The Importance of 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.

Additionally, it's important to understand that there are two types of exfoliation: mechanical and chemical. Each of these comes with their own set of rules and guidelines to help people avoid damaging their skin while still taking proper care of their hygiene.

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 the glue-like substance that holds the cells together, allowing them to slough away. 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.

The Importance of Clearing Away Dead Skin

The 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 surface 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 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.

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, and 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.

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.