Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

All About Exfoliation March 14, 2010

Everyone needs to exfoliate, and you’ll be delighted with the results if you do.

Why Should You Exfoliate?

First off, the term exfoliation refers to the removal, either by peeling, rubbing, or sloughing off, of dead skin cells on the outer layer of the epidermis -the stratum corneum.  The exfoliant is the product is that helps you with this process.  The benefits of exfoliation are numerous and include:

  • Smoother skin
  • Helps unclog pores – an essential benefit for anyone with acne
  • Improves the skin’s ability to retain moisture
  • Allows for better product penetration
  • Easier make-up application – no caking of your make-up
  • More even toned skin

If you suffer from breakouts exfoliation is a key step in your home skincare routine.  As I discussed in my earlier post How Acne Forms acne begins to form when your pores are clogged with dead skin cells and oil.  People who suffer from acne need to help their bodies slough off the dead skin cells so that they don’t clog the pore and so oil doesn’t get stuck in the pore as well.  Regular exfoliation is the key to keeping your pores unclogged.

As we age our cell renewal factor or cell turnover rate slows down.  The cell turnover rate is the process by which our skin produces new skin cells which travel from the lowest layer of the epidermis to the top layer and then shed off the skin.  Think about this – a baby’s cell turnover rate is 14 days, a teenager’s is 21-28 days, a middle age person’s 28 to 42 days, and someone who is in their 50s or older the rate is between 42 to 84 days.  That means that as we age the top layer of the skin, the one we see, touch, and even agonize over, becomes dull.  We lose our “glow”.  And think about this – if the top layer of your skin is really lots and lots and lots of dead skin cells (between 15 to 20 layers) how much of the antioxidant and retinol serums you are applying actually are getting through and doing what they are supposed to be doing?  We can help keep the top layer of skin from getting too thick with dead skin cells by exfoliating. 

Can You Over Exfoliate?

Actually you can over exfoliate.  As I’ve already mentioned exfoliation is an essential step in any skincare regime but it should be done gently.  If you over exfoliate you are actually causing your skin more harm than good.  By removing too much of the top layer of your skin you are opening yourself up to redness, irritation, dryness, and even infections.  So moderation is key.  Our skin needs that top layer to stay intact since it plays a very important role in protecting our skin.  We don’t want to remove it; we just want to keep it thin.

Also remember that using too many products with exfoliating ingredients will cause irritation and redness.  Unless you are a teenager with acne doubling up on products with AHA like glycolic acid will probably prove too irritating for your skin.

How Do You Exfoliate?

There are numerous ways to exfoliate and how you choose to exfoliate will depend on your age and lifestyle.  Since as we age our cell turnover rate slows down dramatically you can exfoliate more often and with stronger ingredients as you get older.  If you suffer from acne you might find that you also need to be exfoliate more than twice a week.  For people in their 20s and 30s with normal skin a twice weekly facial scrub might be all they need to keep their skin even toned and glowing.


Mechanical exfoliants are scrubs that rub dead skin cells off your body.  The beads in the scrubs that do the exfoliating can be made from crushed nutshells, oatmeal, or tiny synthetic beads.  Start by using the scrub only once or twice a week in the evening. 


Mechanical Scrubs to Consider Trying:

Exfoliating Lotions/Serums generally have beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid) or alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, citric, or malic acid – to name a few) in them and are applied in the evening after cleansing.  Depending on your skin needs you could apply the products every evening or only a few times a week.  You need to be the judge of what is best for your skin so you can get the great benefits of exfoliation without unneeded irritation.


Lotion/Serum Exfoliants to Consider Trying:

  • Paula’s Choice – I can only vouch for the BHA lotion.  It works great.  A good thing about Paula’s Choice is that you can buy samples for very little money so you can try her products without much of a monetary investment.

Cleansers and Moisturizers with AHA (alpha hydroxy acids) or BHA (beta hydroxy acids) are yet another way to exfoliate.  Using a product like this eliminates the need to buy a separate product just for exfoliation which is important for some people.  Just remember that these products can be strong – they are meant to exfoliate after all – so you might only want to use them a few times a week.  Everyone’s skin is different so some experimentation might be necessary to find the right balance for yourself.  See my post Amped Up Cleansers for more information about cleansers with added ingredients.


Cleansers and Moisturizers with AHA and BHA to consider using:


At-Home Peels should not be confused with professional peels since any product that is marketed for home use will be buffered so as not to cause irritation and/or peeling to the user.  You actually want to see peeling after receiving a professional peel.  Nevertheless this is yet another option for superficial exfoliation at home.


At-Home Peel Product to Consider Using:


Exfoliating Masks might not be a great choice for everyone, but they are another exfoliation option worth considering.  You can simply apply the mask before entering the shower and wash it off at the end of your shower. 


Exfoliating Masks to Consider Using:


Professional Exfoliation Treatments to Consider

Both microdermabrasions treatments and chemical peels are a wonderful way to exfoliate and treat the skin.  Be sure to get those treatments from a trained professional.  A series of treatments is usually needed to see more dramatic results, but even one microdermabrasion treatment or a chemical peel will leave your skin smoother, more even toned, refreshed, and glowing.


Though Mae West said “too much of a good thing is wonderful”, and I think she is right when it comes to chocolate cake, french fries, and cheese it certainly doesn’t apply when it comes to exfoliation.  Remember that exfoliating will make your skin more vulnerable to the sun’s rays so be extra vigilant about using sunscreen and reapplying throughout the day.  If you are using a retinol product be sure to go easy on the exfoliating in order not to irritate your skin. 

All things in moderation would be a better motto for exfoliation.  Find the right exfoliating product for your skin and stick to it.  Your appearance will thank you.


Sources and Further Reading:


Daily Skincare Routine – How Best to Care for Your Skin on a Daily Basis January 15, 2010

Clients ask me to recommend skincare products.  Yet before recommending specific products I think it is important to have your daily skincare routine down pat.

So here are my recommendations for a daily skincare routine.  This routine is good for everyone no matter what skin type you have or what skincare issues you want or need to address:



Tone (optional)

Serum (optional)

Moisturize (including eye cream)




Remove make-up


Tone (optional)

Serum – for correction, prevention, or treatment

Moisturize (including eye cream)

The Details

I recommend using toner only if you are VERY oily, otherwise skip that step.

Many women don’t realize how important it is to truly remove all your make-up.  That is why I recommend a two-step cleanse if you wear make-up.  Don’t worry about drying out your skin – if you use the correct make-up remover and cleanser that won’t happen.


So what do I mean by correction, prevention, or treatment?  Correction can mean wanting to get rid of hyperpigmentation (dark spots usually caused by the sun).  Prevention can mean using a product with retinol in it in order to slow down the aging process or slightly improve fine lines and wrinkles.  Treatment can mean using anti acne products.  Depending on what you are trying to correct, prevent, or treat you would use the product once or twice a day usually.

And let’s not forget Exfoliation:

Exfoliation is an essential step in any skincare routine, no matter what age you are.  Exfoliation helps to remove the dead skin cells that make up the very top layer of your epidermis; exfoliation is key to maintaining healthy and attractive skin.  When you exfoliate your skin looks smoother, more even toned, and healthier.  Your skin will also feel smoother.  Exfoliation can also help minimize the appearance of dark spots on the skin.  Do you want your skin to glow?  Exfoliate!  Do you want your skincare products to work better?  Exfoliate!  If you have oily skin or suffer from breakouts exfoliation is an absolute necessity since acne develops when dead skin cells and oil accumulate and get stuck in your pores.   Lastly, exfoliation is not only for your face; the skin on your entire body needs to exfoliated.

How do you exfoliate?

There are a few different ways to exfoliate.  You should choose a method that fits with your lifestyle and with your skincare needs.  I’ll give some examples.  I have combination skin that is quite acne prone.  Twice weekly I use Bioelements Karefole Deep Exfoliating Mask which I put on for ten minutes while I am in the shower.  I love this product and find that it works great for my skin so though using it takes a little extra planning and it can be a time suck I still use it.  For someone who doesn’t have 20 minutes a week to devote to exfoliating I would recommend a leave on exfoliator that can be used nightly or a few times a week.  This leave on exfoliator can contain either AHA, BHA, or fruit enzymes to exfoliate.  For example, I have a client in her late 60s who needs to be exfoliating gently but nightly.  I have her using Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Lotion with great results.  You can even use a gentle scrub nightly.  Perhaps you cleanser already comes with exfoliating beads in it or you can get a gentle scrub to add to your cleanser.   The exfoliation that you are doing at home should be a gentle process.  I don’t recommend using exfoliants with nutshells or sugar on your face, though that is perfectly fine for the rest of your body.  Every once in a while we all need a deeper exfoliation and for that I recommend a chemical peel or a series of chemical peels depending on what you want to treat.  Additionally, microdermabrasion, performed by a professional, is another form of deeper exfoliation.

I’ll use my daily skincare routine as an example of what a routine can look like:  Please note that I have no affiliation whatsoever with the companies mentioned below and receive no financial compensation for mentioning them. 


I cleanse with Dermalogica Special Cleansing Gel.  Then I use PCA Pigment Gel on my upper lip and chin where I have hyperpigmentation.  I then use a Vitamin C serum over my entire face for its anti-aging and antioxidant benefits.  Currently I am using Dermaquest C-Lipoic Antioxidant Serum.  I then moisturize with PCA’s Protecting Hydrator and Dermalogica’s Total Eye Care on my eye area.  Before I put on make-up I use Paula’s Choice Ultra-Light Sunscreen because you can never have too much sun protection!


I remove my make-up with Dermalogica’s PreCleanse  (by the way, I can’t say enough good things about this product – love it, love it, love it!).  I then cleanse with Dermalogica’s Special Cleansing Gel.  Once again I use the PCA Pigment Gel on my upper lip and chin for my hyperpigmentation.  Since I have acne prone skin (usually I have a breakout or two) I then use either benzoyl peroxide (Neutrogena On the Spot 2.5%) or salicylic acid lotion on my entire face.  I tend to breakout mostly on my chin and forehead so once or twice a week in those areas I’ve been using Dermaquest’s Rejuvaderm.  After letting everything dry I moisturize with PCA’s Clearskin and use my Dermalogica eye cream again.

Ok so you just read through my entire daily skincare routine and thought – I don’t have time for that!  Or I don’t need all those steps and/or lotions, serums, etc.  So in that case please, please at the very least use sunscreen everyday!  Everyone needs sunscreen, everyday.  “If you don’t need a flashlight you need sunscreen” – is my new favorite quote about sunscreen.  I read it in Allure magazine about two months back.

Please note that the products you use or need might change with the seasons and with how your skin looks and or feels.  If you are pregnant or nursing your skincare routine might change almost entirely.  Since it is now winter in Chicago I feel that I need extra moisturizer, but during the summer I only used my sunscreen as a moisturizer.  Play around with your products but keep your daily skincare routine steps the same. 

Bottom Line: Always use sunscreen, always cleanse your face, and always exfoliate.



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