Understanding exfoliation is a lot like understanding how to repaint a chair. Sure, you can just open a can of paint, grab a brush, and start, but chances are, without taking off the layers of existing paint, you’re going to end up with a pretty uneven, messy-looking paint job with clumps and bumps of old paint and wood sticking out.
A much better solution is to clean and sand the chair first, evening out the chair’s surface and allowing the paint to go on in smooth, even strokes.
That’s pretty much what exfoliating your skin is like. Exfoliation is like a preparation step that improves the appearance of skin tone and radiance, creating a fresh, revitalized glow!
For that reason, in this article, we’re going to discuss facial exfoliation, what it is, 10 benefits of exfoliation, chemical vs. physical exfoliation, how to exfoliate your skin, how to make your own exfoliator, and frequently asked questions about exfoliation.
Facial Exfoliation: What Is It?
Although most people understand the importance of keeping skin clean, for many, the concept of facial exfoliation is a foreign one. While cleansing your skin on a daily basis may rid the skin of dirt and oil, it doesn’t necessarily act as a facial rejuvenator or help unclog pores the way exfoliation does.
Here are 10 Benefits of Exfoliation
- Exfoliation creates a radiant, glowing complexion. Yes, cleansing can help rid the skin of dirt and oil, but exfoliation is what makes skin really gleam with health.
- Exfoliation helps moisturizer work more effectively. Moisturizer on skin that isn’t exfoliated really just sits on the surface. If you want the moisturizer to really sink in, exfoliating the skin is the best way to do it.
- Exfoliation prepares the skin for make-up. By helping to even out skin texture, exfoliation helps make-up go on as smoothly as possible.
- Exfoliation helps unclog pores and draws out impurities. Cleansers can only go just so deep in terms of getting out gunk, but exfoliators really get in there to decongest pores.
- Exfoliation is anti-aging. Exfoliation revitalizes skin, promoting ageless beauty.
- Exfoliation provides an instant glow. If you’ve never exfoliated your skin before, you’ll be amazed at how quickly it improves the look of your skin. By unclogging pores, exfoliation provides an instant glow.
- Exfoliation inspires rejuvenated skin. Do an exfoliation “before and after” of your skin and we think you’ll find that the “after” shows your skin is seriously revitalized!
- Exfoliation helps smooth the skin. You know how rocks are polished to a smooth surface to use in jewelry? That’s kind of how skin exfoliation works in terms of smoothing the skin.
- Exfoliation is great for the skin on your body. Just as facial exfoliation helps prepare the skin for make-up or moisturizer, exfoliation for the skin on your body helps prepare it for moisturizing as well.
- Exfoliation helps to prepare the skin for self-tanner. If you’ve ever tried to self-tan without exfoliating first, you probably know that you’ll end up with giant streaks instead of a nice, even tan. The next time you decide to self-tan, prepare your skin by exfoliating really well! (And whatever you do, you want to avoid tanning beds, which only can increase your risk of skin cancer and lead to premature aging!)
Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliation
Exfoliation can take a few different forms but the two main ways most people exfoliate their skin is either chemical or physical exfoliation. To take the chair analogy again, chemical exfoliation would be if you put some kind of liquid on the chair that made the paint peel off. Physical exfoliation is if you took sandpaper and physically took the paint off.
The main difference between chemical and physical exfoliation for skin is that chemical exfoliation uses acids to exfoliate the skin while physical exfoliation uses some kind of material or device. This material can be anything from grains to sugar to charcoal or even a brush or special sponge.
When speaking about chemical exfoliation, there are basically two main classifications of exfoliants to think about:
AHAs and BHAs
AHAs are alpha-hydroxy acids found naturally in milk, fruits, and sugarcane. Mostly working on the top layer of skin, they basically exfoliate by dissolving the bonds that keep skin together. When they do, they expose beautiful, new skin which is part of why you’ll see that glow after you exfoliate.
Here are some examples of great AHAs:
- Glycolic acid is an AHA which helps restore a youthful, glowing look that also evens out skin tone.
- Citric acid is another AHA which not only exfoliates but helps other ingredients perform at their optimum level.
- Lactic acid is also an AHA. In addition to its ability to exfoliate the skin, lactic acid also helps even skin tone.
The other main classification of exfoliants are BHAs or beta-hydroxy acids. Derived from different kinds of bark, BHAs exfoliate, but they also actually get in the pores, unclogging them so that new skin shows through. They are just a tad stronger than AHAs in terms of really getting to a deeper layer and making sure skin is thoroughly exfoliated.
Salicylic acid is a common and very effective BHA that works amazingly fast on skin, digging out dirt and oil in pores, leaving it soft and clean and ready for moisturizer. (Try a skincare product with salicylic acid in it for just a day or two and we bet you’ll feel and see a big difference—it can be that fast!)
AHAs and BHAs work very well together, making sure all layers of skin are well exfoliated, which is why you’ll frequently see them both in the same skin care products.
Finally, you may have also heard of chemical peels which also exfoliate the skin. Usually done at a salon or doctor’s office with a qualified specialist, chemicals peels generally offer a deeper level of exfoliation and are usually much more costly than over-the-counter exfoliators. They may also take a few days to recover from and may require more after care than regular exfoliators.
Which is better? Chemical exfoliation or physical exfoliation?
The answer to this question lies mostly in what you’re trying to achieve by exfoliating your skin. If you’re looking for a surface-level exfoliation, physical exfoliation might be the way to go, but if you’re looking for something a bit deeper that will really help smooth the skin and allow your moisturizer to sink in, you most likely want to go with chemical exfoliation. And by chemical exfoliation, we don’t necessarily mean going to a spa or doctor for a chemical peel. We just mean using a product with a safe amount of salicylic acid or glycolic acid to help exfoliate the skin.
Keep in mind that although the word “acid” may sound daunting, the kinds of acid used in chemical exfoliants are really pretty gentle (and remember, you can always try a dab on a small patch of skin). Also, if you don’t know what you’re doing, chemical exfoliation is often a better way to go since it doesn’t require you to rub your skin which can sometimes cause irritation.
How to Exfoliate Your Face
Exfoliating your skin at home is easy! The best way to prep for exfoliating your skin is to make sure you’re starting out with nice, clean skin, otherwise, you’re just rubbing dirty skin around your face!
Once your skin is clean, apply a gentle exfoliant like our Prince Charcoal Detox Mask. You don’t need any special tools—just apply with your fingers, making sure to get in all the cracks and crevasses where dirt really accumulates like on and around your nose, your forehead, etc. Leave it on for about eight-to-ten minutes while it dries (but don’t expect that dry, cracked feeling most masks give you). We’ve formulated this to be gentle and soothing while still getting the dirt and gunk out. And don’t worry about what type of skin you have--we’ve formulated it for all skin types.
Once it’s dried, simply wash it off with warm water. Now that your skin is exfoliated, don’t forget the rest of your routine! Products like serums and moisturizers are always much more effective when used on clean, well-exfoliated skin.
Generally, we recommend exfoliating with Prince Charcoal one to three times a week, but if you have oily skin or skin that’s very prone to collecting dirt and oil, it’s gentle enough that you can increase that little by little and see how it works for you. Drier skins may want to start off just exfoliating once a week, gradually increasing to three times a week.
Keep in mind that although exfoliants that come in scrub or mask form are usually meant to be washed (or sometimes peeled) off, some are meant to be left on. Those usually come in formulations that look more like serums or even toners. While it’s always a good idea to read the application instructions carefully, you’ll want to make sure those also go on clean skin and that they dry well before you apply moisturizer.
Also, make sure that if you do use a chemical exfoliator (one with either an AHA like glycolic acid or a BHA with salicylic acid), you follow up with a good sunscreen! Since chemical exfoliation breaks up that top layer of skin, you’re more susceptible to damage caused by environmental stressors. You may also find that you’ll want to moisturize more frequently--it just depends on your skin and how it reacts to exfoliation.
How to Make Your Own Exfoliator
Making your own exfoliants at home is actually pretty easy, although you might want to take whatever you’re using as the exfoliating agent and just do a test patch on your skin to make sure you’re not allergic to it. Although most DIY exfoliants use natural ingredients, you still want to make sure you won’t have an adverse reaction to it.
In order to exfoliate you’ll need some kind of rough-textured ingredient as your base. Sugar makes a great exfoliant, especially raw sugar which has just enough extra roughness to really give your skin that extra glow!
An easy DIY exfoliant is to use equal proportions honey and sugar. Apply just as you would an over-the-counter scrub, gently massaging the scrub into your skin so it gets out dirt and oil. Since honey can be a little challenging to take off, instead of rinsing, take a damp washcloth and remove the mask that way.
If a sugar scrub sounds a little too abrasive, think about making a DIY exfoliant out of oats! All you have to do is grind some oats in a blender or food processor and combine with a little jojoba oil (if you don’t have jojoba oil, you can use many other kinds of oils you might have in your pantry like coconut oil or even olive oil if that’s not too greasy for you).
If you’ve been in any kind of specialty food shop lately, you know that there’s a salt out there for every day of the week! From Himalayan salt to Kosher salt to sea salt to fleur de sel to good old-fashioned table salt, the options seem to be endless!
Although you can certainly grind them to your preferred consistency, choosing which salt to use will be up to you. We recommend taking into account how tough (or delicate) your skin is and/or how dirty or clogged your pores get. If you’re not sure, start out with regular table salt or at least very finely ground salt and work your way up to using a rougher, textured salt.
Once ground to your preferred texture, combine your salt with one of the thicker mediums we’ve suggested like coconut oil or honey (olive oil on its own won’t hold something as fine as table salt very well) and use as directed above!
Remember, you can also sprinkle a few little drops of essential oil in these mixtures as well for a lovely smell. You can also control how strong or gentle the scrub is by playing with the proportion of the exfoliating ingredient to the binding ingredient you’re using (e.g. switching from equal parts salt and coconut oil to ¼ salt to ¾ coconut oil).
The only real downside to a DIY exfoliant is that unfortunately, it usually won’t last all that long. Although you can store some mixtures for a week or so (like honey and sugar), most get pretty soggy (hello—oatmeal!) or can even develop mold, so they’re kind of “use it or lose it” products.
Frequently Asked Questions About Exfoliation
Is exfoliation safe?
When it comes to exfoliation, everyone’s skin is different with different levels of tolerance for different products and procedures, but that said, generally speaking, exfoliation is entirely safe for skin. Although you always want to test new products on a patch of skin before using them, exfoliation for skin is not only safe but it helps keep skin healthy and glowing. It also helps prepare the skin to absorb moisture.
How often should I exfoliate?
Exfoliating one-to-three times a week should be more than enough to see and feel results. That said, if you have excessively oily skin that is prone to clogged pores (but not necessarily prone to allergy or irritation caused by product), exfoliating a few extra times a week isn’t a bad idea.
The best thing to do is to gradually increase the number of times a week you exfoliate and see how your skin looks and feels. The goal is healthy, glowing skin that’s ready to take in moisture, not skin that’s been rubbed raw.
Can exfoliation damage my skin?
The only way exfoliation can really damage your skin with a physical exfoliant is if you really over exfoliate with a scrub that’s too strong for you or you just rub a little too vigorously (and even then, the effects are probably reversible).
A chemical procedure, however, like a peel, could be a different story which is why we recommend carefully researching a reputable expert who can adjust treatment based on your skin.
Are DIY exfoliants effective?
It always depends on individual skin and what you’re using to exfoliate with as not all DIY exfoliants are good for all skin types, but generally speaking, yes, they are very effective. That said, most need to be used fairly quickly or they could develop mold or bacteria or just lose their potency, even if well preserved.
What’s the difference between chemical exfoliation and physical exfoliation?
Physical exfoliation is when you use an ingredient or a tool to exfoliate your skin (i.e. a scrub or a facial brush). Chemical exfoliation is when you use an acid, like glycolic acid, to exfoliate the skin.
How can I exfoliate naturally?
You may have heard us say before that we make our products “The right way—with safe, natural ingredients!” Our Prince Charcoal Detox Mask (otherwise known as “Spa in Jar”), is a safe, natural way to exfoliate your skin! You never have to worry about piling on ingredients like parabens or artificial fragrances because we just don’t use them.
Can I exfoliate with a washcloth?
Any tool with a little roughness will probably help exfoliate your skin, but to really get the dirt and oil out and restore radiance, we recommend using a product that will exfoliate properly.
So the next time you’re thinking about skipping exfoliation, think about that old chair with all the flaking paint. We have a feeling you’ll want to go back and rethink that decision!
Why do I need to exfoliate my face?
Exfoliating your skin not only renews the look of beautiful skin, making it brighter and cleaner, but it helps all that product work the way it’s supposed to. Even if you’re using a twice-daily cleanser to get dirt and oil off the surface of your skin, chances are, there’s still a bit of dirt, oil, and even dead skin still there. That left over gunk is clogging up your pores, and making it much harder for your skin to absorb your moisturizer, and apply your makeup.