Every good skincare routine should include cleansing, exfoliating, toning, and moisturizing. Each step in the skincare routine serves a specific purpose:
Cleansing removes most of the dirt and excess oil from the skin and is important for preventing spots, blackheads, and infection. Exfoliating strips away dead skin, leaving radiant, smooth, and healthy-looking skin. Toning is optional. It can be seen as an extra cleansing step and is unnecessary for most people, but it is useful for those with very oily skin. Moisturizing helps seal moisture into the skin, nourishing and protecting it and staving off wrinkles.
Exfoliating is perhaps the most often overlooked of the skin care stages, but it is important for everyone. Most people are taught that it is a good idea to moisturize if they want to keep youthful skin and that applying sunscreen is important, but exfoliating is just as vital.1
Exfoliating vs. Scrubbing
Exfoliating is the process of stripping off dead skin to reveal healthier-looking, fresh skin underneath. There are many products out there that promise to have an exfoliating effect, but not all exfoliating skin care products are equal.
Some exfoliating products use hard grains or beads—although microbeads are banned in many parts of the world now because they are bad for the environment—which can irritate the skin as they work.2
In fact, dermatologists recommend that people seek advice before picking an exfoliation method. Harsh chemicals and aggressive mechanical treatments can make certain skin conditions, such as rosacea, worse.3 It is a good idea to consider your skin type when picking an exfoliant, to use it sparingly, and to choose products that have a relatively low acid concentration to avoid irritating your skin.
What Makes a Good Exfoliant?
Some exfoliating treatments are also skin peels, and these will usually contain glycolic acid, salicylic acid, or AHA and BHA. These acids will help strip away dead skin and reveal the youthful skin underneath. Mild skin peels are often used to eliminate fine lines.4 The acids used in peels, while useful as exfoliating agents, can be quite strong and should not be used at home without supervision from a dermatologist.
If you want to use exfoliants that are less harsh, then mechanical exfoliants such as sea salt or honey and oat are a good option. These natural ingredients are gentler on the skin than microbeads ever were, and they will not harm the environment either. They’re also well-tolerated by most skin types, and they are unlikely to cause allergic reactions.
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You can make a scrub out of your favorite carrier oil and some essential oils. The key here is that the scrubbing agent is something slightly rough or that has granules in it and the oil makes a good delivery mechanism.
Studies show that dead sea salt makes a good soak for treating skin conditions and that when used topically, it can also have an anti-inflammatory effect.5,6 This is an important feature since one of the problems with exfoliation, especially if it is done too aggressively or too often, is inflamed skin.
If you are going to try to make your own exfoliating creams or scrubs, then you should take care to include some essential oils as a preservative for the scrub. Essential oils are incredibly versatile, being anti-inflammatory themselves, often having pleasing scents, and also have antimicrobial properties that allow them to be used as a preservative.7 Simply combine your carrier oil, scrub, and citrus or tea tree oil to help stop your mixture from going rancid.
Even with preservatives, homemade exfoliating scrubs won’t last very long. You can usually expect a small, sealed tub to last a month or so if you made it in a clean environment with fresh ingredients and you keep it in a cool, dark, and dry place. If you leave the tub open or keep it in a warm environment, then you can expect that the cream will go off more quickly.
How Often Should You Exfoliate?
Cosmetic procedures are not a new phenomenon, but the general understanding of how skin care works has improved a lot, and people can now understand how skin care products can be customized to the lifestyle and needs of an individual.
A lot of people don’t understand exfoliation. However, they know that when they do it, their skin feels extra clean because the exfoliating agent strips off dead skin and unclogs your pores, and they know that they feel better and that their skin gets a nice glow from it. They may also notice that after exfoliating, it seems like their moisturizer is more effective.8
Unfortunately, there can be too much of a good thing. If you exfoliate too often, your skin will become irritated. You need to give your skin time to repair itself, and you need to make sure that you aren’t literally rubbing your skin raw.
Most people will find that exfoliating two to three times a week is sufficient. If your skin is sensitive, then you may only want to exfoliate once or twice a week instead. Try using a very mild exfoliant. Gentle acids or natural ingredients for a mechanical scrub are the best choices.
There are some plant enzymes that can work for sensitive skin, such as pomegranate, papaya, and even pineapple.9 Consider these if you are particularly worried that exfoliation with standard products will irritate your skin too much.
If you are new to exfoliating, then you should take it slow, and do it gently. If you already use skincare creams, such as a prescription retinoid cream or benzoyl peroxide, then you should tread carefully. Ask your dermatologist before changing your skin care regimen. You may find that mixing exfoliation with those products could make your skin very dry or aggravate acne.
If you have dry or acne-prone skin, then a mild chemical exfoliant is all you need to use. If you have thick, oily skin, then a mechanical exfoliant is a good choice. If you have dark skin, then you should avoid strong chemical exfoliants because they could irritate your skin.
Do not exfoliate cut, damaged, or broken skin. Apply the exfoliant gently, work it into the skin in a small circular motion for 30 seconds, and rinse it off with lukewarm water. Pat your skin dry and then apply a moisturizer. If you accidentally irritate your skin, then let it heal fully before you exfoliate again.
Done right, exfoliating can give you beautiful, youthful looking skin. Practice making the perfect natural scrub, and add it to your skin care routine along with essential oil-based soaps and hydrosol toners to create the perfect “synthetic free” skin care package to suit your lifestyle. Your future self will thank you for taking good care of your body.
Photo credits: puhhha/shutterstock.com, Maridav/shutterstock.com, symbiot/shutterstock.com, RomanSamborskyi/shutterstock.com