The Importance of Exfoliation as We Age

The lower layers of the skin create new cells which migrate to the surface of the skin and become more acidic in the process. It takes around 30 days for skin to move from the lower to the upper levels, a process that is characterized by not just even skin growth, but also the shedding of the dead skin cells. As a result of aging, shedding becomes uneven, leading to rough, dry and dull skin. Manual exfoliation allows the dead skin cells to be removed consistently, providing an even skin tone.

In turn, you will enjoy the benefits of a fresh, glowing complexion. Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cells from the surface of the skin via chemical and/or mechanical means. Exfoliant treatments are available in spas and salons, as well as for home use.

Exfoliation offers other benefits, such as:

  • It prepares skin to absorb other skin care products such as retinols and vitamins more effectively.
  • It exposes the hair follicles, thus, allowing for a closer shave in both men and women.
  • It boosts blood circulation and lymph flow.
  • It helps in the reduction of fine lines since dead skin cells are removed from the outer layers, as long as over-exfoliation does not take place.
  • It brightens the appearance of dull, pigmented, devitalized skin.

Indeed, as much as your skin needs nourishment, it also requires exfoliation so as to eliminate the old to make way for the new skin.

However, whilst removing the top layer of dead skin cells does produce an ‘anti-wrinkle’ effect, it also removes valuable antioxidants, particularly Vitamins C and E, from the skin and increases sensitivity to sunlight. These side-effects can be minimized by applying exfoliants at night after cleansing your skin, then applying an antioxidant-rich moisturizer. Upon waking, wash your face and neck to clear away dead skin cells, and then apply a moisturizer and sunscreen. Use exfoliants for six to 12 weeks at a time, and then give your skin a chance to recover and become less sun-sensitive.

What are the Actions of Exfoliants?

The actions of an exfoliant depend on its type. A physical exfoliant removes dead skin cells through mechanical actions such as polishing, scrubbing and rubbing. These types of exfoliants may use ingredients such as beads and granules although a loofah can work just as well. Care should be taken not to over use these products and create too much friction on the skin which could lead to irritation and sensitivity.

On the other hand, a chemical exfoliant dissolves bonds between the dead cells in the skin surface, through the use of chemicals or enzymes, allowing the dead cells to be shed easily through natural processes of with the assistance of a physical exfoliant.

What are My Exfoliant Options?

As previously mentioned, exfoliants come in two types. Physical exfoliants include ingredients jojoba beads, salt, sugar, microbeads, rice, or particles of pumice stone. You can buy physical exfoliants in scrubs and pads that contain one or more of the above mentioned ingredients in almost all supermarkets, drug stores and beauty shops. You may also choose exfoliation services like microdermabrasion, which involves the use of micro-crystals to remove the outer layer of dead cells, from beauty spas and dermatological clinics.

Chemical exfoliants use acids like AHA or alpha hydroxy acids (such as citric or glycolic acid), beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid) or retinoids, alongside enzymes from fruits such as papaya (papain) and pineapple (bromelain). These clear the dead skin cells and stimulate collagen renewal and GAG synthesis. The net result is an appreciable reduction in the appearance of wrinkles and a reduction in signs of photo-aging. You can purchase these exfoliating products in various forms like lotions, gels and scrubs.

Most over-the-counter AHA products contain concentrations of 8-15%. Products with concentrations lower than 8% do not result in significant benefits. Higher concentrations (25-50%) are more abrasive and should be administered under the supervision of a dermatologist.

Don’t use skin products containing AHAs or PHAs at the same time as using retinoic acid, as this may further increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. For best results, alternate their use with products incorporating AHAs or PHAs on a monthly or six-weekly basis.

What Ingredients Should my Exfoliant Include?

It depends on whether the exfoliant is a prescription or an over-the-counter product. If it is a prescription product, doctors will recommend exfoliants with tretonoin since this is still the strongest chemical exfoliant however care should be taken as sensitivity and irritation can occur so a milder over the counter product may be more appropriate to use on a long term basis.

If an over-the-counter product works best for you, then I suggest looking for the following ingredients:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) including glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids. Ingredients such as glycolic acid aid in not only the removal of dead skin cells but also the encouragement of healthy new cells full of moisture to the skin’s surface.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid, tropic acid, beta-hydroxybutanoic acid and trethocanoic acid are more suitable for a younger, acne prone skin type.

You may have to compare exfoliants to determine which one contains most or all of these ingredients.

What Doses of Ingredients Should my Exfoliant Contain?

Exfoliants usually contain varied formulations of the above mentioned ingredients. The trick is in choosing the best one that best fit your skin type, which will also mean trying out many brands before settling on the exfoliant with the best results in the shortest time possible.

For dry skin, aging skin I suggest going for the chemical exfoliants with AHA such as glycolic acid while oily skin works well with BHA exfoliants such as salicylic acid.

Keep in mind, nonetheless, that it is not just the right product that matters but how often you use it that matters, too. Different skin types require different frequency of use, such that dry skin should be exfoliated once a week, normal and combination skin two times a week and oily skin every other day.

What Should I Look Out for When Selecting an Exfoliant?

As with most skin care products, you have to ensure that the exfoliant chosen is suited for your skin type, is priced reasonably and is safe for long-term use. It does pay to do your research on the best exfoliants before purchasing a few of these products and trying them out.

Other Types of Exfoliation Treatments Available

Skin resurfacing or dermabrasion removes damaged and disorganized outer layers of our skin and yields a ‘polished’ effect that is as much the result of better light reflectivity as it is of better skin quality.

This is usually achieved using a laser on the skin in short bursts, then allowing the skin to restore itself in a healthy way. This can be performed all at once, although better results are achieved by treating a small percentage of our skin’s surface each time (called fractional resurfacing), so healing is quicker and we experience less downtime. Non-ablative lasers can also be used to reduce background skin redness, blotchy patches or the appearance of dilated or swollen blood vessels (erroneously referred to as ‘broken’ capillaries).

Last Reviewed 11/Mar/2014

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Whilst wielding a couple of dumbbells in a gym class in 2003, Kate experienced an epiphany around the lack of accepted best practice guidelines when it came to staying well and avoiding disease. Kate realized that she had no chance of slowing her own aging process unless she became better educated about her options.