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Exfoliants are used to slough away the dead skin cells on the surface, revealing the plumper, healthier looking skin cells underneath. Using a facial exfoliant encourages faster cell turnover and unclogs the pores. This prepares the skin to better absorb any moisturiser or specialist treatment that is applied afterwards.

Know your skin types – exfoliants

Combination/Normal skin. Combination/Normal skins should exfoliate once to twice a week to maintain a healthy skin tone.

Dry skin. Dry skins should exfoliate once a week so as not to cause irritation.

Oily skin. Oily skins can be exfoliated once to twice a week to stop the build up of dead skin cells clogging the pores, but take care not to over do it and cause irritation. Always use a gentle exfoliant rather than a harsh scrub.

Sensitive skin. Use an exfoliant that is specifically designed for sensitive skin and doesn’t contain potential allergens such as synthetic fragrances or dyes. If your skin is red or hyper-exfoliating (flaking) allow it time to calm down before using any type of exfoliant.

Mature skin. Mature skins should exfoliate once a week to maintain a healthy skin tone. The use of a Retinoid or an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) could benefit this skin type.

There are two basic types of exfoliants: mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical exfoliants

Mechanical exfoliants contain ingredients that physically scrub the skin to remove dead skin cells. The disadvantage of these exfoliants is that the granules in some products can cause irritation, redness, and even tiny cuts on the surface of the skin which can lead to infections and further skin problems. It is important when using a mechanical exfoliant to keep the pressure even all over the skin and not scrub harder in the “T” zone as this can cause flaking and uneven tone.

The scrubbing particles used in the product determine how mild or harsh the exfoliant is. Here are some common exfoliating granules found in mechanical exfoliants:

  • Sodium tetraborate decahydrate granules (the mildest abrasive because the granules soften and dissolve when they get wet)
  • Polyethylene silica or beads (mild because the beads are perfectly round with no jagged edges)
  • Calcium carbonate (harsh because the particles are different sizes and gritty)
  • Ground seeds, such as apricot, almond and walnut seeds (harsh because they have sharp, rough edges)
  • Aluminum oxide (harsh because of its rough edges)

Chemical exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants rely on a chemical reaction as apposed to a physical “scrubbing” of the skin to remove dead cells. Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in chemical exfoliants. Salicylic acid removes dead skin cells by causing the cells to shed more readily, opens clogged pores and neutralizes the bacteria within, briefly constricts the pore diameter this prevents the pores from re-clogging, and allows room for new cell growth.

There is an enormous push in the current beauty and dermatology industries for the use of cosmeceuticals such as Retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids or AHA’s. These chemical peels or fruit acid peels have an exfoliating effect on the skin and it is believed that they improve the effects of sun damage, acne, fine wrinkles, dryness and redness.

Expert opinions

Prof. Albert Klein of the Medicine and Dermatology unit at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine on the Huffington Post: “Abrasive scrubbers and exfoliants are best for cleaning the floor and can actually harm the skin. Beads, walnut husks, brushes, and rough sponges all belong in the trash and not on your face. As with anything regarding the face; it must be GENTLE and non-abrasive. Anything that scrubs is abrasive and I would caution against it. Do not tug, rub or squeeze the face and when drying with a cloth, pat the skin dry; do NOT rub.”

Dr Lisa Kellett, MD of DLK on Avenue Dermatology Clinic, Toronto on SkinLibrary: “Ideally, one wants to strike a balance between removing dead cells without irritating the skin. This can easily be accomplished by using some of the products that are available on the market such as cleansers, microdermabrasion scrubs (winch can be used once or twice a week) and topical alpha hydroxy acid creams. Commercially available exfoliants are mild enough for regular use when following the manufacturer’s directions. However, even a washcloth or loofah sponge can be used to exfoliate the skin as long as one is gentle. It is also important to choose a product destined for the area you wish to exfoliate: a facial exfoliant will be much milder than one for the heels of your feet. Overly aggressive exfoliation by any of these methods can lead to skin damage.”

Dr Jefferey Benabio of the DermBlog: “Over scrubbing with physical or chemical facial scrubs will not clean your pores, reduce your skin’s oiliness, decrease your acne, or give you a permanent healthy glow. It will however make your skin red, irritated, and raw. Remember, everything in moderation.”