Exfoliation: An Essential Step in Your Skincare Routine

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?