The skin’s cells are in constant turnover, but the rate of replacement for dead and dysfunctional cells slows down with age. For someone in their twenties this process takes an average of 20 days. For someone in their mid-forties, the same cell turnover process takes about 40 days.
As we age, it takes longer to slough off cells damaged by sun exposure, pollution, simple wear and tear and normal metabolism. This can often lead to a greyish complexion that can make the skin appear less healthy. Which brings us to exfoliation and the benefits it can have on your skin.
Exfoliation not only helps get rid of dead and damaged cells to reveal fresher, healthier looking skin, it can also encourage a timely replacement of our skin cells, longer-term. This is because exfoliation may help enhance circulation to the skin, allowing the body to remove natural body toxic metabolites and waste products, while delivering oxygen, nutrients and water that offer better hydration and often results in firmer, younger looking skin.
Of course, too much of a good thing can have adverse consequences, so it’s best to proceed cautiously with exfoliation, especially when using any deep exfoliating products or treatments.
Types of Exfoliants
Mechanical exfoliation techniques use physical abrasion to slough off dead skin cells. Such products can include scrubs containing salt, sand, or synthetic beads. Many of the synthetic beads are made from plastic and may contain chemicals that are potentially damaging to the skin, as well as to the environment.
Chemical exfoliants contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), typically salicylic acid and glycolic acids, as well as beta hydroxy acids and retinoic acid (retinol, or vitamin A). Chemical agents are often derived from fruits such as pineapple, papaya, and lemons, meaning that simple chemical peels can be created easily at home. The types of chemical peels used by dermatologists typically have a deeper action, with some purported to stimulate cell renewal and collagen synthesis.
When to Exfoliate, and How Often
Some people find that gentle exfoliation twice a day can help keep their skin in good health, while others go for a deeper treatment once a week or even once a month. For most people, regular moderate exfoliation is better, just like with exercise.
It’s a good idea to use a moisturizing sunscreen that contains antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and A after exfoliating because the process strips away a protective layer of skin, leaving it more vulnerable to damage from ultraviolet radiation. People who are prone to redness after exfoliation might want to exfoliate at night and use a moisturizer afterward to help soothe the skin.
How to Exfoliate the Skin
Using a scrub with jojoba oil beads or sugar as the mechanical exfoliating agent may be a better option for those with sensitive skin. For others, an oscillating skin brush can provide a more robust exfoliating experience. The usual recommended practice is to brush the skin in long, sweeping strokes toward the heart to encourage venous return and better circulation.
When exfoliating skin on the face, it is advisable to use gentle, circular motions to minimize irritation. Problem areas can also be treated in isolation. For example, people with oily skin in their T-zone (the brow and bridge of the nose) may want to use a cotton facecloth to apply fresh lemon juice, as a simple homemade exfoliant. Other problem areas may also be spot-treated this way.
Exfoliation can be helpful for people with oily, dry, and combination skin. Those with sensitive skin should be particularly cautious with more significant methods of exfoliation; doing a patch test first, and observing the skin’s reaction over the course of a few days.