Exfoliation 101

A Beginner’s Guide to Exfoliation:

As an Aesthetician, a question I constantly get asked is “what is one thing I can do to help my skin?” The truth, there isn’t just one way. There are several golden skin rules to abide by and never stray from. Besides the most important, always wear sunscreen (don’t even get me started), always cleanse, and always properly moisturize your face before bed (you lose a lot of moisture while you sleep). But, most importantly…


There are two types of exfoliants; physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants use a physical median to slough off dead skin cells at the surface while chemical exfoliants use chemicals. Often an AHA or BHA, these chemicals penetrate the corneum via the intercellular cement (consisting of ceramics, lipids, glycoproteins, and active enzymes) and chemically dissolves the intercellular glue that holds skin cells together, allowing new cells to come to the surface. Here’s the thing, as you age, your skin regenerates at a much slower rate. Babies regenerate the outermost layer in about 14 days, the same regeneration process takes up to about 40 days in a 50 year old. This is why exfoliation is so important. It loosens the glue that holds skin cells together, allowing new skin to come to the surface. Exfoliation is not only beneficial to aging skin, but beneficial to overall skin health. I recommend exfoliating to all of my clients; acneic, aging, dry, oily, you name it. Often times I will have a client purchase a new product, within a week they come back and say “it doesn’t work”, this goes hand in hand with having a general understanding of the skin’s natural process. Your skin needs time to get acclimated to a product and go through an entire cycle to see if there is a change. Patience is key people, these things take time.

Now, I remember my first exfoliating experience. I was about 15 and all of my girlfriends were using this apricot scrub (which I will not name). I immediately begged my parents to go out and buy this scrub at the local CVS. I was so excited to try it, I quickly squirted out a massive glob of this sweet smelling scrub and went to town. I violently scrubbed my face raw. “ah, clean skin” I thought…Nope. The thing you have to be extremely careful with when purchasing a physical exfoliant is what you are exfoliating with. There are many environmentally friendly “natural” scrubs people use that have ground seeds, much like the apricot scrub, which sounds good in theory, and may feel great on your skin, but the problem is, they may be causing microscopic tears in the top layer of your skin due to the natural jagged, coarse, edges. This may allow bacteria to enter into deeper layers, causing inflammation and skin stress (which leads to aging). When pores are inflamed, they swell and close at the opening, allowing no oxygen in, which allows bacteria to flourish. This makes it more difficult for white blood cells to do their job, causing more breakouts ( we know how this story goes). So, when it comes to scrubs, be super careful. If you’re set on that “scrubby” feeling, go for something like jojoba beads, or a rice enzyme exfoliant, (enzymes have a proteolytic effect and induce superficial exfoliation on the cells of the outer layer of your skin). This particular type of exfoliation is good for very sensitive skin types or people who are often inflamed and irritated, but want to exfoliate.

The most common chemical exfoliants (don’t be afraid by the word ‘chemical’) are BHA’s and AHA’s. AHA’s (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) are naturally occurring carboxylic acids (and have a smaller molecule than BHA’s making them better for fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, scarring, etc.). They consist of Glycolic acid (natural constituent of sugar cane juice), Lactic acid (found in sour milk and tomato juice), Malic acid (derived from apple and sour fruit), Mandelic acid (derived from extract of sour almonds), Tartaric acid (derived from grapes), and Citric acid (derived from citric fruit). BHA’s (Beta Hydroxy Acids) are a group of acids developed long ago for acne treatment.  They’re comprised of Salicylic acid (derived from bark of the willow tree and white willow), benzoic acid, butyric acid, and other lesser known acids. BHA’s, most commonly, Salicylic acid, are a key ingredient in many skin care products for the treatment of acne. Salicylic acid has a larger molecule than the AHA’s (Glycolic being the smallest), which allows it to penetrate into your pores, not as deep as other acids, opening clogged pores, neutralizing bacteria within those pores, and helping with excess oil without purging the skin of moisture (which in turn causes over production of oil).

Every time I mention “chemical exfoliation” clients get freaked out. The concentration and ph of these acids available for consumers are not high enough to cause any sort of peeling or frosting like many think of when they think “acid” or “chemical peel”. But, this does not mean you shouldn’t be more careful, especially if you don’t already exfoliate. You may experience more sensitivity, especially when in the sun (always wear sunscreen, I’ll say it again). If you do experience a lot of redness, irritation, or inflammation, stop using the product (for real, because that’s not normal). If you have cystic acne, I do not suggest exfoliating at home without your dermatologists consent, as this can spread more bacteria, cause more inflammation, etc.

So, this is basically just an opening to exfoliation, I will get more in depth with specific ingredients, chemical peels, mechanical exfoliation, etc., as time goes on. But this is a great start!


A few of my favorite exfoliants are:

Grown Alchemist Enzyme Exfoliant

Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant

Derma E Overnight AHA Peel

1,000 Roses Pearl exfoliator




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