Exfoliators: why, what and how?!

Why do we exfoliate?

Exfoliation, lots of people do it, but do we really know why, and how to get the best results out of it? First, let’s talk about why we should exfoliate our skin in general. Over several weeks, the lower part of our skin moves up towards the surface. As the skin cells move up, they start to break down, and by the time they’ve reached the surface, they’re dead. So, our top layer of skin is full of dead skin cells. They do shed naturally, but exfoliating helps to speed up this process and leaves your skin fresh and clean. Removing these dead skin cells improves the texture of your skin, as well as increasing cell rejuvenation and collagen production. This then improves fine lines, scarring, acne, and clogged pores. It also helps your skin to absorb products better; so, when you use moisturisers, serums and oils, your skin is going to benefit from them more. So, it’s very valuable to exfoliate regularly.

What are exfoliators?

There are two main types of exfoliants, chemical and physical. Physical exfoliators are your traditional “scrubs” that contain bits in them, such as sugars, granules, pips or seeds. Chemical exfoliators use acids and enzymes, typically Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA).

Physical Exfoliators

Physical exfoliators are the most common types of exfoliators usually sold as face scrubs. They often contain sugars, seeds and granules and manually rub the surface of the skin to remove the dead skin cells. Microbead scrubs were once popular, however, are no longer recommended because the small plastic particles contaminate the ocean and are damaging to sea life and the environment.

Sometimes physical exfoliators come in the form of face brushes, loofahs, and flannels as these manually rub the surface of the skin to remove dead cells too.

Physical exfoliators are best for people with dry to normal skin. Dry skin tends to have a build-up of dry patches and these types of exfoliators are brilliant at removing these. If you have sensitive skin, it’s best to avoid physical exfoliators as they can cause microtears and they can be quite harsh on the skin.

Chemical Exfoliators

The word chemical can sound scary, but not all chemicals are bad for us. Chemical exfoliators come in two main forms, Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA). The exfoliators are usually very mild for use on the face and work by using acids or enzymes to break down and dissolve the dead skin cells. You don’t need to rub chemical exfoliators into the skin, they just need to be washed off.

Alpha Hydroxy Acid:
Glycolic Acid
Lactic Acid
Citric Acid

Beta Hydroxy Acid:
Salicylic Acid
Citric Acid (depending on formulation)


AHA’s or Alpha Hydroxy Acids are essentially hydrophilic (water-loving) and are naturally sourced. For example, Glycolic Acid is derived from sugar while Lactic Acid is derived from milk. AHA’s are great for most skin types but are particularly good for normal, combination and oily skin. When quite mild, they’re also better for people with more sensitive skin. AHA’s also boost collagen production so are fabulous for more mature skin.

BHA’s or Beta Hydroxy Acids are essentially Salicylic Acid, which I’m sure a lot of people have heard of if they’ve had acne or pimples. BHA is fat soluble and so it’s brilliant for oily skin. It’s almost the same as AHA’s in that it dissolves and removes dead skin cells, but it penetrates deeper into the skin and really help to unclog pores, and is commonly used to treat acne and blackheads. When it’s a stronger solution it can even be used to treat verrucas and warts!

How often?

It’s recommended to exfoliate your skin at least once a week if you have oily skin, and twice a week if you have more dry skin. Exfoliating too often can cause an overproduction of oil in the sebaceous glands, so that can just clog your pores up even more and is counter-productive. So, it’s important to find the right balance. Sometimes there are even smaller quantities of AHA’s and BHA’s in facial tonics and toners, which can be used daily too.

Since becoming a qualified beautician, I’ve found myself delving deeper and deeper into the science of skincare and how important it is, and I can’t help myself now. I will be posting more blogs on these types of topics as I love it so much, and they’re kind of educational!