Exfoliation explained: What is it & why do it?

With benefits such as healthy glowing skin, enabling better absorption of products and helping to reduce the appearance of scarring and pigmentation, discover what exfoliation is and why it's so important.

Key takeaways

  • Exfoliation is the process of removing the oldest, dead skin cells from the surface of your skin
  • It’s important in aiding skin absorb active ingredients, improve blood circulation and renew skin cells
  • It also encourages natural collagen production, while preventing clogged pores and dullness
  • You can exfoliate either physically or chemically – with a multitude of methods within these two groups
  • It’s essential to understand how and how often to exfoliate for the best results, without causing damage

What does exfoliation mean?

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the outermost layers of your skin. These are the oldest layers, which can cause dryness or clogged pores if they haven’t shed completely as part of the natural skin cycle. The average shedding cycle for an adult is roughly 27-30 days, but this can vary between skin types and ages.

What does exfoliation do for my skin?

There are a multitude of benefits from skin exfoliation. They range from the instant-gratification-glow, to the long-term maintenance of a clear complexion over time. The glow that appears after an exfoliation session is triggered by an increase in blood circulation and oxygen flow to skin cells.

But it’s the pay-off from regular, long-term exfoliation that is worth hanging around for; playing the long game encourages the reparative and renewal process of skin that activates natural collagen production in the upper layer of the dermis. Essentially, it kick-starts the skin’s self-repair mechanism that results in smooth, vibrant skin. This is why exfoliation plays a part in improving the appearance of scarring, acne marks, pigmentation, photo-damage and fine lines.

Exfoliation also helps you avoid the healthy-skin-menaces of clogged pores and dullness. It removes dead skin cells that could otherwise cause clogged pores or breakouts. Plus, as we age, skin naturally slows down its cell turnover, so exfoliation keeps the pace going and prevents lacklustre skin.

By exfoliating, you will enable better absorption of the products that you apply afterwards too. In other words, it’s a way to supercharge active ingredients in your routine. How you treat your skin after exfoliating is vital for reaping the benefits of doing it in the first place. This reiterates the skoosh skin mantra of building a holistic skin routine.

Ways to exfoliate: Physical vs chemical

1. Physical or mechanical exfoliation is the manual action of displacing dead skin cells by rubbing or scrubbing. This method needs friction from either a tool or a rough substance to help remove the top layer of the skin, although there are some treatments designed to go deeper.

This includes:

  • Exfoliating scrubs - that incorporate granular substances like sugar, nut shells or microbeads
  • Exfoliation tools - such as brushes, cloths and sponges
  • Treatments using tools - namely microdermabrasion and dermaplaning, which are more commonly performed by professionals, but at-home versions have become available in recent years

2. Chemical exfoliants use chemicals to encourage growth of new skin cells. They work by breaking down the keratin, or the glue, that holds dead skin cells together. This makes it easier to penetrate deeper into the skin and shed older layers to reveal healthy ones beneath. At home products allow for superficial exfoliation and ‘peeling’ of the uppermost layers of skin, while deeper clinical peeling with higher concentrations of these chemicals should only be applied by skin professionals and dermatologists.

These chemicals include:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) - This encompasses acids such as glycolic, citric, lactic, phytic or mandelic acids, that are smaller molecules and able to penetrate skin at speed for quickest results. However this does mean that more care must be taken, especially for reactive skin types.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHA) - Also known as salicylic acid, which is considered milder than AHAs and best for skin that is acne or blackhead prone as it penetrates pores.
  • Poly hydroxy acids (PHA) - These include lactobionic acid and gluconolactone, which are gentler with slower results, but less likely to irritate sensitive or reactive skins.
  • Fruit enzymes - These are proteins like those found in papaya, pineapple or berries, that are also deemed gentler than AHAs and BHAs. 

How do I exfoliate safely?

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to exfoliation. How you incorporate it into your routine really depends on your unique skin conditions. At home, the key is that you should be carefully exfoliating to aid the natural shedding process, not roughly stripping off multiple layers.

Those with sensitive skin types should be exfoliating less frequently with milder chemical or softer physical exfoliants, rather than anything highly concentrated or granular. Exfoliation isn’t usually recommended for certain skin conditions, including rosacea, active acne, sunburn or open wounds. In these cases, proceed with caution as exfoliation could aggravate these further and potentially cause post inflammation hyperpigmentation.

Those with more resilient skin types can exfoliate more often and use heavier duty tools and chemical peels. It's also possible to use a combination of both physical and chemical exfoliation, depending on your skin, age and preferences. Resilience aside, anything at the clinical end of either exfoliation types, should still be approached with extra care and in consultation with professionals.

In all cases, the technique and pressure for mechanical exfoliation shouldn’t cause pain or redness. Ideally use gentle, circular motions and avoid the eye area. Watch out for granular exfoliants with pieces that are too large or sharp, as these can cause micro-tears in your skin. ‘Too much of a good thing’ definitely applies, as over exfoliation can cause red, sore and flaking skin – potentially doing more harm than good.

Last, but not least, it’s super important to moisturise after exfoliation and protect your skin with a high SPF sunscreen during the day. Get extra bonus points by adding the right serum into the mix to fully reap the rewards of exfoliation done well!

What about exfoliation and the environment?

At skoosh skin, we believe in minimising our environmental footprint where possible, so we think it's important to take these considerations:

  • Exfoliate with natural ingredients - avoid plastic microbeads which end up polluting our oceans’ ecosystems
  • Use biodegradable and reusable tools - such as wooden brushes, cotton muslins and sea sponges

Skin type defines the means and frequency to exfoliate

Ultimately, we know that exfoliation is core to an effective facial skin routine, but how you do it is even more important. Not all exfoliation products are made the same and how you react to them is unique to your skin. And we shouldn’t forget about using the right products after exfoliation; in order to rake in the benefits of absorbent, just-exfoliated skin. Let our quiz do the heavy lifting of figuring out the best skincare routine for you and make it an all-round resurfacing win – give it a go and check out your *boost* & *treat* results for your exfoliating options!

  1. Grajqevci-Kotori M, Kocinaj A. “Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience”. Med Arch. 2015 Dec; 69(6): 414–416. PMID: 26843737
  2. Jackson A. “Chemical peels”. Facial Plast Surg. 2014 Feb;30(1):26-34. PMID: 24488634
  3. Packianathan N, Kandasamy R. “Skin Care with Herbal Exfoliants”. Functional Plant Science and Biotechnology 5, 2011: 94-97
  4. American Academy of Dermatology. “How to exfoliate safely”. https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-secrets/routine/safely-exfoliate-at-home
  5. Healthline. “What does it mean to exfoliate? Why you should and how to start”. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/meaning-of-exfoliating#how-to-choose-an-exfoliant
  6. Dr Harold Lancer (MD FAAD), 2019, “7 ways to improve the appearance of scarring”, https://www.netdoctor.co.uk/beauty/skincare/a26570/what-you-can-do-about-scarring/

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