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Exfoliation: The big picture and the nitty gritty of this important step

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Go gentle when you exfoliate with a scrub. Picture yourself exfoliating a balloon that you don't want to pop.

It’s an often misunderstood and mis-performed step of a healthy skincare routine – exfoliation. Simply put, it’s removing dead skin cells so the fresh stuff can rise to the top. But there are multiple ways to do it and get it right for your unique skin.


As we usually do, let’s start with how your skin works: 

Our skin constantly regenerates itself from the bottom up, like grass. Skin cells start out deep in the dermis and make a journey upward to the surface – where our skin releases them. Our skin naturally sheds dead cells throughout the day, everyday. And as old cells shed, our skin regenerates healthy new cells to replace them. 

Without consistent exfoliation as adults, we start to see a buildup of dead and damaged cells. That buildup can trap debris in pores to form blackheads, can result in rough or bumpy skin texture, can impede our products from absorbing and working as they should, and can contribute to generally dull, tired looking complexion.

By removing dead skin cells, exfoliation does a few party tricks: it smooths the surface of the skin, it helps fade dark spots, it evens skin tone, it allows buildup to make its way out of your skin, and it gets new, healthy cell growth going. Basically, it keeps things moving. By clearing away the old and stimulating new healthy cell growth, smart exfoliation can even help reverse visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles.

But, don’t overdo it. Gentle exfoliation at least once weekly is an essential part of a healthy skincare routine, but it’s not a more-is-better solution by any means. 

The next question is what to reach for. There are two types of exfoliation: mechanical and chemical.

Mechanical exfoliation is probably the kind you’re the most accustomed to, from “scrubs” (we don’t like that word because it implies harsh pressure...) at the drug store to the finer polishes we carry at Heyday. 

Mechanical exfoliation uses a physical tool (i.e., a brush, sponge, gritty/beady stuff) to create friction and physically loosen dead surface skin cells. Think of manual exfoliation like sanding or buffing the skin. With that analogy in mind, you can probably understand why pressing harder or using more of a gritty scrub won’t actually give you the smoothest finish. Think dusting the shelves rather than scrubbing a stubborn pan. Go easy!

Next up, chemical exfoliation. Right off the bat, you might be thinking, “chemical, that sounds unnatural and extreme.” But here, we’re referring to ingredients like natural fruit enzymes or hydroxy acids (aka AHA/BHA) that help the skin release dead skin cells. They do so by chemical reaction, penetrating the skin evenly and deeply, rather than physically knocking dead cells away. They can be particularly helpful for clearing the skin of breakouts and buildup in the pores, and reversing signs of aging. 

Within chemical exfoliants, enzymes work like Pacman, digesting dead skin cells, breaking down the “glue” that holds dead skin cells together, and also breaking up any gunk hanging out in your pores. Most enzyme exfoliation treatments get applied to the skin like a mask and washed off after 5-15 minutes. The great thing about enzymes is that they’re safe and gentle and only digest truly dead skin, so you don’t risk damaging your skin.

Hydroxy (AHA & BHA) acids are exfoliating ingredients that are able to penetrate the skin most deeply and can results in remarkable and lasting changes in the skin when it comes to uneven skin tone, visible signs of aging, and clearing breakout conditions. Acids do need to be used wisely, though, as you can quickly cause damage to your skin by overdoing it. Acids work to also break down that “glue” mentioned before, and generally also stimulate some deep action in the skin, like the production of new collagen and elastin. 

Chemical exfoliation can range from a very gentle treatment for home use to treatments you’d get at a dermatologist’s office. Bottom line, the name is feared more than the process itself (everyone thinks of that Samantha in Sex & The City post-peel episode), especially when the right exfoliant is recommended to you by a pro.  

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So in summary... 

• Exfoliation, in its various forms, sloughs off the dull, dead skin and reveals the fresh new skin cells below.

• It's an important step for everyone, at least once a week, but a pro will tell you how often is healthiest for your skin type and conditions you face.


• Always use caution when exfoliating: Too much can take off too many layers of the skin, leaving you with raw over sensitized skin! Go easy.

• What combination of manual and/or chemical exfoliation is best for your skin, which specific ingredients are best for your skin and how often you should use them varies by person. This is the type of thing your Skin Therapist can help you find out.

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