As a licensed esthetician and spa owner, I am often asked about exfoliation. There is a lot of information, and many of my clients and friends are confused about exfoliation products and procedures. Let me attempt to clarify for you…
What is Exfoliation?
Exfoliation is basically a fancy word for the removal of the oldest dead skin cells on the outermost surface of your skin. There are three main methods you can use to exfoliate:
- Manual or Mechanical exfoliants (aka scrubs)
- Enzyme exfoliants
- Fruit acid exfoliants
Exfoliants (aka scrubs)
This is the most commonly used exfoliator because it is so readily available and seems to have the most awareness in terms of public consumption. There are many kinds of scrubs, the most common variable being the type and size of the granules. Scrubs are not appropriate for everyone, and are mainly best for non-irritated skin that is thicker and more resistant. This means if you have sensitive skin, mature skin, blemished skin with active breakouts, scrubs will not be your best choice.
Many people like what I call the “instant gratification factor” of a scrub, meaning that the feeling of scrubbing makes people feel they are doing something good for their skin. However, if your skin is not the appropriate type OR if the scrub being used has large granules or harsh ingredients, you can cause micro-tears in the skin which does more harm than good.
A few of my favorite products for at-home manual exfoliation are Eminence Organics Citrus Exfoliating Wash (a great option for men, and for those of us who want something quick that cleanses and exfoliates with one product), Eminence Organics Almond & Mineral Treatment (contains tiny ground almond bits and paprika for stimulating your circulation), Skin Haven Refining Grains, and Skin Haven The Ultimate Scrub (which we use in our spa).
These are a great alternative to scrubbing. Basically enzymes dissolve protein, and dead skin is protein. So, enzymes soften and dissolve the dead keratin cells on the surface of your skin and allow them to be removed by rinsing off the enzyme product. The two most popular types of enzyme exfoliants use Papain (papaya) and Bromelain (pineapple) enzymes. This allows you to get an effective exfoliation without any abrasion of the skin’s surface. Enzymes are usually fairly gentle and are a great option, especially for sensitive, mature, or irritated skins that cannot tolerate scrubs. A few of my favorite products for at-home fruit enzyme exfoliation are Eminence Organics Yam & Pumpkin Enzyme, and Dermaware’s Bare Fruit Enzyme.
Fruit acids are another excellent alternative to scrubbing. Many people hear the word ‘acid’ and are scared off, thinking it will be too strong or too harsh, but that is not necessarily true. Fruit extracts and fruit acids dissolve the intracellular glue, which is the substance that holds the dead cells together. Therefore, using fruit acid exfoliants means that you can remove those layers of dead skin cells without scrubbing or abrading.
The two best known types of fruit acid exfoliants are AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acids). My preference is to use a blend of both types whenever performing exfoliation, both professionally and at home, to give a well-balanced and non-irritating exfoliation. A few of my favorite products for at-home fruit acid exfoliation are Bioelements Kerafole (a mask exfoliant with seaweed) and Bioelements Quick Refiner (a liquidy gel used every night after cleansing).
Professional fruit acid peels are a great way to retexturize the surface of your skin, correct hyper-pigmentation, and get rid of acne and breakouts. At Skin Haven, we have three different types of peels—two with fruit acids and one that is acid-free. One is for acneic skin called Saving Face Peel, and it contains Salicylic, Azelaic, and Lactic Acids. Another is for sun damaged skin, and skin with uneven pigmentation called End of the Line Peel, and it contains Lactic Acid. The last is an acid-free Retinol Peel called Genesis Peel, which exfoliates and resurfaces without any acids. Peels are an excellent alternative to micro-dermabrasion and are much gentler on your collagen and elastin as well.
Don’t Forget the Protection!
One thing I am compelled to mention is that using sun protection every day is essential, particularly when you are exfoliating regularly and/or having professional exfoliations. I myself am quite insistent on a daily SPF of 28-30 for my clients, particularly in Southern California. You can probably get away with an SPF 15 in other places, but considering that sunscreen is the #1 anti-aging product you can possibly use, better to go higher on the SPF than too low.
Exfoliating the top layer of dead skin cells reveals fresh, pristine skin underneath which can be more vulnerable to the elements. That is why estheticians should always recommend that clients do their home-care exfoliation at night, and not in the mornings. You should always hydrate your skin after exfoliating, to avoid irritation or dryness.
How Often Should You Exfoliate?
Another question I get asked all the time is how often should one exfoliate their skin? There is not one simple answer that works for everyone. The real answer is that it varies depending on your skin type AND on what type of exfoliant you are using. In general, tougher, thicker, oilier skins may need more assertive exfoliation than mature, dry, sensitive skin types. However, the type of exfoliant that is best for you should be determined by a licensed skin care professional after they work on your skin.
I definitely prefer and recommend enzymes and fruit acids much more frequently than scrubs, simply because the majority of my clientele here in West Hollywood are dryer, more sensitive skin types who are interested in staving off the aging process as long as possible. Enzymes and fruit acids help to brighten the skin, minimizing hyper-pigmentation and uneven skin tone. In general the clients I recommend scrubs for have more stubborn skin, or are unblemished clients in their teens and early 20’s. Beyond 25 or 30 years old, I usually recommend enzymes or fruit acids.
How Much is too Much?
If you are using Proactiv, Retin-A, or Accutane, you usually do not need any additional exfoliation because those products are already highly exfoliative. If your skin is red, itchy, chapped, or flaky, hold off on exfoliating until your skin heals and then consider lowering the intensity of your exfoliant, or the frequency of your home exfoliation. Ask your dermatologist or esthetician for their advice as they know your skin!
How is Professional Exfoliation Different?
Professional exfoliation is one of the main reasons to seek out regular facials with a licensed esthetician. In the skin care room, an esthetician can utilize professional-strength products to achieve an deeper removal of dry and dead skin cell layers. We can also perform calming, healing mask treatments post-exfoliation to nourish, soothe, and hydrate your skin and balance it again.
I hope this has answered some of your questions about exfoliation. Please feel free to send in your questions!
Sharōn Ronen is a licensed esthetician and founder/CEO of Skin Haven Spa Studio and WellSpa in Los Angeles, CA. For more information log onto www.skinhaven.com or call 323.658.skin.