Exfoliation Decoded

Exfoliation Decoded
Facials, Skin

Exfoliation is one of the best steps that we can incorporate in our skin care regimen, as it may be used to treat a myriad of skin concerns including, but not limited to, acne, pigmentation, dehydration/ flakiness, and of course aging skin.

So what is exfoliation? It is process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin.

In doing so the skin is forced to renew itself, which not only improves the function of the skin, but results in smoother, more hydrated skin. Although renewal of the skin happens naturally, with age and some skin disorders this process slows down resulting in a build up of dead skin cells that leads to dull, devitalized skin. So in effect, exfoliation is the process of renewing skin cells manually.

The challenge of course, as with anything else in life, is that too much (or too little!) can be detrimental. The key then is to understand which ingredients may work best for your specific skin concern.

Mechanical Exfoliation

This is the most popular form of exfoliation as it’s the one that most of us are first introduced to. This type of exfoliation employs friction with the use of an abrasive tool or medium. Face brushes, loofahs or cloths fall into this category, along with gritty ingredients such as corn cob meal, oatmeal, fruit seed powders and polyethylene beads. It is important to note that the larger the size, and coarser the ingredient used the more abrasive the action. As a result, ingredients such as ground shells and seeds, such as coffee, may be better used on the body or feet, rather than the face.

This option may work best for normal to combination skins that are perhaps thicker in texture. Because of the abrasive nature of this type of exfoliation, it is generally recommended no more than 2 -3 times a week.

Chemical Exfoliation

This form of exfoliation either involves breaking of the bonds that hold certain skin cells together and/ or dissolving the excess lipids (oils) and dead skin cells that may be present on the surface of the skin. There are many different types of ingredients that may be used, however generally these ingredients fall into two categories – hydroxy acids and enzymes.

Depending on the strength of the formulation, this type of exfoliation may be either done as much as daily, for example if they are formulated in cleansers, or as little as weekly.

Hydroxy Acids

Along with the concentration of the ingredient used, the action of hydroxy acids is usually dependent on the pH of the solution – generally the further away the pH of the solution is from the pH of the skin the more aggressive the exfoliation result. As a result, depending on the product formulation, there may be some sensitivity associated with the use of hydroxy acids, though most retail strength versions and those used in skin treatments or facials do not generally require downtime or time away from work.

Common hydroxy acids used in skin care are salicylic, lactic and glycolic acids, derived from the bark of the willow tree, milk and sugar cane respectively. This option is generally best for oily and acneic skins, or dull, pigmented, devitalized or mature skins.


The function of enzymes is not pH dependent, and instead may require heat or water for activation. Because of this, enzymes are generally considered to be a better option for sensitized or sensitive skin. Common examples of enzymes used in skin care are papain and bromelain, derived from papaya and pineapples respectively.

Still, though not classified as exfoliant ingredients, acid-free smoothing agents such as rose hip and hibiscus, along with retinols help to stimulate the renewal of skin cells from the inside out, and can help to increase the effectiveness of exfoliants when formulated together.

Though there are instances where certain categories of exfoliants may be best for certain skin conditions, generally a mix of different types of exfoliation ingredients, along with those that brighten and calm the skin within the same formulation, presents the best overall benefit for consumers.

Regardless of the form of exfoliation used, too much exfoliation, or exfoliating too aggressively may result in irritated skin, so care must be taken to avoid this result. Certain medications may contraindicate the use of exfoliants so consult with your skin therapist or doctor before starting an exfoliation regimen. Also the use of sunscreen when exfoliating is paramount, regardless of the season.

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Written by: KoKo Fernando
Hand & Stone Bloor Street

KoKo Fernando is a qualified chemical engineer, cosmetologist, and professional skin therapist with a background in education & training, sales and operations management within the energy, manufacturing, fashion and beauty industries. Her passion for health and wellness, combined with her chemical engineering training, fuels her fascination for how product ingredients affect the body and mind. She currently teaches courses in the Cosmetics, Esthetician/ Spa Management and Fashion Arts programs at a College in Toronto, Canada.