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Everything you need to know about exfoliating your way to glowing skin

11 November 2021

To scrub or not to scrub? With the rise of exfoliating acids and peels, it’s the question on the lips of all those on a quest for luminous skin.

WORDS BY Fashion Quarterly New Zealand

It’s an all too familiar feeling for most of us. Spring rolls around, yet that once luminous, dewy complexion has long departed. Instead of a beaming glow, it’s a dull, dehydrated visage that emerges along with a change in season. 

As a result, we seek solace in our skincare routines. It’s second nature to not only slather on the richest moisturiser we can find but to repeatedly reach for an exfoliating product that promises to work wonders on our skin and restore luminosity in an instant. And although it seems like it should be a reasonably straightforward equation—that to exfoliate away dead, dull skin cells will result in glowing, healthy skin—according to the skin experts, it’s not that simple.

Too much of a good thing

 “Some hold the belief that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better,” says Emma Hobson, Dermalogica’s director of education Asia Pacific, “However, this does not apply when using exfoliants,” she says.

As tempting as it is to reach for your chosen exfoliator day after day, when dehydrated skin comes knocking, over-exfoliating can compromise skin health. Add an exfoliating session to a compromised skin barrier, and radiant skin won’t be the result.

 As Hobson explains, you’re likely to end up with an unhappy, angry complexion. “Over-exfoliation can disrupt our skin’s barrier function resulting in the skin becoming sensitised, dehydrated, and irritated,” she says. And that’s only the beginning. We might think a skincare routine abundant in powerful exfoliating options will equate to a more youthful complexion, but Hobson explains that misusing exfoliators can have the opposite effect. “Long term overuse can cause pigmentation issues and premature ageing,” she explains. 

It’s a point of view that Murad’s Australasia Pacific education manager Katy Bacon shares. “We can most definitely over-exfoliate,” she says. When we don’t follow up exfoliation by replenishing the skin with nourishing and hydrating ingredients and instead reach for another scrub or chemical exfoliant, we can damage our skin. Exfoliate too much too often, and Bacon says that irritated, over-processed skin with increased signs of premature ageing could become a problem. Avoid exfoliating all together, and the contrary isn’t going to be the result you’re after either.

“If you don’t exfoliate, the skin can become dull and thickened in appearance,” explains Hobson. Skimp on exfoliating, and Hobson says skin can become congested, resulting in pesky unwanted breakouts.

Getting it right

Given that both under and over-exfoliating can be problematic for our skin, how do we find that sweet spot? First, it’s essential to understand how exfoliation works and what the benefits are. To put it simply, Bacon explains that exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. “Exfoliation is a beneficial part of keeping our skin in optimal condition,” says Bacon. “Exfoliating helps replenish skin by buffing away dead cells allowing a better penetration of our hydrating products while encouraging new cells to come to the surface.”  

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While our skin cells do shed naturally, this process does tend to slow as we age and it needs a little helping hand to speed things up. “As we age, our skin cell turnover is naturally slower, which results in dullness, deeper lines and uneven texture and tone,” Bacon says. Regardless of age or skin type, exfoliators can give this process a little kickstart. “Exfoliation can lead to brighter skin, fewer clogged pores, and less visible lines and wrinkles,” she says. “The beauty of exfoliation is it helps the skin renew at a faster rate for smoother texture and increased radiance,” explains Bacon

Understanding the benefits of exfoliating is the easy part of the equation. Deciding which exfoliating product to spend your hard-earned cash is where things can get tricky. “You can exfoliate in a variety of ways,” says Bacon. “From using a chemical exfoliant—think alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids—to using a granular scrub,” she explains. 

In the beauty world scrubs are often referred to as physical or mechanical exfoliators. “Most scrubs rely primarily on the function of physical exfoliation, sweeping away superficial loosened dead skin cells. Think your jojoba beads, silica, coffee grounds, and apricot scrubs,” explains Bacon. Hobson says scrubs—aka physical exfoliators —tend to be very quick to use. “And they’re ideal for teens, oily, or combination skin that isn’t sensitive and also thickened skin.”

On the other hand, while physical exfoliators work on the surface of the skin to slough away dead skin cells, chemical exfoliators work to loosen deeper surface cells, says Bacon.

The real peel: not sure where to start when it comes to chemical exfoliators? These four FQ favourites will help you get a luminous complexion without irritating skin.

Know your acids 

 While physical exfoliators are relatively straightforward to understand, chemical exfoliators can be somewhat perplexing. And the profusion of skincare peels and acids launched in recent years hasn’t helped. The popularity of chemical exfoliators, explains Hobson, is all down to the rise of professional peels and our desire to access and use products at home that will have a similar effect on our skin. 

Bacon says the savviness of today’s beauty consumer has also contributed to the abundance of peels and acids we see on the shelves. “People are becoming very savvy about their skincare and understanding of skin,” she says. “Thanks to social media, chemical exfoliants have become the normal go-to in any sophisticated at-home routine,” she adds. The appeal of a chemical exfoliant, explains Bacon, is that not only does it exfoliate but it also stimulates hydration and evens and brightens skin tone. “Simply put, you get more bang for your buck with a chemical exfoliant.” 

If you’re new to chemical exfoliators, the thought of putting anything with ‘acid’ or ‘peel’ in the product name might be a little terrifying. But as both Bacon and Hobson explain, many of the acids found in chemical exfoliators come from naturally occurring sources. “Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are naturally occurring substances found in various fruits, sugar cane, and sour milk,” says Bacon. Glycolic acid, she explains, is an AHA found in sugar cane, and has been safely used in skincare since the early ‘80s, and continues to be used in many Murad products today. Lactic acid—a substance found in fermented dairy products and an AHA you’ll see listed in chemical exfoliators—is another ingredient used for quite some time. Most of us are familiar with the tale of Cleopatra who used to bathe in milk to keep her skin soft and youthful. “Lactic acid is another AHA that can help with hyperpigmentation, dark spots, sun-damaged skin, fine lines, and a dull complexion,” says Bacon.

Whether it’s glycolic acid or lactic acid that’s in your favourite exfoliator, AHAs all work in the same way to loosen the bonds that hold the top layers of dead skin cells, says Bacon. The end result, explains Hobson, is the skin has an enhanced ability to boost cell turnover and remove dead skin, revealing a younger, smoother and more luminous complexion.  “The great thing about these exfoliating acids is they not only affect the upper layers of the skin but impact the lower dermal layers too, helping to keep skin looking and feeling youthful.  Research has shown AHAs enhance collagen density and dermal thickness whilst promoting increased collagen and hyaluronic acid levels,” Hobson adds. 

Common beta-hydroxy acids include salicylic and citric acid. “Salicylic acid occurs naturally in willow bark, sweet birch, and wintergreen, but the majority of manufacturers tend to use a synthetic form for its stability and purity,” explains Hobson. And while they tend to work in the same way AHAs do, Bacon says there is one key difference. “The main difference between AHAs and BHAs is oil solubility,” she explains. “AHAs are water-soluble only, while BHAs are oil soluble. This means AHAs stay on the surface of the skin, whereas BHAs get down into the pores to cut through pore-clogging oil.”

Let your skin guide you

Deciding whether you opt for an AHA or BHA-based formula largely depends on your skin type. “AHAs are incredible for skin showing signs of ageing, such as fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and dullness, or sun damage,” says Bacon. But BHAs have their benefits, too—especially if you’re prone to unwanted breakouts. “BHAs have incredible antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties,” she explains. “This combined with their ability to penetrate the pores makes them perfect for treating acne-prone skin and blackheads.”

Of course, deciphering your skin type can be tricky to start with, which is why it’s sometimes a wise idea to get some expert advice, says Hobson. “I am a great advocate of seeking the advice of a professional skin therapist who can diagnose your skin and advise the correct chemical exfoliant you need,” she explains. Hobson says that there’s more to consider than just the type of acid you use: the quality of any given chemical exfoliator is crucial too. It’s about what else is in the product, who was the manufacturer, and the quality of the product prescribed.

Regardless of what exfoliating acid you settle on, introducing them into your skincare routine gradually will guarantee the best results. “Introduce your skin to AHAs and BHAs slowly,” advises Bacon. If the product is designed to be used daily, then instead of using them every day, Bacon suggests using them every other day and seeing how your skin responds. “Once your skin acclimates, you should be able to start using them every day,” she says. 

But of course, it’s essential to follow the recommended usage guidelines for any given skincare product. Unfortunately, there is no easy rule as for how often we should be reaching for our exfoliators.  That’s why both Hobson and Bacon suggest always following the product recommendations, especially where chemical exfoliators are concerned. “Some may recommend daily use, for others weekly. Everyone’s skin will always respond differently. If you are using a product as indicated and you feel sensitised, then pull back to using it once a week,” Bacon advises. 

Both Hobson and Bacon stress the importance of teaming exfoliators with a thorough skincare routine. Not only is rehydrating and nourishing the skin with hydrating products, antioxidants and barrier protectors crucial to a healthy complexion, SPF needs to be applied religiously regardless of the season. “Using AHAs and BHAs does make your skin more vulnerable to damage from the sun, a concern with any kind of exfoliating treatment. So always follow with an SPF during the day.”

Regardless of what approach you decide to take—whether it’s a physical exfoliant, chemical exfoliant, or combination of the two—Bacon says the most important thing you can do is trust your skin. “Ideally, you should exfoliate two to three times per week so you don’t irritate and over-exfoliate your skin. But, some products have been specially designed for daily use even on the most sensitive skin types, while being powerful enough to deliver visibly radiant skin,” she explains. “Always research your chosen product and check if the indicated use is right for you. Whether you love a scrub or an acid exfoliant, let your skin be the guide.”

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