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How to Exfoliate Without Disrupting your Skin Barrier

When done properly, both physical and chemical methods of exfoliation remove dead skin cells to reveal fresh, radiant skin.
02 Jun 2023

Article Overview

  • Exfoliation is an important step in skincare, but it should be done carefully to avoid disrupting the skin barrier.
  • Chemical exfoliation using alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) can effectively remove dead cells without damaging the skin.
  • Physical exfoliation should be done gently, using skincare scrubs or tools with smooth particles to avoid causing harm to the skin.
  • Those with sensitive skin can opt for enzymatic exfoliation, which dissolves dead surface cells without friction or acids.
  • It is important to consider your skin type and the method of exfoliation when incorporating it into your skincare routine, and to moisturize afterwards to restore hydration and reinforce the skin barrier.

The skin is always repairing and replacing itself. This natural process is called cellular turnover and as new, fresh cells are produced, older damaged cells make their way to the surface. But when they get there, these dead cells have a tendency to stick around without the help of skincare-based exfoliation.

However, these dead cells play a critical role in the skin’s barrier function, so it’s important to be mindful when incorporating exfoliation into your skincare routine. Although exfoliation is an effective way to improve skin texture and tone, finding the ideal method and frequency for your skin type is how to exfoliate safely.

What is Exfoliation?

Exfoliation removes dead cells and reveals fresh, new skin. A variety of approaches can be used to enhance the skin’s natural desquamation process, which triggers the production of new cells in the lower layers of the skin as those on the surface detach and shed.

Removing dead surface cells with exfoliation helps reveal smoother and more radiant skin. As a result, exfoliation helps improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, age spots, and superficial scars while unclogging pores, minimizing pore visibility, and enhancing the absorption of skincare ingredients. As the skin ages, its rate of cellular turnover slows, and exfoliation can help accelerate the process.

There are two main methods of exfoliation: Chemical and physical. Chemical exfoliation uses alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and/or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) to loosen the “glue” that keeps dead cells attached to the skin’s surface. Physical exfoliation is also known as manual or mechanical exfoliation, and this method uses a skincare scrub or tool to remove the build-up of dead cells.

How to Exfoliate with Chemical-Based Ingredients

Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) are generally derived from fruits or plants. They penetrate the upper layers of the skin and break the bonds that hold dead cells together so they can shed more easily. Glycolic acid in particular has also been shown to promote the skin’s natural collagen production as well.

Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) work differently than AHAs. These acids take a layer-by-layer approach to exfoliation, and the most common are salicylic acid and lipo-hydroxy acid. BHAs are attracted to oil, so they can penetrate the pores and breakdown the cells inside the follicles that can contribute to acne formation. BHAs are also safe and effective for melanin-rich skin.

Chemical exfoliation is generally well-tolerated by all skin types, including sensitive and blemish-prone.

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SkinCeuticals Product to Try: LHA Serum

In addition to salicylic acid that targets the pore congestion that contributes to acne formation, this daily-use serum is also formulated with AHAs to improve visible signs of skin aging such as fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone.

How to Exfoliate the Skin Physically

Manual exfoliation can include scrubs, skincare tools, or even using a washcloth while cleansing the face. These methods remove dead skin cells with friction, and skincare scrubs are formulated with fine, non-dissolvable particles to achieve this goal. The actual type of particle used can also make a difference. Naturally-derived particles such as ground nut shells, pits, or seeds can have an irregular shape and sharp edges that can damage the skin. Scrubs with particles that have a smooth surface are how to exfoliate physically while being gentle on the skin and its barrier.

When opting for physical exfoliation, it’s essential to avoid scrubbing too hard or doing it too often as this can result in skin-barrier damage that leads to irritation. It’s also important to keep in mind that physical exfoliation may be too irritating for sensitized or inflamed acne-prone skin.

Physical exfoliation is generally best two to three times a week for those with normal, oily, and dry skin. Consider these tips for maximum results and minimal irritation when using a manual skincare scrub.

  • Apply a small amount to wet skin, or mix with a regular cleanser for extra-mild exfoliation
  • Massage using light, circular motions for approximately 30 seconds
  • Rinse thoroughly with warm water and gently pat skin dry
  • Follow with a hydrating serum, cream, or mask

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SkinCeuticals Product to Try: Micro-Exfoliating Scrub

This gentle exfoliating scrub features naturally-derived hydrated silica to lift and remove dead cells, excess oil, and debris from the skin. It is also enhanced with hydrating glycerin and soothing aloe barbadensis leaf extract.

How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

If you have sensitive or sensitized skin, gentle exfoliation can help reinforce the skin barrier. In addition to chemical and physical exfoliation, enzymatic exfoliation is another option that does not utilize friction or acids. Enzyme-based exfoliants work by dissolving dead surface cells, and are well-tolerated by sensitive and sensitized skin types.

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SkinCeuticals Product to Try: Retexturing Activator

Designed to gently exfoliate while simultaneously hydrating and reinforcing the skin barrier, this oil-free daily-use serum offers the resurfacing power of 20% glycolic acid. Its benefits include improvement in the appearance of surface lines, skin smoothness, and radiance for all skin types.

How to Exfoliate Gently While Protecting the Skin Barrier

Before you incorporate a new method of exfoliation into your regular skincare routine, keep these points in mind.

  • Look at the skincare products you are already using. Over-the-counter ingredients like retinol and benzoyl peroxide, and prescription-based retinoids can make the skin more sensitive to exfoliation, and potentially lead to dryness, irritation, or breakouts.
  • Find the method of exfoliation that’s best for your unique skin. Those with dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin may want to start with mild chemical exfoliation, while those with oily or thicker skin may be able to better tolerate physical or stronger chemical-based exfoliation. If you have darker skin, avoid any type of aggressive exfoliation, especially if you have a tendency to develop dark spots after a blemish, burn, or bug bite.
  • Never exfoliate skin that has open wounds or actively healing blemishes, or has experienced a recent sunburn.
  • Always moisturize after exfoliating to restore hydration and reinforce the skin barrier.
  • Tailor your exfoliation frequency to your skin type and the method you’re using. In general, the more aggressive the exfoliation, the less often it needs to be performed. Over-exfoliating is sure to lead to red, irritated skin.
  • Use warm water—not hot. Too-hot water is harsh on the skin and can cause dryness and irritation.

To discover the ideal method of exfoliation for your unique skin, use our online Routine Finder, visit one of our SkinCeuticals SkinLab locations, or schedule an appointment with a SkinCeuticals Skincare Professional for a one-on-one consultation.

Next: What is trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL)

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