SKINCARE 101 : Exfoliation and Your Skin Barrier 💁♂️
If you're like me, you probably think you can't get enough exfoliation. After all, nothing makes your complexion more radiant than removing a layer of week-old, worn out skin cells that dampen your glow and leave your skin dull. There are what are called chemical exfoliants like Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) delivered in the form of a potent layering serum, splash mask or moisturizer. And there are physical exfoliants like tried-and-true grainy scrubs made with crushed walnuts, apricot shells, polyethylene beads, even diatomaceous earth — soft, naturally occurring sedimentary rock that's ground into a fine white powder. Used in power scrubs like the superb Kiehl's Dermatologist Solutions Epidermal Re-Texturizing Micro-Dermabrasion, diatomaceous earth is highly effective but can be too effective if you apply too much pressure when scrubbing.
As I've gotten older (and wiser!), I've come to realize that I've been too tough on myself. That is, tougher on my skin than I should be. I now believe that the key to looking youthful longer is in protecting my skin barrier, treating it gently like the gift of youth it is, not ripping it to shreds. The truth is, as we age, our skin barrier thins and becomes a less effective barrier of anything. As the outer layer of our skin, it's most exposed to the elements. It erodes like a stone polished by wind, sun and sea. But unlike a stone, it doesn't become smoother, polished and more perfect over time. It becomes paper-thin, frail and wrinkled.
Your skin barrier is everything.
In addition to defending against environmental aggressors, the skin barrier prevents depletion of oil and water in your skin layers, and protects the vital collagen and elastin that keeps your skin soft, plump — and youthful! When skin loses water, it becomes dehydrated. That sounds simple enough, right? But it's also serious because it has a direct effect on aging and worse, premature aging. Dehydrated skin isn't healthy, reflective or youthful. And it's certainly not pretty. As your skin barrier thins with the passage of time and as a result of external damage (especially from the sun's UV rays), collagen and elastin production decreases beneath it. With less of what plumps it up, skin literally caves on itself. The result on the surface is the formation of wrinkles and lines, like the creases in the skin of dried fruit. What was once a plump grape becomes a shriveled raisin.
So what does all of this have to do with exfoliation?
Simply, removing complexion-dulling dead skin cells is good. But scraping your skin barrier to do it is bad. Very, very bad. When I first started taking serious care of my skin, the only exfoliators that were readily available were physical ones, that is scrubs. And this is where exfoliation can trip you up. An abrasive physical scrub can do unintended damage to your skin. Think about it. Some of the most popular scrubs contain ground apricot shells or crushed walnuts that can actually cause micro-cuts or tears in the skin surface. When they're crushed or ground, those tiny pieces can have edges as sharp as broken glass. I now avoid those entirely. And you should too! But there are some very well-formulated, gentle physical scrubs that don't tear your skin. Those include cleansing powders that, when mixed with water, can be as creamy or as exfoliating as you like. One of my all-time faves is the Peter Thomas Roth Camu Camu Power Vitamin C Brightening Cleansing Powder. It's gentle and an excellent choice if you prefer a physical exfoliant from time to time.
For my regular daily and weekly exfoliation, I prefer chemical exfoliants like AHAs and BHAs. Alpha Hydroxy Acids like Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid are excellent for exfoliation of dead surface skin cells in a gentle, yet effective manner. No scraping, no micro-tears, no physical damage to your skin barrier. But they can be very strong and you must tread carefully. In fact, I've recently incorporated a really well-formulated AHA moisturizer into my nightly regimen. The Alpha Beta® Exfoliating Moisturizer from Dr. Dennis Gross is what the company calls "part moisturizer, part exfoliator". And that's 100% true! In fact, the second and third ingredients are Lactic Acid and Glycolic Acid. A quick scan of the ingredient list and I see it's chock full of outstanding exfoliating acids, including Malic Acid, Mandelic Acid, Salicylic Acid, Citric Acid, and Tartaric Acid! That's only part of the story, though. It's a really great moisturizer, too, with emollients and humectants like skin-compatible squalane, as well as Glycerin, Sodium PCA, Ceramide NP, and Sodium Hyaluronate. With this gem, you can have your exfoliating and moisturizing cake and eat it too!
Extra Credit: I love this piece on AHAs and BHAs by the GOAT, skincare guru Paula Begoun and highly recommend it!
For a more intense, weekly exfoliation, I prefer a super potent glycolic treatment like the AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution from Deciem's The Ordinary brand. This one is serious stuff and no joke! It's a treatment right out of a high-end spa where at least you have the guidance of a professional facialist. It's so potent, it comes with this caution:
Note: This formula contains a very high concentration of free acids. We recommend use only if you are an experienced user of acid exfoliation and your skin is not sensitive.
All the potency of a spa-grade AHA in the palm of your hand.