Our skin is pre-programmed to exfoliate itself in a process called desquamation. As we age, this process slows, leaving skin looking dull, rough, or flaky. To help encourage skin to exfoliate, we can choose mechanical or chemical exfoliants. Age, skin type, and skin condition can help determine which type of exfoliants are best for you.
The life cycle of skin cells begins when new cells are born in the basal cell layer (stratum germinativum), which is the bottom of the 5 layers of the epidermis. Researchers believe that these cells are born with an internal clock that tells them how long it should take to reach the stratum corneum, or top layer of the epidermis. This process normally takes about 4 weeks, but can take as long as 75 days depending on age and skin condition. As cells move to the surface and become keratinized, they flatten out and eventually die. Proteins form bonds that hold skin cells together, and as the clock runs down, the bonds are weakened by enzymes naturally found in our skin. When they reach the surface, the bonds release, and the dead skin cells are shed.
When the natural desquamation process isn’t functioning at its best, that’s when an exfoliant is needed. There are many different types of exfoliants, and there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. A 21-year-old with normal skin might not use the same exfoliator as her 49-year-old mother, for example.
Common types of mechanical exfoliation you may be familiar with are dermabrasion and microdermabrasion. Both are performed by a dermatologist or other licensed skincare professional, and use a hand-held device. Dermabrasion removes cells down into the dermis and remodels the skin’s structural proteins, which removes acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles. Microdermabrasion removes only the top layer of the epidermis in order to accelerate the natural exfoliation process and promote collagen synthesis.
At home, scrubs can be used to achieve a similar effect to microdermabrasion, which can be effective multiple skin types. Exfoliating Facial Cleanser uses fine grain apricot shell powder (along with pomegranate enzyme; more on enzymes below) for gentle facial exfoliation that can be used every day on a wide range of skin types and conditions, from dry and mature to oily and blemish-prone. Body Scrub includes a multi-particle complex with different grain sizes for thorough exfoliation of skin below the neck, which is most beneficial for normal to dry skin.
The first process that comes to mind here is a chemical peel, which is performed by a skincare professional. This involves applying liquid acid onto the skin (usually an alpha hydroxy acid), producing a controlled destruction of the epidermis. This removes superficial scars and generates new epidermal tissue. Lower concentrations of AHA are available in over-the-counter skincare, and can be effective when used correctly. If you have sensitive skin, however, exfoliation with AHAs may not be the right choice for you.
Another common type of chemical exfoliant found in many products is beta hydroxy acid (BHA), the most commonly known of which is salicylic acid. Found in willow bark, salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent, working to remove corneocytes on the skin’s surface. Unlike AHAs, BHAs can dissolve fats and lipids, making them ideal for oily or acneic skin types.
A gentle option that is easy to use at home is exfoliation with enzymes. Enzymes dissolve the proteins holding together corneocytes in the stratum corneum, allowing them to slough away. This process also encourages collagen and skin cell renewal and is effective on all skin types, including sensitive. Resurfacing Enzyme Mask contains pomegranate enzymes and salicylic acid from willow bark extract to gently break down and remove dull surface cells, giving skin an instant glow. Exfoliating Facial Cleanser also contains pomegranate enzymes and willow bark extract, which can help clear clogged pores.
Whichever type of exfoliation you choose, the ultimate goal is to remove dead, dull surface cells. It can take some time to find the right product that is gentle enough not to irritate your skin, but thorough enough to provide visible results. Be sure to consult a skincare professional if you have adverse reactions to any skincare products.
Skin Exfoliation 101. http://www.dermalinstitute.com/us/library/28_article_Skin_Exfoliation_101.html
Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20024871
Effects of microdermabrasion on skin rejuvenation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24131070
Dermatology procedures: microdermabrasion and chemical peels. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25373032
Chemical peels in active acne and acne scars. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28274356
Can natural ingredients solve acne? https://www.happi.com/contents/view_experts-opinion/2013-01-14/can-natural-ingredients-solve-acne