This post discusses chemical exfoliation: exfoliation definition, types, benefits, chemical exfoliation acids and products, chemical peels and the ways in which you can incorporate these powerhouses into your daily skincare routine.
The definition of skin exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the top layer of skin. Aside from a daily skincare routine, it is arguably the single most important additional factor in improving the quality and appearance of your skin.
It was 20 years ago when I, by chance, stumbled upon and started using Glycolic Acid. For those of you who may not know, Glycolic Acid is a strong chemical exfoliant and was not nearly as commercially pervasive as it is now. I didn’t know enough then to call it an exfoliant but what I did know was the result of using it: my skin was much more youthful and glowing. I also got non stop compliments. In retrospect, it changed my skincare trajectory.
I share this experience to paint a real picture of the profound power exfoliation has on skin. In fact, the older we get, the more transformative that power; it becomes a critical success factor in an anti-aging regimen. I really can’t stress this enough.
That is why I am taking the time to share some fundamental insights I have gleaned on the topic over the years. My hope is that it will arm you with valuable information and give you pause to consider either stepping into the exfoliation world or elevating your existing game.
14 Essential Exfoliation Insights
1. In very simple terms, Skin Exfoliation is the removal of dead skin cells from the top layer of skin. There are 2 main ways this is accomplished: Chemical and Physical. This post will focus predominantly on Chemical Exfoliation although I will touch upon Physical Exfoliation for purposes of context (see #4 below).
2. Our 50+ skin does not shed itself as rapidly or effectively-on its own-as it did when we were younger. The result is old skin lingering longer over the top layer of skin often causing a crepe like texture and a mottled uneven and wrinkly look.
3. Encouraging skin shedding/removing dead skin cells exposes the newer skin below. There are many benefits to exposing this new skin. I am sure you can guess some of them:
- It minimizes lines and wrinkles since the more youthful skin is exposed
- The appearance of large pores is decreased
- Skin tone is evened out
- Skincare works better as it can then penetrate your skin
- Makeup goes on smoother
- You will get compliments
Types of Exfoliation
4. Physical Exfoliation
Physical Exfoliation is achieved with products/devices that manually remove the top layers of the skin. Some examples include: Scrubs (grains of some type of natural or artificial product), Brushes, Razors/Dermaplaning, Laser Treatments.
5. Chemical Exfoliation
In contrast to Physical Exfoliation, Chemical Exfoliation is accomplished through the application of acids that chemically remove the top layer of skin. These acids are of 2 types:
- AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids)
- BHAs (Beta Hydroxy Acids)
6. The acids come in many different forms and concentrations to apply to your skin at different points or even in lieu of steps in your daily skincare routine. There are serums, creams, cleansers, moisturizers and chemical peels. I’ll discuss in more detail in the Recommendation section below.
Chemical Exfoliation for Face
Exfoliating Acids Overview
7. There are a number of different AHAs derived from varying natural substances and only one BHA (Salicylic Acid). Additionally, the different AHAs are of differing strengths with Glycolic Acid being the strongest and Lactic Acid a runner up. Below is an Overview chart to familiarize you with the names, derivations and benefits.
Both acid types (AHA and BHA) work to unglue dead skin cells from each other so the skin sheds. However, there are some differences in how they each operate to accomplish that. As you can see from the chart, BHAs are oil soluble and as such unclog pores. AHAs are water soluble and unglue while hydrating and therefore are good for drier and more mature skin.
More About BHA
8. Up until about 5 years ago, makers of BHA/Salicylic acid skin products focused nearly exclusively on an acne prone younger demographic. Don’t be fooled with the marketing! BHAs are still a wonderful and useful product for the 50+ crowd even though we don’t typically have as many break outs.
Why? Clogged pores may not present as acne on our skin, but our pores still get very clogged since the skin does not slough off well on its own. The result is enlarged pores and an uneven skin texture. Today, there are some good exfoliation products to consider that have both AHAs and BHAs combined together. I expect that we will see more as time goes on. I have included a couple in my Recommendations section.
More About AHA
9. While AHAs claim that they hydrate well (being water soluble), it is possible to go too strong and end up with irritated or dry skin or worse. 50+ skin, in general, continues to get thinner and more sensitive. Even as a veteran exfoliator, my skin, cannot handle the levels of Glycolic Acid I had 20 years ago. I am mindful of that and can still get good results.
10. As you consider what may be right for your skin, below are concentration ranges for a few of the more popular acids that are commercially available. This can serve as a guideline and should give you an idea of what is gentle and what is stronger.
Glycolic– 5-20% – creams will typically have a higher % as they will contain more emollients to counteract the risk of irritation
Lactic Acid–5-10%-creams will typically have a higher % as they will contain more emollients to counteract the risk of irritation
Salicylic Acid-no more than 2%
11. Ramping up too quickly or using exfoliants excessively could damage your skin. Therefore, it is important to start slowly with a lower concentration and fewer times per week and work your way up-particularly if you are a new exfoliator. Consider starting with an AHA/BHA product that is in a cream form (to counteract the potentially irritating effects) and/or a lower acid concentration.
Be aware that professional strength acids are available on the internet. My advice: don’t do it on your own; do it with an aesthetician or dermatologist. See #15 below.
12. Since skin is more sensitive to the sun with the use of chemical exfoliants, regular sunscreen application is more critical than ever
Chemical Exfoliation Products (Recommendations)
13. Below is a list of a few of my favorite exfoliation products, divided by acid types, at varying price points and easily obtainable in most stores. I have used most of them, do not get any kind of commission and they have all served a purpose in the everchanging life of my skin. In addition, knowing how many of us at 50+ want to simplify our beauty routine (vs add steps to it), I have highlighted how each may be incorporated into your daily skincare routine.
You can click on the link/name of product for more information and/or to purchase.
|Sunday Riley Good Genes All In One Lactic Acid||Lactic Acid/5%||Additional Step in SkinCare Routine. After Cleaning||Aside from exfoliating also has brightening and dark spot reducing properties with Licorice and Arnica. Very emollient.|
|The Ordinary Lactic Acid Serum 5%||Lactic Acid/5%||Additional Step in SkinCare Routine. After Cleaning||Also has Hyaluronic Acid to help with potential irritation. Low Price.|
|Obagi C Exfoliating Day Lotion||Glycolic/15%||Can be used in lieu of moisturizer or in addition layer this product first and moisturizer on top||Very emollient. Also contains Vitamin C & Hyaluronic Acid|
|COMBINATION OF AHAs|
|CeraVe Skin Renewing Nightly Exfoliating Treatment||Glycolic & Lactic 5%||Can be used as your night cream||Gentle percentages along with ceramides as emollients. Drugstore brand.|
|Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha/Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel||Multiple AHAs-% not available||Chemical Peel at home with pads. Extra Step in your routine and should be used only a couple of times each week||Very strong but effective. Work up to this.|
|The Ordinary AHA 30%+BHA 2% Exfoliating Peeling Solution||Glycolic/Lactic/Tartaric-30% & Salicylic 2%||Separate step from your skincare routine||Very strong|
|Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum||Glycolic 10% & Salicylic 2%||Add into your night routine a few times each week||Effective|
|Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant||Salicylic Acid 2%||Can be used in lieu of Toner. Great for unclogging pores and NOT drying out skin.||Good even for more mature skin. Moderately priced|
14. Chemical Peels that are administered professionally by an aesthetician or dermatologist can be a great way to jumpstart or revive your exfoliation journey. They use the same AHA/BHA acids although in a much stronger concentration (some can go as high as 70%). Additionally, the aesthetician/dermatologist can customize the acids to your needs and specific skin type.
While there are many types of peels offered, typically, the aesthetician/dermatologist brushes the acid on your skin and waits for a period of time. The acid is then neutralized with another product and removed. Depending on the type of peel and your skin, it can cause visible peeling over the course of one day to a week or more.
Given the strength of the chemical used, it is a quick, results immediate approach. With that said, maintenance is still required for the results. That means it is still necessary to incorporate an exfoliating product into your skincare routine on a regular basis.
A Final Few Thoughts
This post outlined some essential exfoliation facts and insights along with its many benefits and the options we have today. It is possible to easily incorporate it into our skincare routine.
I hope I succeeded in passing along something new to you and that you will be inspired to start or even to continue on with your exfoliation journey.
Thank you for reading!