Your skincare products will stop working after some time because you are applying them on “dead” skin cells, so you need to exfoliate. Throughout your time of consuming skincare content, you’ve probably come across the statement above. Well, it’s not exactly true; skincare products don’t just “stop” working.
Here’s what happens; our skin is constantly shedding off mature skin cells and regenerating new ones. This process is called ‘desquamation’. When these mature skin cells build up on the surface (and within the pores) of the skin and are not sloughed off, the skin appears dull, has an uneven texture, and product absorption is slowed down; therefore the efficacy of the product is reduced. This is why we should exfoliate.
Exfoliation sloughs off these mature skin cells and makes room for newer ones to thrive. Depending on the type of exfoliator (there are so many), its effect will either stop at the surface of the skin or deep in the pores (hello salicylic acid).
Do I NEED to Exfoliate?
Yes and No. Healthy skin has the ability to exfoliate itself. There are some enzymes and proteins present in our skin that allow this desquamation process to happen quickly and seamlessly, but like all good things for our body, age comes by and says “Hey, I gotta take this one with me.” Sigh! This is why babies have the softest skin ever. As we get older, these processes are slowed down (they still occur but they are slowed down). This is where artificial exfoliators come in handy- to give us a boost and reveal smoother, radiant skin.
Then there is genetics, or will I say underlying conditions in the skin that don’t let us rely on our skin’s natural exfoliation process, alone. We just have to speed it up unless we don’t want to tackle those skin concerns. Enter: Acne, Keratosis Pilaris aka Chicken skin (whoever came up with that term really did us dirty, lol), seborrhea, and hyperpigmentation.
If you do not face any of these conditions or don’t care for smooth skin, and are still in your 20s (or under), you don’t necessarily need to exfoliate.
Let’s get into the different exfoliating options available
There are two major ways to exfoliate; physically (manually) and chemically. Ugh, I hate that I have to group them the traditional way cause everything is chemicals mane, even the physical exfoliators.
Physical exfoliators work on the surface of the skin manually; by applying friction, they slough off the mature skin cells present. They don’t penetrate the epidermis (outer layer of the skin). Some examples include; scrubs with microbeads (hello St. Ives, LOL), konjac sponge, powered cleansing brushes (Clarisonic and Foreo for example), cellulose-based peeling gels, nutshell scrubs, sugar scrubs, and so on.
Physical exfoliators give immediate but temporary results; instant smooth, soft, radiant skin but you could wake up tomorrow and it’s back to square one. Another con with some physical exfoliators is that they cause micro-tears and injuries on the skin. The associated friction is not safe for inflamed skin.
Chemical exfoliators on the other hand penetrate the epidermis and react with the skin. They do not require any form of friction to function. The results may not be immediate, but they last longer than physical exfoliators. They mostly come in liquid formulations as leave-on or rinse-off products.
Chemical exfoliators can be further grouped according to their mechanism of action; alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), and fruit enzymes.
AHAs are water-soluble and act by loosening the bonds holding the skin cells. They act on the surface of the skin. Some examples include; glycolic acid, lactic, mandelic, malic, and tartaric acids.
BHAs go beyond the surface of the skin, they get in the pores because of their oil-soluble nature. This is why they are preferred in acne-prone skin (to dissolve excess sebum/oil). Salicylic acid is an example.
PHAs are similar to AHAs, but they have a larger molecule size and penetrate the skin slower, making them less irritating on the skin. There aren’t as many studies on them as there are with AHAs and BHAs. Examples are Lactobionic acid, Gluconolactone, and Maltobionic Acid. From experience, they are SO GENTLE on the skin.
Fruit enzymes include enzymes such as papain (from papaya extract) and bromelain (from pineapple extract). They function on the surface of the skin by breaking down the protein holding matured skin cells, allowing them to slough off seamlessly without over-exfoliating.
Whew! That’s a lot of science! Before we get to the product recommendations (the part we’re all waiting for), there are also combined exfoliators. They allow you to combine physical and chemical exfoliation in one; they usually come in rinse-off formulas like cleansers, masks, or peeling gels that have additional fruit enzymes, AHAs, or BHAs in the formula. They are meant to be left on the skin for a little while and are usually a gentle alternative for sensitive skin.
The Best Exfoliators on the Market (Courtesy: The Skincare Experts and my experience)
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
A leave-on AHA; can be used 2 – 3X a week by all skin types except sensitive. Not the most beginner-friendly option out there. It’s great for tackling acne, uneven skin tone, and texture. Tried-and-tested!
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10%
A leave-on AHA; can be used 2 – 4X a week by all skin types including sensitive. Beginner-friendly, less potent than glycolic acid. It’s great for tackling uneven skin tone and texture. Tried-and-tested!
Sunday Riley Good Genes
Another leave-on lactic acid formula that can be used by all skin types. It does a great job at boosting the skin’s renewal process quickly. It also has additional brightening and soothing agents. Trusted by beauty experts and editors all over the world!
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
The internet’s favorite exfoliant! A leave-on BHA (2% salicylic acid); can be used 2 – 4X a week. It’s gentle on the skin if used correctly. From my experience, it’s best for tackling uneven skin tone and texture, doesn’t do much for acne despite containing a BHA.
Stridex Salicylic Acid 2% Pads
Another leave-on salicylic acid formula; can be used 2 – 4X a week by all skin types. Might be harsh on sensitive skin due to the menthol present. Beginner-friendly. It’s great for tackling acne (white- & blackheads), uneven skin tone, and texture. The soft-textured pads allow the combination of manual and physical exfoliation. Check out a full review here.
Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads
A combination of AHAs + BHAs + manual exfoliation. This one is highly raved about, even Kylie Jenner raves about it. The Nip Fab Glycolic Fix pad is great for uneven skin tone and texture, and it is gentle despite containing 5% Glycolic acid. The next exfoliator on my wish list.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel
Another potent stuff right here! You can tell from the product name that it has a combination of alpha and beta hydroxy acids but it doesn’t stop there. This fast-acting, two-step daily treatment includes seven acids in step one and a dose of antioxidants in step two to lift away dead skin and improve uneven tone & texture. Its users swear that it gives clinical results at home.
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
It’s getting intense, isn’t it? The most abused product on skincare TikTok. This is only for experienced acid users and NOT beginners. It has a blend of 30% AHAs and 2% BHA. This one is quite potent, but it’s a game-changer for congested pores, uneven tone, and texture if your skin can tolerate the strength. Tried-and-tested!
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
Made by French brand Biologique Recherche, the P50 lotion has been a cult classic for more than 40 years. The beauty editors, facialists, top models all swear by it for all the good things that come with exfoliation. It contains a blend of AHAs, BHAs, PHAs. There are several versions available: P50V, P50W, P50 PIGM 400 but being a professional skincare brand, they are only available through spas and aestheticians. Learn more about it here.
Replenix Gly-Sal 5-2 Deep Pore Cleanser
Another AHA and BHA combo; a rinse-off formula with Glycolic acid 5% and Salicylic Acid 2%. It’s great for tackling pore congestion, uneven skin tone, and texture. It’s beginner-friendly and allows for short-contact therapy. A sensitive skin’s dream come true. Tried-and-tested!
Etude House BB Deep Cleansing Foam
Finally a physical exfoliator; a cleansing foam that uses rice powder and rice bran extract to manually exfoliate the skin. Compared to a lot of gritty sugar & nutshell scrubs on the market, rice powder is gentle and less likely to cause micro-tears on the skin. This one also has a bit of Salicylic acid which makes it a quick fix for congested pores and breakouts. As long as you have your moisturizer ready by the side, you’re good to go. Tried-and-tested!
Another product the internet swears by; a physical exfoliator with rice powder as a key ingredient. It promises smooth, radiant, brighter skin when activated with water and applied to the skin.
Where to Buy?
All photo captions include purchase links accessible in Nigeria (local vendors & sites that ship to Nigeria), except Sunday Riley (I couldn’t find a retailer here) and Biologique Recherche whose centers can be found on their website.