Getty Images

The ultimate guide to exfoliating your way to gorgeous, glowing skin

To scrub, or not to scrub...

20 Jun 2019

We all know the merits of exfoliating – it shifts old, sluggish skin cells to reveal baby fresh skin and promote glow. But, as it’s become more sophisticated with increasingly high-tech liquid formulas and a bewildering array of ingredients, it’s not as simple as scrubbing an apricot kernel on your face any more (not advised, it turns out).

So, we called on the infinite wisdom of Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible: Your No Nonsense Guide To Great Skin, to determine how much exfoliating is too much, discover what’s the best tool for the job and work out our AHAs from our BHAs. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is exfoliating good for?

“The purpose of exfoliation is to remove the upper layer of dead skin cells resulting in a brighter, more even complexion, potentially with reduced congestion or blackheads.

Exfoliation will not only make the texture of the skin look better, but will also improve age spots and uneven skin tone, as well as allowing better penetration of your serum or moisturiser.”

Who would particularly benefit from exfoliating?

“Exfoliation is of particular value for individuals with oily or blemish-prone skin, or those who have concerns about anti-ageing and pigmentation.”

How often should we exfoliate?

“Gentle exfoliation can be carried out several times a week provided there is no problem with dryness, sensitive skin or inflammatory skin disorders such as eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis. The easiest way to understand when to stop is to stop when your skin reacts to it.”

What's the difference between manual and chemical exfoliation?

“Physical exfoliation, as its name suggests, involves physically removing dead skin cells, this can be done with mechanical cleansing brushes, grains, and scrubs.

Chemical exfoliation uses chemicals – usually acids to dissolve dry skin cells. This isn't as awful as it sounds: the top layer is already dead and this process should never be painful. Once the exfoliating chemicals are removed, your skin should feel brighter and smoother.

My personal preference for exfoliators is to use chemical exfoliators, so things like alpha and beta hydroxy acids [AHAs and BHAs]. I’m a big fan of AHAs such as glycolic and lactic since they’re very good at lifting the upper layer of dead skin cells which can brighten skin, so I like to use cleansers and toners that contain these. I am also a big fan of BHAs (salicylic acid being the main type) which are really, really good at getting into the pore itself, making it ideal for oily or congested skin.”

Is one better than the other?

“Both methods can be effective and it largely comes down to personal preference. Some people feel that mechanical exfoliation can cause micro-injuries or tears to the skin if scrubs are used too vigorously. Mechanical cleansing devices have been shown to clean hard to reach areas, such as around the nose effectively. Chemical exfoliating agents can penetrate the skin well and produce effective results in brightening the skin if used long-term (minimum 12 weeks regular use).”

What are the best exfoliating acids? Are different ones better for different jobs?

“Common AHAs include glycolic [effective exfoliator derived from pineapple and sugarcane] and lactic acid [which is derived from milk, is slightly gentler that glycolic and offers hydrating properties]. Both are water-soluble molecules that act on the skin’s surface and both can be helpful for normal to oily skin types. For dry skin AHAs can work too, but should be used in lower concentrations [try around 3% rather than 5%]. BHAs, such as salicylic acid, on the other hand, are oil-soluble and act on both the skin surface and within the pore. They are better for those with oily or blemish-prone skin. Dry skin is much more common in the winter months and for some, reducing the frequency of exfoliation, or using milder products (with lower concentrations of AHAs or BHAs) may be necessary.”

What happens when we overdo it?

“Over exfoliation can push the inflammation deeper and worsen the spots, whilst also causing dryness and irritations. If you're skin feels uncomfortable after exfoliating, consider limiting it to once or twice a week.”

Every skin is different but how can do we know how much exfoliation works for our skin?

“The key thing with exfoliation is common sense. If you have very dry skin, mature skin, sensitive skin or skin that suffers from chronic inflammatory skin disease (like acne, rosacea, eczema and psoriasis), you need to be careful that you are not overly stripping skin, leading to dryness and irritation. What I would generally say is that those with oily or blemish-prone skin can probably handle more exfoliation than those who are dry and sensitive. If your skin is becoming dry, sensitive or irritated, back off the exfoliating product. On the other hand, if your skin is tolerating it well you can build it up. Start off using a product maybe once or twice a week initially and see how your skin responds. If you don’t have too many problems you can build up to every night.”