference. I honestly can’t remember going more than a couple of days without it other than that one time I went away and forgot it. I never did it again. Yes I am addicted, but one can be addicted to so much worse.
I put a friend onto her BHA exfoliant just prior to her wedding, her skin was combination oily and normal, very red and irritated from pimples, blocked pores and from all the other expensive, poorly formulated products she had been using. She swore by this Dermalogica scrub, but all I could see when I looked at her skin was irritation. Within a week her skin was significantly better; less redness, no new breakouts, her blackheads and congestion were all but gone. She wished that she’d used it sooner, her skin continued to improve in the weeks after her wedding. As long as she remembered to use it.
As for the later company, my only misgivings about Neostrata are a couple of things. One, they do not include any BHAs in their formulas which have been scientifically proven to be the most impactful for oily and blemish prone skin types. Two, some of their products contain a lot of alcohol which is not good for any skin type, and three, they have a best selling cleanser that contains PHA. These acids are topical applications and benefit the skin only when left on for significant periods. We’re talking hours, not 30 seconds. A quick massage over your wet skin and then rinsed down the drain doesn’t do much, if anything. Not to mention cleansers that contain acids can easily get into your eyes and cause irritation during use which is less than a stellar design flaw in my books. I’m also looking at you Proactive!
All in all, if you follow my lead, especially the chemical exfoliants, your skin will be glowing, you’ll look younger and fresher within a week! Or your money back. Actually I can’t promise that. But Paula’s Choice does have a good return policy.
- Exfoliation is good for all skin types and can resolve a myriad of skin issues with regular use
- There are two types of exfoliants: Mechanical and Chemical
- Mechanical exfoliants should be used with caution, they do not offer even exfoliation, can be easily overused and cause minor damage and/or irritation if used improperly
- Bicarbonate of soda is a cheap and effective exfoliant if used as recommended and rinsed very thoroughly
- Chemical exfoliants can be used daily, provide even exfoliation, are easy to use, cause little irritation if used as directed and the right formulation for your skin type and can provide additional benefits
- AHAs are for dry and sun damaged skin
- BHAs are for oily and pimple or blemish prone skin
- PHAs and Mandelic acids are for sensitive skin, those cautious of using chemical exfoliants or those looking for gentle exfoliation.
- I recommend Paula’s Choice for AHAs and BHAs
- I literally can’t live without PC 2% Liquid exfoliant
- The Original Beauty Bible, Paula Begoun, 3rdEdition Beginning Press 2009