"Skin Exfoliation: It’s Not What You Do. It’s How You Do It."
Who doesn’t want clear, glowing skin?
Exfoliation is one of those things that many women and some men actually enjoy doing on a regular basis and most of us have at some point been fans of those countless varieties of gritty apricot kernel scrubs used to voluntarily sand our faces.
It felt strangely satisfying to imagine sloughing off dead cells, dirt, oils and bacteria, and hope for miraculously clear skin thereafter.
Now that I’ve grown a little older and wiser (and my skin a little less tolerant of such physical abuse), I’ve learnt one thing:
It’s Not What You Do. It’s How You Do It.
For us lay-men, you can think of skin exfoliation on 2 very simple (and very unscientific) levels; macro- and micro-exfoliation.
I classify macro as what you do to the surface to improve the immediate appearance and texture, and micro as what you do on a less visible level to encourage more regular turnover, and just as importantly, clear out pores. I’m not referring to the size of the scrub grains.
Macro-exfoliants tend to slough off more skin and may make more of a visible difference to your skin. Examples include:
- Regular grainy scrubs that roll over your skin and lift flakes and dead cells. (Notice I say lift. Not remove. Its like ruffling a bird’s feathers with a wide-tooth comb. You can make them all stand up but you may not be able to remove them.) Probably not good for sensitive skins in most cases.
- Chemical peels where various forms of acids are applied to your skin surface and literally “eat away” at the top-most layers, to reveal fresher, younger skin below. Not for very sensitive skins.
- Micro-dermabrasion or exfoliant creams: Super-fine particles are “blown” or rubbed against the skin to “buff” away surface cells much like sand-paper would (but a lot less harsh of course). A lot of times, when you use newer-generation scrub creams, the granules are so fine that they may not even feel like scrubs
My current favorite:
Honey and black-sugar scrub. I buy a pack of dark muscovado sugar, scoop some into my palm about once or twice a week, add a dollop of honey, and then gently press and roll it into my skin, until the sugar grains sort of start dissolving. Then I leave it on for a few minutes before washing it off.
The benefits are:
- rich mineral content in muscovado sugar
- sugar dissolves as your massage it with honey or a dash of water (I don’t recommend using it totally dry) so it’s less harsh than other traditional scrubs
- natural glycolic acid content in it can help to eat away at dead cells without being as harsh as applying concentrated glycolic acid treatments, so this takes care of a bit of micro-exfoliation as well!
- adding honey helps to heal and disinfect the skin even as you exfoliate
- it’s extremely affordable. If you hate the smell of muscovado, you can get a light brown sugar or even white sugar
I differentiate micro-exfoliants from macro-exfoliants because most times, these aren’t something that get applied to the skin temporarily and slough off cells in a short period of time.
A lot of micro-exfoliants work for a longer period of time on your skin, and at a more microscopic level, to loosen dead cells (desquamation), speed up cell turnover, and maintain a smoother, more even texture and tone.
Popular ones include:
- Leave in acids like glycolic acid lotions from brands such as Peter Thomas Roth (note that these come in various concentrations and the typical “effective” level is about 10% for at-home treatments)
- Enzyme treatments derived from fruits and plants, which are a gentler and more natural way of eating away at the bonds which keep dead cells stuck to your skin (Kiehl’s Over-Night Biological Peel is one)
- Salicylic acid. This one is a must for me as part of my exfoliation regimen because it’s the only one that goes INTO your pores to clean out the inside surfaces. Other acids don’t work this same way. If you have oily/combo skin or are concerned about blackheads and spots, this is the one you have to incorporate into your regimen at least every other day or so. (Not just when you have a spot.)
My current favorites:
If you’re expecting me to suggest another D.I.Y treatment involving pineapples, papayas and juice extraction, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed! I don’t like messing around with active ingredients too much, especially when it comes to acids and other stronger chemicals.
I like both the products I mentioned above, but if you’re into organic, vegan products, try Paul Penders Citrus Fruit Exfoliant as well.
Other than this, I use a salicylic acid product around my oilier areas (nose, inner cheeks, chin) at least about 2-3 nights a week. Not only when I have spots, as that’s already too late.
IMPORTANT THING TO NOTE WHEN USING ANY EXFOLIANT IS TO MAKE SURE YOU APPLY PLENTY OF SUN PROTECTION. Especially with the micro-exfoliants as they tend to work longer on your skin and exfoliate it more than is visible. You can end up with a lot of hyper-pigmentation and uneven skin tone if you do not make sure to protect your skin well.