Friday, January 13th, 2012

By Laura, 40s, New York, Skincare Contributor

Laura “came of age” in the 80s, so she considers a survivor of some very disturbing fashion and makeup trends, like shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans worn unironically, streaky blush, and thick eyeliner that we softened with a lighter before putting it on–don’t even get her started on what women wore to the gym in those days! She now works in a more conservative field, and she’ll get an odd look or two if she wears crackle nail polish (and she expects we’ll look back on that trend with the same disbelief we now reserve for horizontally-striped leg warmers).


Photo by Darwin Bell

Exfoliation: An Essential Step in Your Skincare Routine

As I’ve posted here before, I have a particularly galling skin type – namely, skin that’s not only middle-aged that I have to worry about fine lines but is still prone to oiliness and breakouts as well. For both issues, I find that exfoliation, which is a fancy word for removing the outer layer of skin, is essential for my skincare routine. Along with Retin-A cream, exfoliation has led to the greatest visible improvement in my skin. (Retin-A, incidentally, is not an exfoliant, contrary to popular belief.)

Exfoliation benefits most skin types, but if you have oily skin like me, you want to exfoliate to avoid blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. Those skin problems result from an overabundance of sebum, which is a waxy substance produced by your skin’s sebaceous glands. Under normal circumstances, sebum is actually a good thing, since it reduces natural water loss from the skin. However, when your sebaceous glands overproduce sebum, it tends to clog the pores, not only with the sebum, but with skin cells and bacteria. By exfoliating–helping the skin cells to shed off your face–you help keep the pore from getting clogged, and with a little luck, no breakouts.

Exfoliation can also benefit sun-damaged skin by removing the thickened layer of skin that results from over-exposure to sun and makes your skin look ashy or sallow. As for dry skin, it can also benefit from exfoliation; the process helps shed skin cells, permitting moister skin cells to surface and make the skin look more dewy. Not incidentally, if you have dry skin, exfoliation will also help your skin absorb moisturizers better, as the dead skin cells fall away and no longer act as a barrier for the moisturizer.

So which exfoliants to use? I prefer chemical exfoliants (alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acid) instead of physical exfoliants (scrubs or plain old washcloths), since the latter don’t penetrate below the surface. For my oily and aging skin, I usually use a BHA, which is salicylic acid (yep, close to what’s in good old aspirin). Unlike AHAs, BHA not only exfoliates the outer layer of skin, but is also fat-soluble rather than water soluble, so that it gets inside the pore to get rid of all the stuff clogging it.

Your BHA product should have a concentration of one to two percent, with a pH of 3 to 4 (roughly as acidic as vinegar).  To be certain you’re getting an effective product, salicylic acid should be high up on the ingredient list. And although I know you’re using sunscreen every single day (you are, right? RIGHT?), you have to be extra careful to use a good sunscreen when you’re using a BHA, because BHAs increase sun sensitivity. My own favorite BHA is Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Gel Exfoliant  ($18.95), which is formulated for oily skin.

I also like to use an AHA product once or twice a week; I notice a definite difference in the suppleness of my skin when I do. Again, you want to make sure your product has the right amount of AHAs to benefit your skin: five to eight percent AHA and a pH of 3 to 4, so that it has enough acidity to be effective (look for fruit acid high on the ingredients list). As with BHA, make very certain you’re using a proper sunscreen, as AHAs can also increase sun sensitivity. My current favorite AHA product is Olay’s Regenerist Night Resurfacing Elixir ($29.99).

A couple of caveats: I don’t use an AHA and BHA together, and I don’t generally exfoliate every night, since I do notice that if I don’t take a little break, my skin will sometimes get flaky–not exactly the look I’m striving for!

What are your favorite exfoliants?

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11 thoughts on “Exfoliation: An Essential Step in Your Skincare Routine

  1. Dame Elizabeth

    A really great post, thanks so much.

    I would like you advice about my situation and when to use what products, if you don’t mind!

    I have mild acne (not cystic, but around 7 blemishes at any time), very large pores, very oily skin.

    For about 5 weeks I have been using the BHA 2% gel, but my blackheads haven’t moved. I am really unsure about when to use what products, for example, when should I moisturise, when should I use the BHA, and when should I use my acne products (adapalene and benzoyl peroxide)?

    Any help would be much welcomed!

    • Erin

      I use Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength Acne Targeted toner. It’s way better for me than the gel because it has ingredients that enhance penetration, so maybe you could try that instead? Whenever I have questions about products I just post them on the Paula’s Choice, Inc. facebook page and they respond right away!

    • Laura H.

      I’m glad the post was helpful!

      I’m not sure why the blackheads haven’t moved after five weeks; the only thing I can suggest there is that you either switch products or use a comedone extractor. I won’t say they’re comfortable to use, but they’re not as bad as they look. I would not (as in REALLY NOT) recommend the kind with the needle; you run the risk or leaving nasty scars or, even worse, infections. I use the one they carry at Sephora, and it’s fine.

      As for the moisturizer, if I understand your question correctly: you want to use moisturizer after the BHA and the benzoyl peroxide. So the order would be: exfoliant (that is, BHA); benzoyl peroxide, moisturizer. The idea is that the exfoliant sort of opens up the skin, so to speak, for everything else to get in. Also, you want to use a moisturizer that’s not too emollient — otherwise, you’ll probably feel too oily. Sometimes in the summer, I use the Olay Regenerist Regenerating Serum as a moisturizer and that’s fine on its own without anything labeled “moisturizer.”

      When I was using benzoyl peroxide (I haven’t used it for a few years), I liked to apply it only to the blemishes rather than applying it to my entire face; I found it to be pretty strong stuff.

      Hope that helps!

  2. NeenaJ

    I really enjoyed reading this article! I have dry, red “Celtic” skin and find that physical exfoliants are just too harsh for me. I’m currently trying Paula’s Choice 2% BHA lotion for all skin types and am really liking the results.

    How often do you incorporate Retin A into your routine? Just curious as I’m trying to find a good balance for myself and am thinking that once every 7-10 days might be best for me.

    • Laura H.

      I use Retina-A about three times a week, maybe four during the summer when my skin seems to tolerate it a little more (because of the dry NYC weather in winter). I don’t know how old you are, but if you’re younger than I am, which I’m guessing you are, seven to ten days might be fine; since I’m in my mid-40s now I like to go for it a little more often.

  3. AmyD

    thank you for your post, laura! have you tried any aha or bha chemical peels of percentages around 10% or 15%? i’m thinking about purchasing a combo mandelic/salicylic acid peel to use once a week at home, but i’m wondering if that would be too harsh for my skin…

    • Laura H.

      I haven’t tried those yet, although I’m probably not too far away from trying a peel of more than that strength at my dermatologist. You can be sure I’ll be writing about it!

  4. Adelita

    I used to love Paula’s Choice BHA 2% Liquid, Paula’s Choice AHA 8% Solution and use it for more than a year, but now my skin can’t tolerate any salicylic acid & glycolic acid anymore. Looks like my skin sensitivity increases (maybe something to do with aging? Although actually I just turned 27 last week).
    It’s time for me to switch my glycolic acid-AHA to lactic acid or mandelic acid and using retinol instead of BHA.

  5. Teresa

    I started using Skin Laboratories Salicyclic 20% Gel Peel (Amazon $16.95) about 7 weeks ago and I absolutely love it. I have oily skin and break out from time to time and decided to try it to see if it would shrink my pores and help control some of the break outs and it has worked great. I use it every few days depending on how my skin looks. I’ve recently started using a glycolic/latic 35% (Cellbone $20) peel once a week to help fade the dark spots on my face and I love that too! It has menthol extract which makes my face feel amazing and fresh. I make sure my face is clean before I apply them apply and use a fan brush to apply the gel peel to my face. I make sure to apply a nutralizer after and a good moisturizer with an SPF of 30.

  6. Linda

    i have quity dry and dehydred skin. can you suggest some exfoliate product from brands like Bioderma or Dermologica?

  7. Kelli

    You mentioned that you don’t mix AHAs and BHAs – but what about products that mix them? I use the Peter Thomas Roth AHA/BHA Acne Clearing Gel and it has a 10% concentration of both. Is it not as effective or should they not be mixed together? Or is it more a of personal preference. I haven’t had any issues using but just wondered if you had any thoughts? Thanks!