There are two general classes of exfoliators: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliation products remove dead skin cells by physically abrading them with either a cleansing cloth or a scrub containing sand, salt or synthetic beads. Chemical exfoliators contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic and salicylic acid, beta hydroxy acids or retinoic acid (retinol).
Most dermatologists prefer chemical agents because they penetrate deeper and have the added benefit of stimulating cell renewal and collagen synthesis. The result? Increased radiance. But chemical exfoliators are not for everyone. Those with sensitive skin (and those with rosacea) may find this class of products too harsh. Similarly, if you have dry skin, chemical polishers may be more exfoliation than your skin can handle.
Most skin types benefit from a gentle to moderate mechanical scrub. Whether your skin is oily, combination, acne-prone or slightly dry, it’s a matter of tuning into the right frequency.
After using your exfoliating product, your skin should be a pleasant pink and have a slight tingling sensation. If skin is red, peeling, burning or painful, you're being overzealous and should reduce the frequency of treatments or consider a gentler product.
How often should I exfoliate?
Twice daily – that's the aim, according to Kellett and Dr. David Orentreich, a dermatologist at Clinique. "It's better to exfoliate twice a day using mild or moderate exfoliation than to exfoliate once a week with an extremely harsh process," says Orentreich. "Exfoliation is comparable to exercise; it's better to follow a moderate program regularly than to overdo it randomly."
If you are new to exfoliation or have sensitive skin or an inflammatory condition (acne or rosacea), your skin may need some training before launching into daily exfoliation. Start using an exfoliating product every other day and work up from there, says Kellett. Once the skin has grown accustomed to regular exfoliating, you may want to increase the weight of your regimen.
Exfoliating masks and peels designed for occasional use typically rely on AHAs (including salicylic and lactic acids), while at-home microdermabrasion kits use a combination of mechanical scrub and chemical peel to strip the skin of dead cells with more rigour than a daily product might for that extra boost of radiance.
Exfoiating dos and don'ts
DON'T exfoliate before you cleanse; doing so will remove makeup and dirt but not the dead skin cells responsible for pore blockage and dull tone.
DO use an exfoliating cleanser, one that gently cleans away dirt and debris while simultaneously sloughing dead skin cells.
DON'T press hard; when using granular scrubs or exfoliating cloths, mild pressure is all that's required. "You want to let the product do the work," says Kellett.
DON'T double-dip. "If you're using a loofah, don't also use an exfoliating gel or cleanser," warns Kellett. "That's overdoing it." Similarly, if you use a cleansing scrub, don't follow it with a glycolic-acid-, retinol- or AHA-based moisturizer unless under the direction of a dermatologist.
DO hydrate your skin immediately after exfoliation. Moisturizers are most effective after dead surface cells have been whisked away.
DO wear sunscreen, particularly after exfoliating, a process that removes a protective layer of skin. "I tell all my patients to wear SPF 30 every day," says Kellett.
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This story was originally titled "Refresh Daily" in the March 2006 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!