Exfoliation has now become synonymous with skincare. From chemical to mechanical exfoliation, it’s impossible to enter a beauty store without seeing them. But what does exfoliation actually mean for your skin? How much is too much, and when should you exfoliate? With so many differing opinions on the validity of exfoliation, we decided to investigate and break down the need-to-know facts on exfoliation.
The history of exfoliation dates back to Ancient Egypt and Asia, specifically the Qing Dynasty & the Middle Ages. Cleopatra was known for her extravagant beauty routines and routinely sought out cutting edge remedies to aid her skin, and reduce balding (she famously searched for this remedy while dating the then balding Ceasar). Cleopatra recommended a paste of burned mice, rags, horse’s teeth, bear fat & deer marrow to cure Caesar's balding head. The ingredients were to be used in equal proportions, mixed with honey and rubbed on the head. Safe to say, the remedy didn’t work and to her dismay Cesar remained bald, sorry Celopatra. If bear fat and horse teeth are sold out at your local Trader Joe’s (don’t you hate it when that happens) no fear, keep reading to learn about the best exfoliators for you.
For exfoliation Cleopatra routinely soaked in a bath of soured donkey milk. Although this might sound well, gross it was one of the first accounts of chemical exfoliation. Ancient Egyptians quickly realized that when milk sours, the milk sugar lactose is converted by bacteria into lactic acid. When alpha hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid, are applied to the skin they cause the surface layer to peel off, leaving new smoother blemish-free skin underneath.
Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliation
Physical exfoliation is when one uses brushes, scrubs, or exfoliating beads found in face scrubs. The act of sloughing away the top layer of your skin by brute force has been proven to do more harm than good. The risk with physical exfoliation is at a microscopic level, using brushes and exfoliating sponges can create micro-tears on the surface of your skin that can lead to irritation and possible infection. In some cases of extremely dull & dry skin, physical exfoliation is required to remove the layer of dead skin cells from the face. However, if you suffer from acne, rosacea, sensitive skin, eczema, and other skin conditions, physical exfoliation might not be the best option.
Chemical exfoliation is regarded as the safer and more effective way to rid your body of dead skin cells and encourage cell turnover. This mode of exfoliating uses different types of acids and to slowly dissolve and remove dead skin cells. The most common chemical exfoliants are: BHAs, AHAs, and various forms of Retinol (Vitamin A). AHAs and BHAs both work as exfoliants, but they work in different ways.
BHAS (Beta Hydroxy Acids): The most common type of BHA found in skincare products is salicylic acid, which is an effective first line of defense for stubborn acne. BHA is desmolytic in structure, meaning they loosen and break the attachment between skin cells. This process causes the formation of new cells while exfoliating the epidermis, or the outer layer of the skin.
AHAS (Alpha Hydroxy Acids): The most common AHA is Glycolic acid, which works by reducing the concentration of calcium ions in the skin. This promotes the shedding of skin cells at the surface.
Which Exfoliant Should I Use?
Overall, we would recommend using exfoliants on an as-needed basis. Your skin naturally exfoliates itself. Consider your microbiome a little factory on your skin, producing enzymes itself that remove dead skin cells.
Physical exfoliation is not recommended for anyone with sensitive skin. Many time the beads used in exfoliating scrubs create micro tears, plus many are made from plastics. Plastic beads end up in our drains, straight to our oceans and water supply. There are some biodegradable exfoliating scrubs, but be sure to patch test on our skin to ensure it is not harming your skin barrier.
In 2015, the Microbead-Free Water act was passed which "established that companies were no longer allowed to manufacture products containing microbeads as of July 2017. Stores were prohibited from selling beauty products containing microbeads as of July 2018. Microbeads in holistic/natural health products and non-prescription drugs were banned in 2019." However, some quick research shows that most exfoliating bead scrubs contain acrylate copolymer, which is undeniably, a plastic. Scrubbing your face with plastic beads is not the best way to take cafe of your skin, or the planet. Be sure to double check ingredients because even when companies claim to be plastic free, the reality is they are still being used.
Chemical exfoliation is not without it’s risks. When beginning to use chemical exfoliants be sure to check the active ingredient concentration. If the concentration is high and your skin is sensitive, it could cause some major microbiome disturbances. Plus, itching, redness & scabbing in severe cases. When in doubt, patch test!
Dr. Elsa Jungman recommends using lactic acids if you are beginning your chemical exfoliation journey. Lactic acid tends to be less abrasive to the skin and achieves the same results as stronger BHAs and AHAs.
What about my Microbiome?
The truth is, your microbiome wants to be left alone. The trillions of bacteria & fungi that call your skin home should naturally “exfoliate” your skin via cell turnover. A robust and healthy microbiome does the work for you. However, we understand sometimes you need an extra boost.
If you choose to use exfoliants be sure to patch test on your skin first & use the exfoliants once a week when beginning your routine. If your skin reacts well, you can use it up to 3 times a week. Be sure to watch out for increased redness, dryness and flakes, these could all be signs that your microbiome is in distress and you should limit your exfoliation.
The world of skincare is changing every day and new research in the world of the microbiome is evolving by the minute. Cleopatra didn’t know anything about her microbiome, but she understood the exfoliating properties of acids and how it can aid cell turnover. The truth is, we’ve spent thousands of years trying to find the best products and ways to help our skin. It’s time we turn to the Rosetta stone of our skin, the Microbiome. If you have been struggling with your skin, consider testing your microbiome with our Skin Microbiome Kit, and learn the scientific breakdown on your skin’s health.