We’ve all been there before – you’ve got a spare minute in the shower while you’re deep-conditioning your hair, and your eyes alight on that tube of apricot scrub.
‘My cheeks did feel a little rough this morning,’ you think. Before you know it, you’re scrubbing and rubbing harder than a stone-fruit-scented Lady Macbeth, without a second thought to what those gritty kernels are doing to your skin. Spoiler: It isn’t quite what it’s scrubbed up to be.
Let’s get physical
Done right, exfoliation is a rewarding skincare step to add to your routine, removing dead and loose skin cells, to reveal the new surface beneath and giving your complexion a smoother and brighter experience. It can also aid in shifting light acne scars and budging dark marks caused by hyper-pigmentation. But exfoliation is also a skincare element that can cause damage if you use the wrong product in the wrong way. The first thing to remember when it comes to effective exfoliation is that not all scrubs are created equal. While physical scrubs are probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think exfoliation, they are also likely to be misused.
‘Physical scrubs tend to include ingredients like grains or natural jojoba beads,’ explains Nawal Jarges, operations manager at Tips and Toes beauty salons. ‘They can have a bumpy or gritty texture that mechanically scrubs the surface.’
While physical scrubs are a very simple means to an end, some are far harsher than others, depending on the type of granule used. For example, that apricot scrub we were enthusiastically grinding into our cheeks earlier? Scrubs like this, that use rough and irregularly-shaped particles like kernels or walnut grains, have been derided by skincare experts due to the likelihood of their sharp edges creating micro-scratches on the skin. Too teeny to be seen with the naked eye, these miniature marks open up your delicate skin’s surface to bacteria, disturbing the mantle’s balance. Worse case scenario, you can invite in infection, which can have a catastrophic effect on your complexion. While scrubs do technically remove dead skin, this can be uneven depending on the pressure you apply while using it, stripping the skin in some places, and not making a difference in others.
Industry expert Michelle Wong, who runs the beauty blog Lab Muffin (labmuffin.com) in addition to her job as a chemistry PhD-holding science educator, says that scrubbing in moderation is key. ‘It’s very easy to over-exfoliate with harsh scrubs,’ she points out. ‘There’s supposed to be a layer of dead cells on top of your skin [the stratum corneum] to protect the living cells in the epidermis underneath. If you scrub too hard, you lose the protective dead layer and your skin will feel raw and get inflamed. Inflammation is one of the causes of acne, [and] overexfoliation can take weeks to heal, so it’s better to avoid this in the first place.’
Skincare authorities suggest that fresh-face junkies still looking to get physical should instead turn to a product that uses smooth and spherical particles to buff away dead skin. ‘Coffee and sugar are on the harsher side of the scrubbing spectrum,’ says Wong. ‘Natural alternatives that are a bit gentler are jojoba wax beads and konjac sponges.’ She recommends only using physical scrubs once or twice a week, and only pressing only very gently when using them.
Those new to chemical exfoliation may be put off due to Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones’ spa experience with a chemical peel. An iconic TV beauty moment, and the bane of facialists everywhere following the episode’s airing, she was left literally red-faced with flaking skin at Carrie’s can’t-miss book launch party after an ill-timed treatment. Luckily, skincare science has come a long way since the days of Jones’ entry into skincare’s hall of shame ‘Sometimes this can happen, especially with deeper peels performed in-clinic,’ says Wong, ‘but superficial peels [as done at home] don’t normally cause flaking.’
So how do they work? ‘Chemical exfoliants dissolve the attachments between dead cells [desmosomes] to help the dead cells slough off,’ she explains. ‘Because they penetrate more deeply into the skin, they tend to give more even exfoliation, especially compared to chunky scrubs. Chemical exfoliants can have some additional benefits as well, like fading uneven pigmentation [age spots and sun spots], hydrating skin and smoothing out fine lines.’ The results depends on your skin condition, but most people see a noticeable clearness and glow to their skin after introducing chemical exfoliants into their routines.
The star of your average chemical exfoliant is its active ingredient, which varies between products. Wong says that the most common ones are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and lactic acid, while salicylic acid (also known as BHA), is a similar ingredient that’s frequently recommended for acne-prone skin. Enzyme exfoliants are also a popular choice for beginners, including a veritable fruit salad of actives – pumpkin enzymes, papaya enzymes (papain) and pineapple enzymes (bromelain). ‘These versions are often smooth in texture, and essentially break down the barrier between dead cells, allowing for improved skin cell turnover,’ says Jarges.
Not sure where to start? While experienced chemical scrubbers can gradually up the dosage of their peels, masques and serums, as with any new routine, beginners should check in with an expert who can make sure its the right fit for your skin and offer advice on the best option from an ocean of products ‘It is best to consult with a professional facialist to determine the proper skincare products to use based on your skin type and current routine,’ agrees Jarges.
How to use them
‘Start slowly by applying it once every two or three days, either in the morning or evening,’ directs Wong. ‘If your skin can tolerate it and you like the results, you can increase either the frequency or the concentration of the product. I would recommend starting with a 4 per cent glycolic acid product.’ Chemical exfoliants can pack a powerful punch, so they should be used mindfully. ‘Again, moderation is important,’ reminds Wong. ‘If you use a concentrated chemical exfoliant too frequently at first without giving your skin time to get used to it, you may end up over-exfoliating and giving yourself hypersensitive, raw skin. Additionally, chemical exfoliants can make your skin photosensitive, which means it can get sunburnt more easily, so you should be wearing sunscreen while using them and for at least a week after you stop.’ (Friday’s advice: You should be wearing sunscreen regardless.)
Wong stresses that it may take trial and error to find a combination of chemical and physical exfoliation that works for you. Dry skin may prefer a daily exfoliating cleanser, while oily skin could benefit from a debris-busting peeling mask once a week. ‘My skin likes a gentle physical exfoliant every second day, and chemical exfoliation twice a week,’ shares Wong. ‘Paula’s Choice has some really excellent AHA and BHA products like the 8% AHA Gel and the 2% BHA Liquid.’
Ready for smoother skin without the damage? Take the classic advice doled out by our experts – and TLC – and promise your complexion ‘no (apricot) scrubs’.
Choose the right exfoliant to suit your skin needs
Sephora Renew & Peel Super Serum, Dh145, Sephora
A simple add-on to any routine, this serum focuses on balancing out your skin’s pigmentation with 0.7 per cent glycolic acid, a type of AHA. Gentle enough to be used morning and night, it’s an easy way to dip your toe into chemical exfoliation.
Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask, Dh213, Sephora
This three-in-one mask uses pumpkin enzymes and AHAs to gently turnover dead skin, while the addition of aluminium oxide particles encourages you to (very gently) massage for that clean feeling. Plus, it smells like pumpkin pie.
Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment 5% AHA, Dh125, paulaschoice.com
Coming in as a lower-strength glycolic, this serum is a good choice from those looking to knock their exfoliation routine up a notch from the basics. It may tingle slightly on the skin the first few times you use it, but the resulting clear complexion is worth it. Once comfortable, you can increase the AHA percentage by choosing the brand’s next level up.
Babor Enzyme Cleanser, Dh127, Tips and Toes
A physical cleanser that’s approved for use by our experts, this fine powder is mixed with water in the palm of your hand to create thin paste. Gently massage into skin to safely buff away dead skin cells and cleanse the skin.
Lush Buffy, Dh80, Lush
Your body can handle rougher scrubs a lot better than your face due to its thicker layers of dermis. Massage this chunky bar over legs, arms and booty (avoid the still delicate decolletage area) to smooth with ground rice and moisturise with cocoa butter.
Foreo Luna 2, Dh950, Harvey Nichols
Want something ultra-gentle that will still deep-clean out loose skin cells? Opt for a powered cleansing brush like Foreo’s bestseller. The silicon bristles vibrate away debris when used with your usual cleaner, rather than scrubbing or rubbing, making it perfect for even the most sensitive skins.