The Complete Guide to Exfoliants: How to Safely Get a Healthy Glow
by Heather Smith on Sep 24, 2022
The world of exfoliants, particularly face exfoliants, is vast and overwhelming. There are two main categories of exfoliants - physical and chemical. However, within each category, many options exist that can be tailored to your skin type. The many benefits of exfoliating are important to know so you can choose a method that is tailored to your skin type and product preferences.
Exploring new skincare products and regimens is generally a lot of fun. However, when it comes to exfoliants, one misstep and you could be trying to heal your damaged skin barrier for weeks.
In this article, I will discuss the benefits of exfoliation and break down each category of exfoliant and the most common options, as well as talk about how to tailor your routine for your skin type.
This is a must-read before you start or change your facial exfoliation routine!
Top 12 Benefits of Exfoliating
So what's the big deal? Why exfoliate?
While some people skip this part of their ritual, it has important benefits that will help optimize your skin health.
There are so many benefits of exfoliating, it is not a part of your routine that you should skip! A routine that includes exfoliation will transform your skin. You should expect to see:
- Improved hydration and moisturization
- Better penetration and results from active ingredients in your other products
- Reduced hyperpigmentation and a more even skin tone
- Improved texture, elasticity, and smoothness
- Reduced wrinkles and fine lines
- Fewer clogged pores and less acne
- Smaller pore size
- A reduction in visible acne scars
- Fewer ingrown hairs and keratosis pilaris (regarding body exfoliators)
- Improved blood flow and lymph drainage (when the exfoliation method uses massage or mechanical methods)
- Improved appearance of makeup because of less risk of caking, flaking, and piling
- Improved appearance of self tanner because the tanning agent is applied to skin that is freshly and evenly prepared
The reason for all these benefits is because a layer of dead cells is removed. This allows better absorption of things like humectants, moisturizers, and active ingredients. It helps to unclog pores and regulate oil production. Increased cell turnover stimulates collagen production. Removing dead skin reduces hyperpigmentation, and many acids also directly reduce the production of new pigment.
Why Exfoliate Your Face?
Your skin cells go through a whole lifecycle, one that takes 4-6 weeks, depending on your age and routines. As the dead cells build up, they flake away. However, many factors influence how and where they build up and how quickly they flake away. Some dead cells are very important but too many, and you end up with a dull or flaky appearance and worsening acne.
Looking at the list of benefits above, exfoliating your face will result in improved plumpness, better elasticity, a brighter and more radiant tone or glow, and a smooth, even texture with reduced blemishes and scars.
These are highly desired effects when it comes to the skin on your face!
Is Exfoliation Essential?
There is a big difference between the skincare needs of your body and your face. For example, think about the skin on your knees versus the skin on your lips or near your eyes - huge difference!
Dead cells will always slough off gradually over time. Your body does this naturally through a process called desquamation. Desquamation is a natural process that can become impaired in some skin conditions, with changes to your environment, and with things like wearing masks. However, it just happily occurs for most people and is not particularly noticeable.
When you use an exfoliant, you alter the natural rate and/or extensiveness of the cell sloughing process.
While not technically essential, exfoliation is important for your skin's overall health and appearance. However, keeping a broad view of what can be considered exfoliation is important.
You don't need multiple products or a complex regimen. For some people, washing with a cloth or drying with a towel is all they need.
Types of Exfoliants: Chemical vs Physical
The two main categories of exfoliants are chemical and physical (mechanical). Chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to loosen the dead cells. Physical exfoliants use something textured to remove the cells, like an exfoliation device or scrub.
Both types of exfoliation work well when done correctly, and neither are specifically better or worse than the other. Within each category, some strategies are better for specific goals, concerns, and skin types. However, as with most facial skincare routines, finding something that works for you is individualized.
Physical exfoliation manually removes cells rapidly so glowing skin results can be seen immediately. Chemical approaches take a bit longer. Many people find a combination of chemical and physical exfoliation is needed at different times.
Signs of over-exfoliation include burning, redness, and peeling. Typically, over-exfoliated skin might start out looking super-smooth, but that gives way to dry patches or rashes. If this happens, decrease the frequency and give your skin a break!
Mechanical Exfoliants: 15 Ways to Scrub and Buff
Physical exfoliants remove dead skin cells using mechanical forces like scrubbing. The hardness, size, and texture of the device or scrub material determines how aggressive the cell removal is.
Most people know about exfoliating gloves, loofa, pumice stones, and dry brushing. These are great approaches for your body, but not your face.
Physical exfoliants for the face need to function more gently, even for people who tolerate a lot of cell removal.
- Konjac sponge
- Wet washcloth (while washing)
- Dry towel (after washing)
- Gentle scrubbing device: rotating brush, silicone facial brush
- Sugar granules
- Salt granules
- Jojoba beads
- Bamboo stem powder
- Fruit seeds: strawberry, fig
- Grains: colloidal oat powder, rice husks
- Nut shell powder
- Coffee grounds
- Crystals and minerals: lava stone, aluminum oxide, powdered gemstones
- ❌ Disposable Wipes
- ❌ Microbeads
Microbeads are banned in many countries and should be banned entirely world-wide. They are made from plastic, and they persist in the waterways forever. Microplastics are a huge problem and one of the most significant sources of toxic beauty pollution and cosmetic chemical contamination of the environment.
Disposable wipes are just as bad. They are usually made with plastic materials, and they cause significant damage to entire sewage systems. However, they are so easy to replace with reusable wipes and zero waste options. Konjac sponges are another replacement option, especially for sensitive skin, as they are gentle and biodegradable.
Don't mistake jojoba beads for microbeads! These little guys are amazing. They look and feel like the plastic microbeads we used to love, but they're made of wax. This keeps them soft and excellent for facial exfoliation, but it also makes them biodegradable.
Bamboo stem powder is one of our favourites because the particle size is very small (<50 microns), and it's filled with natural silica and mineral salts. This means it can remineralize and hydrate your skin while protecting it from excessive abrasion (micro-tears) during exfoliation.
Micro Tears in Skin
The issue of excessive abrasion, also called micro-tears, comes from a combination of particle size, shape, and hardness. Jojoba beads are quite large, but they are round and waxy and can soften with heat or pressure. Salt and sugar granules can be large and jagged, but they are soluble in water and will reshape themselves during use.
Substances that aren't soluble or deformable could be damaging to your skin. If you look at some ingredients under a microscope, they look like sandpaper or jagged spikes!
The size of the particle and the type of material matters most. If you use something that dissolves while you're scrubbing (sugar) or deforms from heat and pressure (jojoba beads) or is made from super-soft, not abrasive material (konjac sponge, cotton cloth) you will not tear your skin.
Another way to protect the delicate skin on your face is to use small, circular motions. While many of these products are named "scrub", scrubbing is the last thing you should do.
If you're looking to get started, here are the best gentle exfoliants:
- bamboo powder
- jojoba beads
- colloidal oat powder
- reusable face wipes
- konjac sponge
Chemical Exfoliants: 12 Major Acids and Enzymes
Most chemical exfoliants are acids or enzymes. They work similarly by working on the surface or penetrating the skin to break up the matrix (glue) holding dead cells together. This makes it easier for the dead cells to be removed, and it also stimulates a faster rate of cell regeneration and turnover.
Many acids also inhibit enzymes responsible for melanin production - so as you shed old cells, you also reduce hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
pH is the primary factor that decides how intense an exfoliating acid is. Remember, acids burn. The whole point of chemical exfoliation is to destroy the bonds that hold tissue together.
Something like a chemical peel (discussed more below) takes it one step further - to damage healthy tissue, just enough to stimulate inflammation, cell regrowth, and healing.
Another factor that determines how intensely an acid exfoliates is the size of the molecule (molecular weight). Acids with low molecular weight are smaller and can penetrate through deeper layers of skin cells. Higher molecular weight acids work more on the outer surface layers.
Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
Many substances are classified as AHAs, but the ones used in skincare are glycolic, lactic, citric, tartaric, and malic.
AHA's are water soluble and are usually derived from sugars, fruits, or milk.
Lactic acid has been used in skincare for the longest time and dates back to when Queens like Cleopatra would bathe in milk. This is why yogurt makes its way into so many DIY face masks. Lactic acid can also be derived from fermented plant sources, so vegan options exist. One of the best things about lactic acid is that it supports the skin developing natural moisturizing factor (NMF) and ceramides which help increase hydration and barrier function over long term use.
Glycolic acid is the lowest molecular weight and can be the most intense of the AHAs. While it might improve hyperpigmentation better than the other acids, it is also the most likely to damage your skin barrier and isn't as good at building long term hydration.
Malic and mandelic acids are often used together because they complement one another. They are excellent for sensitive skin and work well against hyperpigmentation.
Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
Beta-hydroxy acids are small molecules and oil soluble. They work by softening keratin (the proteins in the skin).
The most commonly known BHA is salicylic acid, which has a claim to fame due to its effectiveness in improving acne. The anti-acne effects are due to reduced sebum production, improved inflammation, and a better ability to penetrate pores because of oil solubility.
A lesser known effect of salicylic acid is in reducing hyperpigmentation, particularly the post-inflammatory type and melasma.
Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs)
Polyhydroxy acids are similar to AHAs, but they are larger molecules that don't penetrate as deep.
PHAs are often thought of as more helpful in a multi-purpose sense because of their hydration and antioxidant benefits. Another exciting benefit of PHAs is that they're less likely to trigger sun sensitivity.
PHAs are a good place to start if you have extra sensitive skin. Look for the ingredients: gluconolactone, lactobionic acid, and galactose.
Like acids, enzymes break down and destroy the proteins in dead skin, a process called proteolysis. The most common enzymes in skincare are bromelain (from pineapple) and papain (from papaya). With the explosion in natural skincare products, many more enzymatic fruits and vegetables are being marketed - pumpkin, banana, passionfruit, guava, mango, etc.
Azelaic acid gets a lot of attention because it is highly active in topical treatments for inflammation, rosacea, acne, and hyperpigmentation. There is debate about whether it should be considered a medication or a cosmetic, but a lot of the debate rests with the claims made in the advertising materials.
Pyruvic acid is derived from flowers and is a precursor to lactic acid. It's not considered an AHA or BHA; rather it is called an alpha-keto acid. It is partially soluble in oil and water, so it benefits from both the AHA and BHA categories. This makes it a good option for people who are sensitive to glycolic acid and also have acne-prone skin.
6 Safety Tips to Avoid Over Exfoliating
What's the biggest risk in using exfoliants? Over exfoliating!
Mechanical exfoliants run the risk of causing micro-tears in your skin.
Chemical exfoliants can cause skin damage due to excessive use because the effects can accumulate before you see the results. People are often excited to use a new product so they start using it daily right off the bat... by the time you know that was excessive, the damage is done.
Protecting your skin barrier from over exfoliating is key.
When it comes to chemical exfoliants, patch testing is essential, especially if you have sensitive skin. It can be a lengthy process, but the bottom line is that testing for a short period won't be long enough if you're worried about irritation.
Start low and go slow. Be patient. If you've never used a chemical exfoliant and you jump straight to a high percentage, mixed-acid product, your skin barrier might get really upset. If the instructions say to use it twice a day, start with twice a week and work up.
Protect your moisture barrier with emollients, many of the best face oils will work well for your skin type. Always use an emollient after chemical or physical exfoliation.
Avoid using acids at the same time as actives known to be affected by pH or known to be unstable like Vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid).
Be cautious if using acids with retinoids because cell turnover effects are amplified. Don't start both at the same time. It shouldn't be an issue if you're using Bakuchiol as an alternative to retinol.
Sun protection is always critically important, especially when using alpha hydroxy acids, which will increase your sensitivity and likelihood of burning.
See your dermatologist if you want to treat specific problems or if you want to get more aggressive with your exfoliation.
Options like microdermabrasion, dermaplaning, chemical peels, and deep exfoliation facials can have a lot of benefits. However, they can be very damaging and dangerous if not performed by a properly trained provider. We've written a primer on facials if you're thinking about getting professional services.
If exfoliants have made their way onto your shopping list, this guide will help you get started choosing the best approach for your skin type.
Don't be fooled by the misconception that a gentle approach will automatically have poor results. Patience is key and avoiding a damaged skin barrier makes everything easier in the end.
Check out our award-winning Crystal Infused LUXE Polishing Balm!
This natural face scrub combines physical and chemical exfoliants into a rich, nourishing, emollient-based cleansing balm.