Exfoliation, or the removal of dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin, is an important and necessary part of any skincare routine. However, if the word ‘exfoliation’ conjures up the action of scrubbing your face with harsh granules, you may be doing more harm to your skin than good.
So what is the right exfoliation technique for your skin?
Benefits of exfoliation
We shed dead skin cells naturally as new skin cells slowly travel up from the deepest skin layers to the surface. On average, this process takes about 27 days. As we age, this cell turnover process slows down.
When we exfoliate, we remove the build-up of dead skin cells. Regular exfoliation can reveal younger, brighter skin with an even tone.
Types of exfoliation
Exfoliation can happen in two forms: physical and chemical.
- Physical exfoliation: Physical exfoliation relies on the rubbing of tiny granules or particles over the face to remove dead skin cells by physical force.
While this kind of exfoliation can leave you feeling refreshed, the technique can be too harsh for the skin, especially for individuals with acne-prone or sensitive skin. Physical exfoliation may even weaken the skin’s barrier function and leave your skin red or irritated.
For those of you without sensitive or acne-prone skin, physical exfoliation can still be an option. However, make sure to look out for exfoliating agents that are not too large.
- Chemical exfoliation: Chemical exfoliation relies on fruit enzymes and gentle acids to slough off dead skin. This mechanism is much gentler than physical exfoliation and more suitable for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.
Types of acids
The two most well-known type of exfoliating acids is alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA).
AHAs: Alpha hydroxy acids work by causing skin cells to detach from the outermost layer of skin, making them easier to slough off. Once the dead skin cells are removed, new cells can rise to the surface.
Common AHAs used as chemical exfoliants are lactic, glycolic and mandelic acid.
Glycolic acid: Glycolic acid is the strongest AHA as it has the smallest AHA molecule. As such, it is able to penetrate deeper into the skin and can exfoliate at lower concentrations compared to other acids. However, if you are just beginning to try out chemical exfoliants, a different acid should be considered.
Lactic acid: Apart from exfoliating, lactic acid also moisturizes. Individuals with dry skin can consider lactic acid for this dual function.
Mandelic acid: With a larger molecular structure, mandelic acid is not able to penetrate deeply into the skin. This makes it a gentle AHA and safe to use, especially for people with sensitive skin.
BHAs: Beta hydroxyl acids (BHAs) differ from other AHAs as they are oil-soluble. This property allows them to penetrate deeper into our skin and pores.
BHAs exfoliate by softening the outermost layer of skin cells and dissolving unwanted skin debris. They also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, making them ideal for individuals with oily and acne-prone skin.
Chemical peels are often done at a dermatologist’s office where the chemical agent used can be much more concentrated. Glycolic, lactic or salicylic acid is commonly used. A certified dermatologist is best able to identify the type of peel for your skin.
With regular use, these treatments exfoliate the surface skin and improve fine lines, wrinkles, skin discolouration and texture.
Chemical exfoliation at home
Most patients prefer to do chemical exfoliation on their own. However, this can cause skin sensitivity and redness for certain individuals over time without proper medical supervision.
As a result, Dr Teo Wan Lin, an accredited dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre, recommends using active ingredients such as stabilised vitamin C (sodium ascorbyl phosphate), hyaluronic acid, phyto plant extracts or LARECEA™ extract. These ingredients are proven to deliver health to your skin without the sensitivity that AHA or BHA might cause when used without medical supervision.
The benefits of chemical exfoliation may make it tempting to use AHAs and BHAs often. However, too much exfoliation can disrupt your skin barrier and cause the skin to become red and inflamed.
If you are a beginner to AHA and BHA, start slow. If you do not have sensitive skin, exfoliate every other day. Those with sensitive skin should stick to exfoliating once a week. Discuss with your dermatologist how often you should get chemical peels.
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Meet with Dr Teo Wan Lin, an accredited dermatologist at TWL Specialist Skin & Laser Centre, for a thorough consultation to determine the most suitable treatment for your skin.