Exfoliation - Why, How, and When?

by Sarah Villafranco, MD /

 

To scrub or not to scrub is not the question.
 But there are other questions about exfoliation - a necessary component of your skincare routine - and we are here to answer them for you.

WHY?

Why do you need to exfoliate your skin? Well, you're really just accelerating a natural process called desquamation, in which our skin moves older skin cells toward the outermost layers of the skin, and they eventually slough away, leaving behind fresher, smoother skin. Of course, your skin doesn't really do this to keep you looking pretty. The real purpose of desquamation is to rid our skin of older cells, which are more likely to contain environmental pollutants, microorganisms, and damaged proteins.  The skin, as you know by now, is a living exchange organ, and it needs to be in good shape to do its many jobs well.

The trouble is that our skin becomes much less effective at desquamation as we age: the matrix in which skin cells sit (like a biological glue that holds them together) becomes thicker and does not let go of older cells as easily. The result is dull skin with less of that healthy glow you had when you were in your teens. So, exfoliation is one way you can help your skin stay up to speed with its natural "freshening up" process, restoring your skin to a brighter, illuminated appearance. The trick, of course, is to exfoliate the right way, with the right frequency. If done too harshly or too often, you will take away too many layers of skin cells (stratum corneum, to the right), and expose other, less mature skin cells that are incapable of the demanding work required at the outer layers of the skin. Over-exfoliated skin will appear red, irritated, blotchy, and conditions such as dermatitis, acne, and rosacea can become more visible.  As with just about everything in life, moderation and balance are key. So, let's talk about methods of exfoliation.

HOW?

There are several methods of exfoliation, and here we will focus on the ones you can do at home, rather than the more expensive dermatology office options, like microdermabrasion and chemical peels.  (Of course, we think you can do a pretty fantastic job yourself, using the techniques below, but it may require more patience and commitment than having someone do it for you.)

The first and most obvious method is called mechanical exfoliation.  This involves using a textured item to remove dead skin cells on the surface, or using a skin care product with small granules to smooth the skin in a similar fashion. The amount of pressure or the size of the granules will depend on the type of skin you're exfoliating.  For example, you might try dry brushing the skin of your body every morning before showering, using a natural bristle brush, which would be much too harsh for your face.  Or you could use a product like our Himalayan Body Buff in the shower, but you would never want to use salt granules for a facial scrub - your facial skin is just too thin and sensitive for a salt scrub.

When it comes to the face, you need to use about 1/10th the pressure, and softer materials. The simplest method of facial exfoliation is to use a soft, damp washcloth on your face in very gentle circles.  Lots of people like using a very soft, oscillating facial brush, although you need to be diligent about changing the brush heads and letting the device dry between uses, or you will have a petri dish on your hands before you know it!  Alternatively, you can use products with very fine, mechanically-exfoliating ingredients, such as clay, botanical powders, oat or almond flour, super-fine shells designed for dermatologic use, or other ground grains.  

Adzuki beans, for example, have been used by Japanese women for centuries in their skincare routines - finely ground, the beans become a very effective exfoliant, gentle enough for facial skin. The ground beans also have some enzymatic action, making it a doubly potent exfoliating treatment. In our Detox Exfoliating Mask, the combination of clay, raw cacao powder, and organic walnut shells makes for an equally gentle mechanical exfoliation, with the added benefit of activated charcoal to pull pollutants from the skin cells that stay behind. 

No matter what mechanical exfoliation method you use, light pressure will be the key to your success.  You're not scrubbing the kitchen counter - this is your skin! Elbows, legs, and upper arms can take moderate pressure, but the skin on your face should be treated gingerly, using only as much pressure as is required to move the product around your face. If your face is aggro-red after a treatment, you're using too much pressure!

The second method of exfoliation is chemical or enzymatic exfoliation, where ingredients like alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, lactic acid, or Vitamin A work to loosen dead skin cells and increase cell regeneration rates. Perhaps the best known of these treatments is Retin-A, which is a form of Vitamin A used to increase collagen synthesis and help reverse the effects of longterm UV exposure. Unfortunately, it is also a known teratogen: it causes birth defects in rats, and is not recommended for pregnant women. It also causes redness, sun sensitivity, dryness, itching, and burning. So, if you're willing to take the risk and tough out the side effects, you will probably see some improvement in skin texture over time.  

If, however, I did not just make you want to run out an get a prescription for Retin-A, you might consider some gentler options with little to no risk.  For example, pumpkin and papaya are rich in alpha-hydroxy acids, as well as Vitamin A, C, and zinc, all of which can help exfoliate the skin, combat acne, and diminish hyperpigmentation. Tomato is full of Vitamin C and lycopene, a carotenoid with potent antioxidant benefits. Lactic acid, found in milk products, helps break down the matrix where old skin cells reside, allowing them to slough away more easily. Enzymes in grains like quinoa, amaranth, and rice can do the same, and provide a very silky texture when mixed with water, activating their enzyme activity.  Did you notice that every ingredient listed above is something you can eat? Even when you're pregnant?? Just sayin'.

So, now that you know your options, let's ask the last question.

 

 

WHEN?

The basic answer is: NOT TOO OFTEN! People definitely tend toward overdoing it in the exfoliation department.  It feels good, your skin feels softer afterwards, and you feel like you've taken an active role in improving your skin. But, as mentioned above, too much of this good thing is possible.  A good place to start is once a week for the face and twice a week for the body.  Pay attention to how your skin responds. If you're red or irritated, you need to tone it down. If you don't notice any difference, maybe you can increase the frequency slightly. Remember, the goal is to eliminate rough, dead skin cells that refract light unevenly and cause a dull appearance, and to encourage cell regeneration deeper in the skin layers, all without leaving the skin raw or angry. It's a beautiful balance when you strike it, so experiment and find out what works for your skin. Need some great options? Here you go!

Mechanical Body Exfoliation
Enzymatic Body Exfoliation
Mechanical Facial Exfoliation
Enzymatic Facial Exfoliation

 

Got other great ideas to share, or questions about your skin routine?  Ask away!! 

With love and a perfectly-exfoliated glow from us to you, 

Sarah + The Osmia Crew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment

Do you have a Retin-A replacement compound that you sell? I do not like the side effects of Retin-A.

Cyndie Rippy on September 22, 2015