Exfoliation at the Spa and at Home

exfoliation
••• Microdermabrasion is an aggressive form of mechanical facial exfoliation. Getty Images: GregorBister

Exfoliation is the removal of the dead, keratinized skin cells sitting on the skin's surface, which leaves the skin smoother and fresher looking and makes it easier for expensive facial products like serums to penetrate the skin's surface.

It is an important part of both professional facials and body treatments, but exfoliation is also a double-edged sword. It is easy to overdo facial exfoliation, especially at home with overzealous scrubbing and cheap products like apricot kernel scrubs, because while the skin on the rest of your body can take more vigorous exfoliation more frequently, the face cannot.

As a result, booking a professional exfoliation treatment and an appointment with a dermatologist or aesthetician while on vacation can be the perfect way to kick-start your exfoliation routine without fear of damaging your sensitive skin. When getting this type of treatment at a spa or resort, there are two types of exfoliation you can book, each of which comes with its set of rules and guidelines to help people avoid damaging their skin while still taking proper care of their hygiene.

The Importance of Clearing Away Dead Skin

Our skin is constantly generating new cells at the lower layer (the dermis) and sending them to the surface (the epidermis). As the cells rise to the top, they gradually die and become filled with keratin, which gives our skin its protective quality, but they are constantly sloughing off to make way for younger cells.

As we age the process of cell turnover slows down, and cells start to pile up unevenly on the skin's surface, giving it a dry, rough, dull appearance. Exfoliation is beneficial because it removes those cells that are clinging on, revealing the fresher, younger skin cells below.

If your facial skin has a dull, pasty look, as it often does in older people who don't exfoliate, a treatment routine that emphasizes gentle exfoliation will make you look younger. On the other hand, if a cloud of white particles fly into the air when you peel off your jeans, you might need a full body scrub to refresh all of your skin.

The Two Types of Exfoliation

There are two main types of exfoliation: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliation literally rubs the dead skin cells off with some kind of abrasive, including anything from jojoba beads to a diamond-tip microdermabrasion machine. Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, uses acids including fruit enzymes and super-powerful facial peels to dissolve the glue-like substance that holds the cells together.

Examples of mechanical exfoliation include a salt glow, a body scrub that might use sugar or coffee grounds, or skin brushing. On the face, scrubs should use small, round, gentle abrasives like jojoba beads. Additionally, you should stay away from something harsh like apricot scrubs, which can cause micro-tears in your skin. A more aggressive and effective approach to mechanical exfoliation is microdermabrasion, which uses small particles to rub against the skin, knocking dead cells lose faster without as much damage.

Enzymes, alphahydroxy acids (AHAs), or betahydroxy acids (BHAS) are used in chemical exfoliation treatments to loosen cellular bonds, allowing an entire layer of skin to slough away at once. Facial peels are a form of chemical exfoliation, but chemical peels can either be very gentle or very aggressive, depending on how the strong the peel is. Body treatments might use mild chemical exfoliants like pineapple enzymes.

Exfoliation on Vacation: How to Choose Your Treatment

When you're on vacation, especially if you're aiming to look your best in your travel photos, booking an appointment at a spa or resort to get a professional exfoliation can be the perfect way to rejuvenate your skin and give yourself a fresh look for your adventures. However, since treatments range in severity from pleasant and gentle to abrasive and painful, you'll need to know which type is right for your travel itinerary.

Mechanical exfoliations are typically the most gentle, which works well if you just want to give your skin a refresher but still want to be able to wear makeup out without looking red or raw. On the other hand, chemical exfoliants can leave you suffering from pain and skin irritation for a few days, which means you shouldn't go in the sun or put anything on your face, which isn't great for those vacation pictures.

If you're going for a private getaway for some self-care, there's nothing wrong with wandering around a luxury resort for a few days a little red from a chemical treatment like a facial peel, but if you're planning on being out on the town during your travels, you'll want to choose something less abrasive like a salt glow.

In either case, you should check to make sure your spa or resort is either accredited by or overseen by a licensed doctor or aesthetician. Chemical treatments especially can be dangerous if performed by an unlicensed or untrained therapist, but you'll want to make sure your care provider understands your skin and its sensitivities with either type of treatment.

The Dangers of Over-Exfoliations

If you exfoliate your face too much, your skin can become sensitized, making it prone to redness and irritation instead of smooth and even-toned like you might have originally desired. Essentially, instead of taking care of your skin, you can make it much worse.

If you're getting a facial peel, you should wait a considerable amount of time before scheduling your next appointment as you are removing an entire layer of skin protecting the dermis. Additionally, you should never wax after you get a peel as you can easily scrape or break the skin, causing it to expose raw, living tissue that will have to scab over to heal.

You have to be careful about exposing yourself to the sun after you exfoliate, especially if you get an aggressive chemical facial peel at the spa. Additionally, you should talk to a good esthetician about the product and frequency that is best for your skin, especially if you have sensitive or aging skin.

Another issue with exfoliants that has an impact on the environment is the presence of microbeads in many facial and body scrubs that are cheap for manufacturers to use but wash down the drain, pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants, and make their way into rivers and canals, where fish may eat them. All companies stopped using microbeads in their products in July 2017, according to federal law, but there are also plenty of exfoliants that never used microbeads.