Exfoliation means removal of the outmost layer of dead skin cells. Done right, it not only gives you more even and radiant skin tone, but also encourages the production of new skin cells. Exfoliation allows better absorption and penetration of active skincare products, and reduces oil production for people with very oily skin. Skin exfoliation is an important component of anti-aging skincare, along with moisturizing, antioxidants, and sun protection.
Skin exfoliation can go wrong, and it frequently does go wrong. Chronic irritation, and redness are common side effects, and in rare cases damage leading to scaring can occur.
What is skin exfoliation?
Some of us have seen the dramatic exfoliation of snakes when this creature completely sheds its old skin and emerges with a fresh and new skin. We humans shed our skins also, but in a continuous and much less dramatic fashion. New epidermal cells are continuously produced at the deep layer of the skin (stratum basale) and these cells move up toward the top and eventually die, and shed themselves. This natural regeneration and exfoliation process was fast when we were young, when we had beautiful skin and didn’t need exfoliation. Our epidermal cell turnover starts to slow down in our late twenties and early thirties, and our skin starts to look duller and less radiant as the years go by. Routine exfoliation removes the accumulated dead skin cells on the top-most layers and encourages the growth of new skin cells.
At-home exfoliation methods
Routine at-home exfoliation methods include alpha and beta hydroxyl acid peel, microdermabrasion, and now InaMei’s gel-based SafePeel. Alpha hydroxyl acids (AHAs) include glycolic acid and lactic acid. You will see these chemical names on the ingredient labels of some over the counter (OTC) anti-aging creams. AHAs can benefit a fraction of the population whose skin is resistant and not sensitive. AHAs create a mild burning sensation on the skin. It speeds up skin exfoliation, and might also increase collagen production, thus reduce wrinkles. The challenges for AHAs are that they only start to work when they are more acidic than skin, and they work better when they are a lot more acidic than skin. Some people, especially people with sensitive skin, find AHAs highly irritating. Irritation contributes to skin aging.
Beta hydroxyl acids such as sylicylic acid are stronger, more oil-soluble, and more irritating than alpha hydroxyl acids. They are used at a lower concentration and are used more often in anti-acne washes for young people than in anti-aging skin exfoliation treatments.
Scuffing is another way of exfoliation. This is done using a rough cloth or a luffa sponge to mechanically rub off the topmost dead skin cells. In recent years, microdermabrasion has become popular. Microdermabrasion applies abrasive powders in a cream to rub off the dead skin layer. The abrasive powders include alumina, crushed plastic beads, and crushed plants or nut shells. The creams sometimes contain alpha hydroxyl acid, so a combined mechanical dermabrasion and chemical burn can happen at the same time. For some people, pure mechanical scuffing is less irritating than the alpha and beta hydroxyl acids treatment, but also less effective. For most people with sensitive skin, scuffing treatments, with or without alpha hydroxyl acid, is still too irritating. Irritation causes skin aging.
A new, gentle skin exfoliation technique, SafePeel, has just become available. One way of describing this technique is its nothingness: no chemical left on the skin, no abrasive, no irritation. You put a medical grade gel strip on your skin and peel it off right away and you get a clean and safe exfoliation. You can see what you just removed, as in the picture below. The gel strip is only strong enough to take off the dead skin cell layers, but won’t pull our hair, and it won’t take any living cells, and thus it won’t irritate your skin. This technique can be used by anybody, and it is especially good for people with sensitive skin who have been unable to tolerate conventional skin exfoliation treatments.
Routine exfoliation performed at home should not be confused with professional and invasive wrinkle treatment methods conducted in a dermatologist’s office. These invasive treatments include deep acid peel, phenol chemical peel, and laser peel. These aggressive deep peel techniques burn skin down to its collagen layer, and the wound-healing process afterwards helps to eliminate some wrinkles. Details of deep peel techniques are not covered in this article since these treatments more closely resemble surgery than home skincare.