It's satisfying to scrub away the remnants of your skin's past life, especially when it leaves you with immediately smoother skin. That's why it can be so tempting to go a little too hard with your exfoliating. But it turns out there is a way to determine how - and how often - you should exfoliate your face.
What even is the point of exfoliating?
Your skin has five layers to it, and the newest skin cells are at the base of that. As the cells mature, they travel from the base layer of the epidermis to the outermost layer. At that point, they form the stratum corneum, the "tougher outer layer that acts as a barrier and prevents things from coming in". This layer is also crucial in keeping moisture from escaping.
Once they make it to that outer layer, those skin cells are dead - they lose their nucleus and flatten out to form a shingle-like layer of protection. And, eventually, they'll slough off into the environment and newer cells will come to the surface.
Exfoliation simply helps that natural process along. The exfoliants help clear off the top dead layer, revealing the nice new healthier, younger skin cells below. That's why exfoliation leaves your skin feeling soft and smooth and looking a little brighter.
Overexfoliating can take away too much of that protective barrier that also helps keep moisture from escaping. As a result, going overboard on exfoliation can leave you with dry skin and cause more issues, like acne, to appear. In other cases, exfoliating can just be too harsh for some people's skin and cause irritation and redness. At the most extreme end, exfoliating too enthusiastically can cause cuts or tears in the skin that open you up to infections.
There are two types of exfoliators: physical and chemical
They do the same thing in different ways. Most of us are probably familiar with physical, also called manual exfoliators. These are your scrubs and face brushes that physically remove dead skin cells from your face. They're effective but can also be abrasive. And they may come with more variables that make it easier for you to accidentally overuse them or use them in a way that is too harsh. For example, it may be tempting to brush or scrub too hard.
The ones you might be less familiar with are chemical exfoliators. These are ingredients in skin-care products - usually acids - that break the bonds between skin cells, the little bridges that keep them together, allowing you to easily wipe them away when you wash the product off.
Common exfoliating ingredients you might come across include alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid and lactic acid, as well as beta hydroxy acids, including salicylic acid. They might come in a medicated wash, like an acne cleanser that contains salicylic acid, or as a serum or at-home peel that contains AHAs or BHAs.
Ultimately, you can exfoliate as often as your skin will tolerate it
In general we suggest starting with an exfoliator once or twice a week, preferably introducing a chemical exfoliator before a physical one. If it feels like your skin can take more without reacting, it's totally fine to ramp that up. Because chemical exfoliators tend to be less intense and also more evenly applied, many people find that it's okay to use them every day. We recommend you to try Tropic's Fruit Peel. Created to combat rough, uneven skin, this gentle yet effective natural exfoliator instantly softens, smooths and brightens your complexion, leaving skin with a deeply nourished, silky feel.
On the other hand, if you try an exfoliator and notice that your face is stinging, red, or otherwise angry afterward, it's time to take a step back. If you're using a manual exfoliator, that might mean opting for more of a salt scrub, like Tropic's Smooth Brightening Polish, rather than something with big plastic beads, or simply easing up on the pressure you're using when you apply the product or tool to your skin. For instance motorised brushes can be pretty harsh so we suggest sticking with the softest brush head you can get and only using it once or twice a week.
If you're using a chemical exfoliator, you can try using a smaller amount, a gentler product like lactic or glycolic acid rather than a retinoid, or just use it less frequently. It's also worth taking a look at your whole routine and avoiding using other potentially irritating products right after you exfoliate.
Picking a product that will work for you also depends on your skin type and your major concerns.
If you have dry skin, for instance, you might be more sensitive to harsh scrubbing products, while someone with oily skin would be able to tolerate them more easily. And if you have sensitive skin or a specific skin condition such as psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea, it will be even more important for you to start with a gentle product and increase the frequency slowly to make sure your skin doesn't react badly.
Luckily, it's usually pretty obvious when you've overdone it - and you should just cut back or consider switching exfoliants. If you have questions about exfoliating, you find that your skin is regularly reacting to exfoliants, or you feel like you need to exfoliate your skin with concerning frequency, it's worth checking in with your dermatologist. They can give you some guidance and, possibly, a prescription that will work for your individual issues.
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