The Nitty Gritty of Exfoliation
It may surprise you, but I have never been obsessed with skincare products.
My skincare regimen consisted of a shower with soap and water and a bit of moisturizer and I was done!
As I began doing research on and experimenting with ingredients for our face and body scrubs, my skin regimen changed.
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would soon be massaging myself with sugars, salts, and pulverized beans, I would have politely disagreed.
But now my skin thanks me each and every day!
What Is Exfoliation?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of "exfoliation" is "to shed materials in scales or layers." Our skin really does this all by itself because it continuously sheds and renews itself. In fact, we get rid of around 40,000 dead skin cells every minute.
In less than a month, a new skin cell will make its way to the surface where it will slough away leaving behind fresher, smoother skin. This process of skin cell turnover is called desquamation (from the Latin "desquamare," meaning "to scrape the scales off a fish").
Unfortunately, anything that interferes with normal skin shedding will create a build-up of dead skin causing the skin to look dull, dry, and lackluster. Exfoliation helps by removing some excess dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.
Exfoliation encourages cell turnover, unclogs pores, allows moisturizers to penetrate more effectively, and brightens and refreshes the skin. Whether you have normal, oily, dry, mature, or sensitive skin, exfoliation can revitalize your complexion.
The Process Of Desquamation: A Science Lesson
Desquamation, or cell turnover, is the natural process through which old cells are shed as new cells develop.
The entire process, from cell birth to shedding, takes about 14 days for babies and 21 days for teens. Once you hit your 20s your skin generally renews itself about every 30 days.
As you age the shredding process slows down and takes longer and longer. After 50 it can take 45 to 90 days.
The process is not only affected by age, but also by environmental pollution, hormones, genetics, disease, diet, and even weather.
Desquamation takes place in the outermost layer of the skin called the epidermis. Each of the layers of the epidermis plays a role in the desquamation process (simply described below).
- New skin cells are born in the deepest layer of the epidermis, the stratum basale. These cells divide and begin their journey to the surface of the skin.
- The cells move up to the stratum spinosum layer where they begin to make keratin, the fibrous proteins that create a protective barrier for the skin.
- The skin cells continue to push upward and arrive in the stratum granulosum, where they begin to flatten out, lose their nuclei and die.
- Stratum lucidum is found in thicker skin (like the soles of your feet) and is composed of dead, flattened cells.
- The skin cells finally reached the surface layer called the stratum corneum, where they slough away leaving behind fresher, smoother skin. Since newer cells continuously push their way to the surface, your skin is constantly renewing itself.
- Throughout their journey to the surface, epidermal cells are “glued” to each other on all sides. As the cells move upward from the deeper layers to the surface the “glue” becomes weaker and weaker which allows the dead cells to slough away.
Why Exfoliate? The Benefits!
Exfoliating the skin helps slough off dead skin cells, stimulates circulation, removes dirt that clogs pores, smooths skin texture and tone, improves the ability of the skin to absorb moisture, and helps keep normal cell turnover going (especially as we age) to reveal new, fresh skin cells for a healthier, brighter more youthful appearance.
The purpose of exfoliation is not to get rid of all of the dead skin cells--we need them! Although the top layer of the epidermis is considered 'dead,' this does not mean that it is useless.
These dead skin cells, called corneocytes, adhere tightly to each other to form a protective physical, chemical, and immunological barrier. These cells also play a critical role in our skin's ability to hydrate itself as well as maintain the skin's protective lipid barrier.
The purpose of exfoliation is to rid the skin of any build-up of excess dead skin cells which occurs as cell turnover slows and often occurs as we age.
Exfoliating can help . . .
Reduce the Appearance of Large Pores: Exfoliating helps remove dirt that clogs pores causing the pores to appear larger.
Improve Skin Texture: Removing old, tired, excess dead cells often helps speed up the skin renewal process, allowing fresh, new, healthy skin cells to grow improving the appearance of the skin.
Brighten Lackluster, Dull Skin: The process of exfoliation coupled with the gentle massage increases blood circulation bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the skin cells. Also, dead skin cells refract light unevenly which causes the skin to have a dull appearance.
Moisturizers Penetrate Better: Layers of dead cells and dirt on the surface of the skin hinder the absorption of moisturizers.
Reduce the Signs of Aging: It should come as no surprise that as we age, the cell turnover process slows down. The glue holding the cells together becomes thicker which causes an uneven build-up of cells which can lead to dry patches and lackluster skin. There goes the healthy glow of my teenage years.
Reduce Acne & Breakouts: Acne-prone skin produces more dead skin cells than other skin types, but instead of sloughing off, the dead cells remain stuck on the surface of the skin. The combination of cellular debris and excess oil forms a blackhead and if bacteria invade an inflamed blemish will form.
Sugar scrubs can actually help acne breakouts in two ways.
- Physical: The physical "scrubbiness" of the sugar works to exfoliate the surface of the skin.
- Chemical: If you allow the scrub to remain on the skin for a few minutes, the chemical composition of the sugar's AHAs (Alpha hydroxy acids) works by penetrating the skin and breaking-up acne-causing blockages.
Brighten Dull, Dry Winter Skin: Although exfoliating has benefits throughout the year, it is especially helpful during cold winter months. As the weather gets colder and the humidity levels drop, more cells dry out and accumulate on the surface of the skin.
How To Exfoliate
Knowing “why” we should exfoliate is only the beginning of the story. It is equally important to know “how.” Choosing the wrong method can easily damage the skin. There are several different methods of exfoliating as well as several kinds of exfoliants.
I am only going to discuss the types of exfoliation you can do at home. There are two broad types of exfoliants, physical and chemical.
Physical or Mechanical Exfoliants
Physical or Mechanical exfoliants include using textured tools like brushes, sponges, loofahs, and pumice stones. Or using natural semi-abrasive grainy items like botanical powders, clays, salts, sugars, grains, or herbs.
Both of these physically remove dead skin cells as you rub them on your face or body.
The amount of pressure and the size of the granules you use depend on the type of skin you are exfoliating. Heels can take pretty aggressive scrubbing. The upper arms, elbows, and legs can take moderate pressure.
Facial skin should be treated delicately, using very little pressure and small textured granules. Since facial skin may already be inflamed due to acne breakouts, NEVER use harsh facial scrubs on blemished skin, and NEVER use any facial scrub aggressively on blemished skin. Simple exfoliation occurs every time you wash your face from the friction of rubbing your skin with your hands, washcloth, or gentle facial pad.
For The Face:
When experiencing breakouts, you often feel like you should vigorously scrub your face often in order to get your skin really clean. However, too frequent or vigorous scrubbing can actually increase irritation and redness, aggravate already inflamed skin, and exacerbate breakouts. You must learn to listen to your skin. If you have inflammatory acne, especially if your breakouts are inflamed, crusting, oozing, or open sores, avoid scrubs altogether.
- A circular message with a clean, baby-soft natural bristle brush or a soft, damp washcloth can help exfoliate the skin
- Small particle size is gentler on the skin, so use small grain sugars (cane or brown), powdered herbs, and powdered grains
Finely ground adzuki beans have been used by Japanese women for centuries in their skincare routines. They are not only a very effective and gentle exfoliant, but they also contain enzymes that are activated when mixed with water to help loosen the "glue" holding dead skin on the surface
- The sugars in facial sugar scrubs also act by both physical and chemical means
- Always use a light touch and a gentle circular motion to avoid irritating sensitive facial skin
- Avoid using scrubs that contain pulverized nut shells or fruit pits, which can have sharp edges that can tear delicate facial skin
For The Body:
- A clean, soft natural bristle brush, damp loofah, or sea sponge
- A sisal, ayate, or loofah bathing accessory like our really scrubby Ayate Bath Scrubber
- Salts are best left for the body since they are too harsh and drying for the face
- Products with scrubby ingredients like our Loofah Adzuki Soap, Coffee & Clove Scrubby Soap or our very scrubby Loofah Pumice Foot Soap for those tougher skin areas
- Larger particle sugars (turbinado), finely ground grains
- No matter what mechanical exfoliation method you choose, remember you are not scrubbing your bathroom, you are exfoliating your skin. Also, be careful with ground nuts, seeds, and shells, the hard jagged edges can irritate or damage the skin.
Chemical or Enzyme exfoliants help to dissolve or loosen the "glue" that holds dead cells on the skin's surface. Although commercial chemical exfoliants can be found over the counter at your local retail store, I am talking about the natural acids and enzymes that exist in natural ingredients.
There are many natural enzymes in fruits like pineapple and papaya and in grains like quinoa and amaranth that provide exfoliation. Today I am going to be focusing on Alpha-hydroxy Acids (AHAs).
Alpha-hydroxy acids are gentle acids derived from foods, such as sugar cane (glycolic acid), milk products (lactic acid), citrus fruits (citric acid), grapes (tartaric acid), and apples (malic acid). When applied to the skin, they help loosen the “glue” that holds the dead skin cells to the surface of the skin which allows the old, skin cells to be washed away.
Common AHAs used as natural exfoliators include:
Glycolic Acid: found naturally in sugar cane, it gives sugar its natural “chemical” exfoliating properties. It has the smallest molecules of all the alpha-hydroxy acids.
Face and body sugar scrubs take advantage of both the mechanical and chemical exfoliating properties of sugar
Lactic Acid: Found naturally in dairy products. Milk products are very gentle exfoliators because lactic acid is milder and less irritating to sensitive skin than other AHAs.
Buttermilk, yogurt, sour milk, and kefir are good sources of lactic acid.
Recipe: For a simple, gentle exfoliator, soak a cotton pad in kefir (or yogurt) and apply to your face for 15-20 minutes. Rinse with lukewarm water and pat dry.
Tartaric Acid: Found in unripe grapes. The Ancient Romans would exfoliate with grape skins.
Recipe: Smash enough grapes to make about 5 tablespoons of pulp and place in a clean bowl. (If you use grapes with seeds you will get the benefit of mechanical exfoliation as well.) Add one teaspoon of olive oil and one teaspoon of honey.
Massage using a circular motion, paying special attention to dry skin patches like knees and elbows, then rinse off with warm water.
Citric Acid: The highest level of naturally occurring citric acid is found in oranges and lemons.
Recipe: This scrub contains a variety of alpha hydroxy acid ingredients: yogurt, lemon, and sugar.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup wheat bran
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Mix all ingredients together. Wet your body in a warm shower and apply the scrub to your legs, arms, and torso. Massage gently into the skin with a circular motion, rinse well, and pat your skin dry.
Malic Acid: Malic acid is found in several fruits and vegetables, but is most associated with apples and cherries.
Recipe: Peel and chop one apple. Add 2 tablespoons of honey and 3 tablespoons of yogurt. Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Apply to the face using a gentle circular motion. Allow to sit for 15 minutes, rinse with lukewarm water and pat dry.
Just a note--you will often see honey included in skincare recipes including those for exfoliation. Raw honey is antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal. It hydrates, reduces inflammation, and helps ease skin infections, like acne. Numerous studies have shown its effectiveness in promoting new skin growth and even lessening scarring.
When To Exfoliate
No matter what method is used to exfoliate, a fresh layer of younger, smoother cells will be revealed. Unfortunately, the effect is temporary. Since our skin is constantly producing new cells, there will always be old cells ready to be sloughed away.
The most common question about exfoliating is: How often?
Although exfoliating will feel good and your skin will look better afterward, too much exfoliation can damage the epidermis and can lead to moisture loss, decreased barrier protection, increased sensitivity, and irritation. So do not overdo it!
A good place to begin is once a week for the face and the body. Pay special attention to how your skin reacts to exfoliation. If your skin becomes red or irritated, you may need to change the type and/or frequency.
If you don't notice any problems, you can increase the frequency slightly. There are many different recommendations. I have seen 1 to 3 times per week for facial skin and a bit more often for the body. You will have to experiment to find the right frequency for your skin.
Every person's skin is different. For example, older skin can be thinner and more sensitive.
There is a simple test that may help determine if facial skin needs exfoliating. Apply a piece of clear tape to the forehead. Rub it gently and remove. If there are little pieces of flaky skin on the tape then it may be time to exfoliate!
Remember, the goal is to eliminate rough, dead skin cells and encourage cell regeneration all without leaving the skin raw or irritated.
Important Notes About Exfoliating
For those with inflammatory skin conditions, highly sensitive, irritated, or blemished skin, be sure to ask the advice of your health care professional.
Do not use an exfoliant if you have a sunburn or other skin irritation.
The very sensitive area around the eyes does not need and should not be exfoliated.
Although some folks like to rub body scrubs on dry skin, it is good practice to apply exfoliants to damp or wet skin to prevent irritation.
Wash your face before you exfoliate. The warm water helps open pores so they can be cleaned.
In the shower, wash before you exfoliate. Or use a product like our Cleansing Sugar Scrub, an organic body scrub that exfoliates and washes at the same time!
Depending on the type of exfoliation used, a bit of moisturizer may be needed. Remember, moisturizers hydrate best when dead cells have just been scrubbed away.
Be very careful when using exfoliating products that contain sharp nuts, shells, or grains. They can scrape and damage skin and cause irritation.
The best time to exfoliate is at night because you should not exfoliate after shaving (especially salt scrubs) and you should not apply makeup right after exfoliating.
It is always a good idea to do an allergy patch test before trying any new product.
There are many recipes on the internet for creating your own facial and body scrubs at home. I have included a few recipes above.
My daily life is quite hectic and any free time in my kitchen is devoted to making chocolate chip cookies, muffins, or zucchini bread (thank goodness for my darling hubby who loves to cook real meals).
We sell many products and accessories that will can also help exfoliate your body, face, and feet.
Please click here to read "Help Me Choose Natural Exfoliating Products."