When it comes to skin care tips, exfoliation is always one of them. One article may remind you to exfoliate before you shave, while another suggests skin care exfoliation as a way to reduce rough skin texture on your face.
The advice is all fine and dandy, but what is exfoliation, anyway? And why is it so helpful for so many skin concerns? That’s what we’re here to break down today!
Stated as simply as possible, exfoliation is the shedding of layers. When referring to skin, exfoliation refers to shedding dead skin cells.
Healthy skin naturally rids itself of dead skin cells about every 30 days. Since not all skin cells grow and shed at the exact same time, that essentially means your skin is constantly exfoliating—aka constantly shedding dead cells. The average human loses about 500 million dead skin cells a day!
Now, sometimes skin can’t or won’t exfoliate itself properly, leading to a buildup of dead skin cells. Excess dead skin can lead to many common skin concerns, such as breakouts, thick or rough patches (like on your heels), and certain forms of dermatitis.
Some reasons why skin may not exfoliate itself properly include dehydration, chronic conditions, and even some medications. It’s pretty common for skin to not shed dead cells perfectly, especially on certain areas of the body like the feet, elbows, and knees, as well as around the nose, behind the ears, and along the hairline.
The purpose of exfoliation
Dead skin sheds in order to make way for new, healthy cells. These healthy cells better protect against external aggressors while keeping the skin properly moisturized. New skin cells are also responsible for keeping your skin smooth and radiant instead of the dull, rough buildup of dead skin.
In addition to look and feel, healthy cells also allow for the proper absorption of skin care. This allows your skin care products to work as intended, instead of getting stuck behind a wall of dead cells.
Why manual exfoliation helps skin
So if humans lose 500 million dead skin cells per day, why should we manually exfoliate in addition to that? There’s a couple of reasons why!
First, sometimes skin is bad at shedding dead skin cells. That doesn’t mean that the cells don’t die—they do. But, sometimes they get stuck instead of sloughing off.
Perhaps you have excess keratin in your skin, which acts like a glue that holds dead skin cells on the surface. Or you could potentially deal with a skin condition, like eczema, which results in a buildup of dead skin cells. Or maybe you’ve just been dehydrated lately.
Whatever the reason, dead skin can build up for a variety of reasons, and helping the process along allows your healthy cells to shine through.
Second, gentle exfoliation can help boost circulation in the exfoliated area, resulting in a healthier glow!
Third, healthy cells function best. If you manually remove dead cell buildup, you are actually allowing your skin to function at its best, even without the added benefits of improved skin care product absorption.
Types of manual skin exfoliation
When most people think of skin care exfoliation, they imagine a harsh scrub scraping away dead skin cells. First of all, you don’t need those harsh scrubs! They may irritate skin, especially sensitive skin types, and they often don’t exfoliate in a uniform way.
Instead, try using a chemical exfoliant, like glycolic acid. Don’t let the word ‘acid’ scare you away—glycolic acid is easily tolerated by most skin types, unless you have very sensitive skin. It works by dissolving the bonds that hold dead skin cells to the surface of the skin, allowing them to slough away naturally.
On top of exfoliating, glycolic acid also encourages collagen production. Since collagen is responsible for your skin’s firmness, plumpness, and contributes to elasticity, this means a more youthful-looking complexion. One important thing to note is that glycolic acid, as an alpha hydroxy acid, may increase your sensitivity to the sun, so don’t forget your SPF!
If you don’t want to add another skin care product to your routine, dry brushing is also a great way to exfoliate skin; plus, it feels amazing! You can dry brush your entire body, and use either a very soft dry brush or a dry (or very damp) wash cloth to exfoliate the face. Be sure to pay attention to common trouble areas, like around the nose and ears.
How often should I exfoliate?
Perhaps the most common exfoliation-related question is how often to do it. Some exfoliating products claim they can be used on a daily basis, but if you are otherwise using high-quality skin care, drinking enough water, and don’t have a condition which causes extreme dead skin cells buildup, every day might be a bit much.
One exception is that it is safe and even advised to dry brush your body every day unless you have extremely sensitive skin or a condition which would cause your skin to be intolerant of daily brushing.
Most people see great results when they exfoliate one to three times a week. Again, if you have very sensitive skin, you may only be able to exfoliate once a week. Go slowly to see how much your skin can tolerate before becoming red, inflamed, or uncomfortable.
Where exfoliation fits into your skin care regimen
The other common question regarding exfoliation is when to do it in relation to the rest of your skin care routine. In general, exfoliation of the face is usually done as a cleansing or toning step, or as a face mask done a couple times a week.
Exfoliating cleansers are popular because it doesn’t add any time to one’s skin care routine, while exfoliating toners are also popular because they multi-task the exfoliating and toning steps. An exfoliating mask can feel relaxing and spa-like, and may also provide increased results since masks are so highly concentrated.
Whichever exfoliation method you choose, be sure to follow it up with your moisturizer of choice!
See what your dermatologist says
As always, check with your dermatologist before taking on a new skin care process. While skin care exfoliation is common and generally helpful, only you and your dermatologist can decide which process is right for your skin, especially if your skin is highly sensitive, reactive, or struggles with a chronic condition.