Every Exfoliation Question You've Ever Had, Answered
I just went two weeks completely makeup-free. Yes, that's right, not a scrap of mascara or foundation for a full 14 days. My experience taught me many things, but one was the importance of skincare. When my skin is clear, even, and smooth, I don't feel the need to wear makeup at all. Exfoliation is one aspect of skincare that is so paramount to the clarity of your complexion, but (in my opinion), it's also one of the most confusing. There's the chemical versus physical debate, the age-old question of AHA or BHA, not to mention frequency—how often is too often?
To help, I enlisted the help of three top skin experts to break down exactly how and when to exfoliate, and what to do it with. The panel consists of author and skin researcher Desiree Stordahl, and two of Sydney's finest facialists—Melanie Grant and Jocelyn Petroni—so you know they're going to deliver some world class advice. So, without further adieu, keep scrolling for the answers to every exfoliation question you've ever had (and some ace recommendations to go with it).
What is exfoliation?
"Exfoliation is the removal of dry, dead skin cells from the skin surface"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"Exfoliation involves the removal of the uppermost surface of the skin. Sloughing away these keratanised (dry) dead skin cells gives a fresh, radiant appearance. Exfoliation also enhances the penetration of serums, oils and hydrators, so it’s a no-brainer"—Melanie Grant.
"Our skin naturally sheds dead cells every day, but over time, this natural exfoliating process slows or malfunctions due to age and sun damage. That’s where exfoliants come into play to help remove built-up layers of dead skin. Without this removal process, we can be faced with dullness, flaking, dryness, pronounced wrinkles, congestion, and clogged pores"—Desiree Stordahl.
What are its benefits?
"Exfoliation has many benefits including stimulating cell turnover, revealing smoother, hydrated skin cells, increased absorption of daily moisturisers and serums, unclogging pores and congestion, stimulation of lymphatic drainage for internal cleansing, and stimulation of oxygen-rich blood to feed and nourish the skin’s surface"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"Our skin naturally sheds dead cells every day. Over time as a result of age, unprotected sun exposure, a cold, or dry climate, this cell turnover process starts to slow down. This can result in dull, sallow, flaky, congested, or blemish-prone skin. So along with giving the skin a fresh appearance and enhancing product penetration, the removal of dead cells and debris makes pores look smaller, prevents blemishes and blackheads, and allows your makeup to sit better. It’s also the fastest, easiest way to give your skin a real visible boost"—Melanie Grant.
"Gently exfoliating the built-up layer of dead skin reveals the fresher, younger-looking skin hiding beneath. It helps soften the appearance of wrinkles, while evening out the skin’s tone and texture"—Desiree Stordahl.
What is the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation?
"Physical exfoliation involves using a granular scrub that manually abraises the skin to physically remove dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliators are liquid fruit acids which dissolve dead skin cells. They may contain oil-based fruit acids (like salicylic acid) which dissolves hard oil built up in the pores"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"A chemical exfoliant is applied and left on the skin to dissolve the glue that holds the dead cells together. When the glue is dissolved, the cells come away. These exfoliants include ingredients such as lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and plant or fruit enzymes. A physical exfoliant includes both scrubs with fine granules or brushes (such as the Clarisonic) to gently lift and scrub the dead surface cells away"—Melanie Grant.
"Most scrubs have rough, coarse textures, which can be harsh and abrasive, causing micro-tears in skin. Gentle scrubs and soft cleansing brushes are the exception. I do think though that they should only be used when skin really needs it. Leave-on AHA and BHA liquids are the most effective way to exfoliate. They’re gentler on skin, go deeper for more dramatic results, and there’s research showing that they’re simultaneously hydrating"—Desiree Stordahl.
Is one better than the other?
"Chemical exfoliators are better for most skin types because they are more efficient. They also can have added benefits like hydrating the skin and decreasing pigmentation. Chemical exfoliators are less abrasive and are preferred by sensitive and mature skins. They actually target breakouts too"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"It’s completely dependent on skin type. Ideally you would use both, so an exfoliating water or cleanser in the evening, and a physical scrub twice per week in the morning for example. However if you have a sensitive skin, then using an enzyme mask a few times per week would be ideal. Or for those of us with oily and congested skin, a scrub many be used three or four times per week in the morning, and an liquid exfoliant at night"—Melanie Grant.
"Generally speaking, chemical exfoliation is more effective than physical"—Desiree Stordahl.
What is an AHA?
"An AHA is an alpha hydroxy acid, and it has a larger molecular structure so it works on the more superficial layers of the skin. Lactic acid is an example of an AHA—it's actually very hydrating"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"AHA's (alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic, malic, tartaric, and lactic acids) act to unglue the bonds holding dull, dead skin on the surface. AHA exfoliants are most helpful for dry skin with advanced signs of ageing"—Desiree Stordahl.
What is a BHA?
"A BHA is a beta hydroxy acid and it has a smaller molecular structure, so it penetrates the deeper layers of the skin. It can also travel into the pores to dissolve hard oil build up. Salicylic acid is an example of a BHA. BHA’s are more active than AHA’s, and are usually found in lower concentrations"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"BHA’s are oil-soluble acids, for example salicylic acid. As well as working on the surface of the skin, because the acids are oil soluble they also penetrate deep within the pores to liquify dirt, oil, and dead cells. This helps to decongest and purify even further. They're most suitable for blemish prone, oily, or congested skin. BHA’s can actually be used on all skin types including sensitive or inflamed for their calming, anti-inflammatory properties"—Melanie Grant.
"BHA's (like salicylic acid) also act to un-glue the bonds holding dead skin on the surface. Once those bonds are broken—gently and evenly—skin naturally sheds and fresh, new skin can come to the surface. So, although you won’t actually see your skin exfoliating, you’ll soon see the smoother, younger-looking skin hiding beneath"—Desiree Stordahl.
So which one should I be using?
"AHA’s tend to be more mild and suited to mature, dehydrated, and normal skin types, whereas BHA’s are stronger and work best on problematic or acne-prone skin types. Most skincare products contain a combination of both AHA’s and BHA’s in different concentrations, depending on your skin concerns and desired outcome"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"A BHA is most suitable for sensitive, inflamed skin, while AHA’s promote hydration and radiance, so perfect for mature or dry skin types. I would suggest a regime that uses both types for best results, otherwise just choose the one that's the most suitable for your skin type"—Melanie Grant.
"AHA's exfoliate the surface layer of skin and are ideal for dry, sun-damaged skin. BHA's go a bit deeper because they are oil-soluble, meaning they can dissolve clogging substances in the pore, thereby reducing breakouts, blackheads, and bumps on the body (like keratosis pilaris, or chicken skin). One isn’t necessarily better than the other—it all comes down to your skin type. However, a BHA is preferred for those with sensitive skin because of its calming, soothing properties (salicylic acids is related to aspirin, which is chemically known as acetylsalicylic acid). You don’t need to use both, but you can. To work effectively, AHA and BHA exfoliants must be formulated within a narrow pH range, between three and four"—Desiree Stordahl.
How often should I exfoliate?
"Every product has it’s own specific directions, however as a general rule, chemical exfoliators are recommended daily and physical exfoliators are recommended weekly"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"Most people do well with daily chemical exfoliation, but you have to experiment to see what works best for your skin. It also depends on the strength. For AHA exfoliants we recommend anywhere between five and ten percent. For BHA's, one to four percent is idea, but occasionally up to nine percent for stubborn imperfections. Gentle physical exfoliation is okay daily, as long as it’s the non-abrasive kind and rinses without leaving a skin-dulling residue"—Desiree Stordahl.
And where should it slot into my skincare routine?
"Physical exfoliation follows cleansing and is conveniently done in the shower. Chemical exfoliators are applied to clean skin before serums and moisturisers"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"Apply any AHA or BHA exfoliant, regardless of texture (gel, cream, lotion) after cleansing and toning. Follow immediately with the rest of your treatments in your routine—they’re designed to work optimally over exfoliated skin. During the day, finish with a broad-spectrum sunscreen"—Desiree Stordahl.
Can I switch between manual and physical exfoliation?
"Yes you can. I use my Ultraceuticals serum every day, which is a daily exfoliating liquid that dissolves all surface dead skin, plus it keeps my pores clean. Every week I also give my skin a manual scrub as a booster before applying a treatment mask"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"The right non-abrasive scrub with gentle, rounded beads can be a great extra cleansing step on top of chemical exfoliation, but if a scrub feels even a tiny bit scratchy on the back of your hand, don’t use it"—Desiree Stordahl.
My skin is so sensitive. Should I still be exfoliating?
"Yes you should, but unfortunately it may take a little trial and error to find the right one for your skin. I recommend having a facial and asking your skin therapist which exfoliator is best suited. This will get the best results and save you any issues"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"Absolutely. BHA, in particular, has soothing properties, so it helps diminish the appearance of redness. If you’ve had problems with AHA or BHA exfoliants in the past, they may have contained fragrance or sensitising ingredients like denatured alcohol. For extra sensitive skin try the Paula’s Choice Skincare Calm 1% BHA Lotion ($27), which contains additional soothing extracts"—Desiree Stordahl.
I'm using a retinol though. What do I do?
"It really depends on the retinol. Definitely ask your skin therapist"—Jocelyn Petroni.
"Contrary to what you may have read, retinol does not exfoliate skin. Some people experience flaking from retinol, but that’s a sign that their skin isn’t tolerating the product well, not that it’s being exfoliated. AHA and BHA exfoliants are fine to use with products that contain retinol; they’re designed to work well together. Again, you shouldn’t see or feel any unwanted signs of exfoliation from AHA or BHA products, just great results"—Desiree Stordahl.
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