Exfoliator 101


Whether you are a wiz with acids or tried and true with apricot pits, you might already be using an exfoliator.

Exfoliators come in two types: physical and chemical exfoliants, with the latter category branching further. While many people love a good scrub or exfoliating mask, many aren’t sure how often to use them or how to incorporate them into their routines. When it comes to frequency of usage, it’s more important to skip days than it is to use these products every day. The reason for that is the anatomy of the skin and how it reacts to exfoliators. 

This product family essentially breaks down the skin layer, exposing sensitive “new” skin.

Using the products every day will cause the skin to become over stressed and may lead to lasting damage over time. Instead, start by using the products as you would a treatment mask - up to twice a week. If you feel like you aren’t getting results or your skin isn’t getting red or sensitive to the touch, you can up your usage. Be sure not to exfoliate more than three days in a row and if you do back to back treatments then take an equal amount of back to back days off of exfoliating.

What are the two types of exfoliation and how do they compare?

* As always, consult with your dermatologist or esthetician before introducing anything new into your skincare routine.       


The Physicals

Physical exfoliators are the traditional “scrubs” that we think of when exfoliating comes to mind. Maybe you would “borrow” your mom’s St. Ives Apricot Scrub or you invested in a drug store winner with microbeads. While many people still enjoy the feel of a grainy product that they have to massage into the skin, this category of exfoliators is quickly being replaced by their chemical counterparts. Physical exfoliation can lead to microscopic tears in the skin which promotes cell repair for a glowing complexion. It’s also something that can make the skin sensitive. For those with textured or drier skin, you may love the feel of any dryness or flakiness rubbing off for smoother skin results.



The Chemicals

Chemical exfoliants can be acidic or enzymatic and are generally seen to be more gentle and effective when it comes to exfoliation. It used to be that chemical peels were done at dermatology offices and now you can get similar results on your #SelfCareSundays. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) unbind skin cells to break down the upper layer of the skin while beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) go deeper into the skin and pores to act as an antimicrobial. AHAs and BHAs are often used together in products for the 1-2-punch resulting in soft and radiant skin. A new kid on the block - poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) - which can’t penetrate as deep as either AHAs or BHAs. This means that, while you get similar results in exfoliation, people with the most sensitive of skin can use it without reacting.

Another form of chemical exfoliants is enzymatic. These are often the more natural alternatives to their acid cousins and come from fruits like pineapples and papayas. They function most like PHAs in breaking down the topmost of the topmost layer of skin (the epidermis) but are even gentler, barring any allergies you might have.



I hope this guide helped clear up some of your exfoliator questions. If you have more hit me up in the comments below or DM me. ✌ 


When in doubt, start slow and advise a derm.


Cover photo by Ben Scott.

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