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To scrub or not to scrub? Talking about exfoliation..

Our skins have a natural cell renewal cycle of around 28 days, of course this varies from person to person, and will start to slow down as we age. New cells are continually born at the bottom of the epidermis, (the top layer of our skins) and then pushed to the top; here they will sit as a protective layer until they are naturally shed away. The skin has a very good way of looking after itself, so therefore technically we shouldn’t need to do anything, however of course sometimes our skins can do with a little helping hand, exfoliation is one of those ways.

I like a gentle exfoliation and find it can help with a few things. I can often tell if someone doesn’t exfoliate by how their make-up sits on their skin. A gentle exfoliate can smooth skin out, helping make-up to sit better and last longer. It can also help other skincare products work better by allowing them to get in to do their work. They can help skin to look brighter and smoother.

Like all skincare it totally depends on the individual. All our skins are different and will require different things at different times. Some people will recommend not to exfoliate and I can see why. I definitely think that skin can be over exfoliated.

We have something called the acid mantle which is a mix of our natural sebum and sweat. It is our protective slightly acidic barrier, that protects our skin from things like infection. We can upset the balance by over washing and over exfoliating. This can result in irritation, dehydration and breakouts – perhaps things we were trying to help in the first place.. those top layers of skin cells, although technically dead, are there to protect those new younger cells – if we expose them too early we can end up causing irritation and damage. This definitely happened to me in the last few weeks when I was trying lots of different products. I found myself really pleased with results but then I had lots of little bumps and patches of dehydration – I had gone too far!! (slapping my own wrists!!).

(May update) I’m adding this in since listening to the wonderful Pedro Catalá of Twelve Beauty on an Instagram Live with Tahira Herold. Pedro isn’t a fan of exfoliating and he gave a really interesting reason why.

There is a protein called Filaggrin in those dead skin cells that we are so eager to get rid of. When Filaggrin “finishes its life cycle, it releases amino acids and polysaccharides that are part of the NMF (Natural Moisturising Factor). It is basically super food for the hydro-lipidic protective film on the skin.”

So therefore if we exfoliate them away before they do their thing, we’re essentially stripping the skin of essential nutrients. I found this so interesting and has really made me think even more carefully about exfoliation.

If you are going to exfoliate then it is really important to to listen to your skin. The frequency of exfoliation needed (if at all) will vary from skin to skin – there is no one size fits all. Those more sensitive might keep it to once a week, or even every other week, while others might do it 2-3 times or more depending on their chosen method… be careful though!!

Granular Exfoliation..

These are the exfoliators that have physical beads or grains in them. They’ll often come ready mixed in a cream or gel, or can come in powder form so you can mix into your face wash for example. These will physically slough away the top skin cells – so use this to gently lift any dry flakey patches.

I like to use ones that have rounded grains or jojoba beads as anything that has sharp or rough edges – even if small, can actually damage the skin – causing redness and irritation. Use very light circular motions – we are definitely not scrubbing the face! I’ve always liked Pai’s Kukai and Jojoba one I also really like Absolution’s La Creme Gommante. Don’t use these on broken or sore skin, avoid breakouts too.


Technically everything is a chemical but this term is generally used to describe acid exfoliants. Acids sound really harsh, but can actually be less invasive than a granular exfoliant, as they can’t scratch the skin like a grain or bead could. They come in varying strengths so can be suitable for different skins types. Acids can come from fruits and other natural sources – AHA’s will work on the top layer of the skin and BHA’s will work deeper into the pores. These kind of exfoliants rather than ‘scrubbing’ away the cells, eat away at them and dissolve them – think like pacman! So great for things like congestion and acne prone.

These often come in the form of a serum and are left on the skin – listen to your skin – if you’ve not used one before then try weekly and then build up your skin tolerance. Some will say to use them daily – I think definitely be aware of doing them too much. I prefer to use them at night, they can make skin more sun sensitive so always make sure you’re using adequate sun protection. Glycolic acids have a smaller molecule size so are absorbed quicker, they tend to be a little more active than something like a lactic acid, which is absorbed slower and a little gentler.

A weekly exfoliating mask can be a great way to use an acid. I’ve been using Evolve’s Miracle Mask which contains a mix of fruit acids, it leaves skin smoother and brighter and with no irritation. Leave on for 5 minutes – a great pre-make-up treat 🙂 Another favourite which I’ve not had for a while, but always saw a difference when I used it is Oskia’s Renaissance Mask.

A current trend seems to be exfoliating toners for daily glow. Some skins see wonderful results with these. Oilier skins can become clearer and less shiny, with pores appearing smaller – pores can’t physically shrink but if they are clearer they’ll look less apparent – acids such as salicylic can go into the pores and clean them out. My friend has seen brilliant results with Ren’s Ready Steady Glow, I’ve been trying Evolve’s Liquid Radiance Glycolic Toner and I like it a lot – I think my skin works better with it a few times a week though rather than every day.

These daily toners can help skins to look smoother and fine lines less so. However I think if you’re using something like this daily, then really be aware what else you’re using; it can be easy to strip without noticing…

If you want something gentler, Pedro gave a great suggestion of leaving an oil cleanser on as a mask; some plant oils are really wonderful for cleaning skin and giving them a little extra time in the pores, can really help to unblock them.

Remember if you use a muslin or flannel to clean your face each night, that is a form of exfoliation, gentle but still something daily. That might be enough for some skins – even too much for those with sensitivity. Also be mindful if you’re using a retinol or Vit A product.

There are also exfoliators that have the best of both worlds – physical and chemical exfoliation.. Nourish’s Kale Enzymatic Exfoliator is a favourite as is BYBI’s Smooth and Soothe.

So when it comes to exfoliation, there are lots of options! It really is personal preference and listening to your skin is key. Its needs will change, if not daily then certainly seasonally.

Do you exfoliate? What are your favourite products?

Images by Packard Stevens make up by me.

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