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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Exfoliation

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About ExfoliationI'm not really a product kind of girl. There's a couple of reasons for this:
  1. I'm too lazy/busy to use too much stuff
  2. I have pretty good skin
  3. I'm a bit of a tightarse
Over the years (and trust me, those years are starting so show on my face!) I've found a few things that really work for me. I've even added a few things to my routine. So if I'm recommending something, it's because it's totally worth it. Like taking off all my makeup, every night. I've got to the point now where even if I do go to bed without taking my makeup off (too tired, too many wines, etc), I can't sleep. So I end up getting up anyway and cleaning my face. Like cleansing and moisturising properly every morning and every evening. And using good quality products. It definitely does make a difference. And finally, exfoliating. Regular exfoliation keeps your skin smooth and bright, and I don't know why it took me so long to realise it. And that's what I want to talk about in this post: exfoliation. And why if you're not doing it, you should be.

What does exfoliation actually do for you?

Exfoliation sloughs off the layer of dead skin cells on the skin’s surface. Doing this has lots of benefits:

It improves the texture of your skin. Exfoliation removes dead cells which sit on the surface of your skin, making it look dull and tired. Regular exfoliation leaves your skin looking brighter and smoother. As a bonus, It also reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and leaves your skin feeling softer, too.

Exfoliating areas like knees and elbows removes rough, dead skin and makes you feel less like you have elephant knees and more like you have skirt-worthy knees.

It reduces the appearance of large pores. Your pores trap dirt and dead skin cells. You may be cleansing regularly, but your cleanser doesn’t remove the accumulation of dirt and oil in your pores. Exfoliation helps your skin looks healthy, polished and glowing, and reduces the appearance of pores.

It helps clear up acne and pimples. When you’ve got acne, dead skin cells stick to your skin. They clog your pores and hair follicles, and the dead skin debris builds, making the issue worse. You end up with blackheads and even more pimples. Exfoliation reduces the likelihood of clogged pores and breakouts.

It helps your skincare products absorb into your skin. When your skin is blocked by layers of dead skin cells and dirt, your skincare tends to sit on top of this layer. By exfoliating, you remove the muck and your moisturisers and serums are more easily absorbed into your skin.

Your makeup goes on more smoothly. If you haven’t exfoliated, your skin can look and feel rough. Dead skin cells can look dry, and your makeup clumps around the rough patches and doesn't glide on smoothly. Exfoliate, and your smoother skin will take makeup better and look more polished.

Exfoliation also helps your fake tan apply more evenly, so you don't end up with streaks and patches. You get a much more natural, even effect.

How do you choose an exfoliating product?

Exfoliation works for all skin types, whether your skin is dry, oily, normal or sensitive. What makes the difference is what’s doing the exfoliating, and what else is added to the mix. There are two ways to exfoliate – physical, or chemical. Physical involves using something gritty like jojoba beads, salt, a textured cloth or a facial brush. Chemical exfoliation uses chemicals like AHA’s and BHA’s. Physical exfoliation There are lots of different types of physical exfoliants:
  • microbeads
  • salt and sugar scrubs
  • jojoba beads
  • nut and seed shells, like ground walnut shells and apricot kernels
  • facial cloths - from a simple face washer to specialised microfibre cloths
  • brushes - simple hand held brushes to machines like the Clarisonic
  • microdermabrasion, which is done professionally
It's pretty easy to make physical scrubs at home, too, using things like coffee grounds, finely ground oats, powdered dried strawberry seeds, and even sugar and salt scrubs. Michelle at LabMuffin explains how they work in this great post about physical exfoliation:

Dead cells are buffed away mechanically using grainy products or tools. It’s a lot like sandpapering a block of wood or scrubbing tiles – the friction from rubbing an object back and forth over the skin lifts stuck cells.

Much like sandpapering wood, the harshness of physical exfoliation depends on a few factors:

  • what the exfoliating objects are like (how large, how hard, how smooth)
  • how you move them over your skin (how hard you press, what direction you go in, how long you rub it in for)
But should you use them? Cruising the interweb turns up different results, from the 'you should never use them' to the 'you should use them every day'. As always, the answer lies somewhere in between. It's fine to use physical exfoliants as long as you don't use them more than once or twice a week, and you don't use anything that's too harsh and don't scrub too hard. So forget the DIY sugar and salt scrubs on your face, ditch the apricot scrubs and the walnut shell scrubs, and stick to gentler alternatives like jojoba beads. Skip the plastic microbeads, too, for the sake of the environment. If you've got acne, the consensus seems to be that it's okay to use a physical exfoliant, unless you've got active acne. So if you've got zits with white heads, don't scrub, because you'll just end up busting your zits open and getting icky bacteria all over your face and you'll end up with - urgh - infected zits. Chemical exfoliation The other kind of exfoliation is chemical exfoliation. Chemical exfoliation works differently to physical exfoliation, because you're not physically scrubbing those dead skin cells off, you're doing it with chemicals. And before you freak out, remember that chemicals aren't all bad. Chemical exfoliants include hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), retinol and enzymes. AHAs and BHAs are hydroxy acids. The main difference between AHAs and BHAs are their solubility. AHAs are water soluble (meaning that they dissolve in water), and BHAs are oil soluble. It's generally accepted that BHAs work better on oily skin, especially if you've got blackheads or whiteheads. If your skin doesn't usually break out, stick with AHAs. AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids. They're natural acids, including citric acid (from citrus fruits), glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (found in sour milk), malic acid (from apples), and others. The New Zealand dermatology website, DermNet NZ, explains how AHAs work:

With time and sun exposure there is a gradual but slow-down in the rate at which old cells leave the surface of the skin and are replaced by newer cells. This results in a surface layer of dead skin cells that are responsible for the appearance of aged skin.

AHAs loosen the glue-like substances that hold the surface skin cells to each other, therefore allowing the dead skin to peel off. The skin underneath has a fresher, healthier look with a more even colour and texture.

With high concentration and long-term use, AHAs may also affect the deeper layers of the skin. Collagen and elastin regenerate making fine lines less obvious.

BHAs are beta hydroxy acids. These are man made, like salicylic acid. BHAs work in the same way as AHAs, but are oil soluble, instead of water soluble. Retinol converts to retinoic acid, which is an exfoliant. You can find products with retinol (or Vitamin A, as retinol is a form of Vitamin A), but they're pretty potent, so use with care. Fruit enzymes like papain from pawpaw, bromelain from pineapples and protease from pumpkin can also stimulate exfoliation. Pineapple is the strongest, but they're all pretty gentle. You'll find fruit enzymes in products, but you can also make them at home with fresh fruit. Another exfoliant that you may not have heard of is rice bran. The outer layers of brown rice have lots of biologically active agents that are beneficial to your skin. Applying rice water to your skin can help smoothe and cleanse, and have apparently been used for years in Japanese skincare.

Things to think about when choosing a chemical exfoliant

Hydroxy acid concentrations and pH levels There's a really wonderful post from Michelle at LabMuffin all about chemical exfoliants and how to use them. Michelle is very science-y, and I'm definitely not, so I'm referring you to her post. She explains all about the importance of the pH of the product and the concentrations of the different acids. These are very important considerations when you're choosing a product for your skin. If you get a badly formulated product, it can be bad news for your skin. High concentrations of hydroxy acids are used in chemical peels. These are usually done in clinics or spas, but there are products available to use at home. I'd be concerned about doing this at home. A chemical peel is basically a chemical burn, and can leave you with redness, flaking or peeling skin, or even oozing skin for a couple of weeks if you get it wrong. It's probably better to leave this to the professionals. Which product? AHAs need to be absorbed into your skin to work. So it makes sense to choose a product that stays on your skin, like a moisturiser or serum, rather than a product that washes off, like a cleanser. Hydroxy acids can cause skin sensitivity and irritation, so choose just one product as your exfoliant rather than a whole range. This should reduce the risk of redness and irritation. Your skin may also need time to adjust, so start with just 2 to 3 uses a week, rather than every day, morning and evening and increase the frequency once your skin has settled. Sun sensitivity Chemical exfoliants cause increased sun sensitivity, so it's essential that you use a good SPF moisturiser or sunscreen to protect your skin. You should be doing this anyway, of course, but it's an extra incentive.

Using Natural Exfoliant Products

I've done some internet searching and it's really hard to find natural brands with chemical exfoliants. There are lots of natural brands with physical exfoliants, like Acure's Brightening Facial Scrub, and Andalou Naturals Pearl Exfoliator.  Chemical exfoliants from natural brands are much harder to come by, so if you know of any, let me know in the comments so that I can link to them. For a do it yourself mild AHA facial, try yoghurt. The lactic acid in the yoghurt will act as a mild exfoliant. Just make sure you do it with plain, live yoghurt (because you just look silly with strawberry bits stuck to your face). You can even use an organic apple cider vinegar, as it's high in AHAs. You'll need to dilute it first, though, to ensure that the concentration is not too high. Make sure that you're using an organic one, with the mother. Personally, I've found that this really works well if you leave it on for a couple of minutes, then rinse your face in cool water. Follow up by applying moisturiser. Michelle at Labmuffin recommends kiwi fruit skins rubbed on her face, then rinsed off after 10 minutes. You can also blend pineapples and mix with water for an enzyme mask. You could try using rice water (just the leftover water after you've washed rice) or even the cooking rice water. This apparently works best with brown rice. Do you use a chemical exfoliant or a scrub? Have you heard of any natural chemical exfoliants? Share in the comments below! Get the latest posts straight to your inbox every week!
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