Glowing skin on your wishlist? Memorise this head-to-toe guide to exfoliation
Put down the apricot walnut scrub and back away
Nothing gives us the warm fuzzies quite like nostalgia. It can “help soothe us and regulate the negative emotions we may be experiencing (sadness, loneliness, fear),” says psychologist Valentina Stoycheva. It’s no wonder then that we keep rewatching comfort shows, flipping through family photo albums, hunting for childhood sweets and snacks like Phantom candy cigarettes and Poppins. Any object that transports us to more innocent, less stressful times.
But one product gives me an instant gag reflex-style flashback – apricot and walnut face scrub. It’s the worst kind of nostalgia — trauma.
In the guise of acne treatment, we’d sand away at our faces with dollops of these face scrubs until our pimples popped and bled and our faces turned red. Little did we know that we were performing some heavy-duty physical exfoliation with a product that had not one helpful ingredient for acne or skincare. Every time I look at my face in the mirror, I sigh at the leftover ice pick acne scars from these misguided teenage experiments.
Exfoliation can be a helpful step in acne treatment, but not in this manner. When the skincare boom happened in India about 7-10 years ago, chemical exfoliants became all the hype. You’re telling me you never pined for Pixi Glow Tonic after seeing it splashed across social media?
Soon, every brand had a line of exfoliating products. Some released entire ranges with keywords like ‘smoothening’, ‘brightening’ and ‘acne control’ – consumers screamed, yes, yes and my god yes! With little knowledge of skincare, labels and ingredients, we slathered one product after another, without realising that there was an ingredient for exfoliation in pretty much every step of our skincare routine. A one-way ticket to over-exfoliation nation (here’s what to do to fix it).
Then came the AHA-BHA peel by The Ordinary which captured the attention of skincare enthusiasts around the world. A blood-red serum that lets you do a chemical peel at home – without any expert skill, knowledge or experience. A true recipe for disaster. And most people (including myself) went overboard and ended up over-exfoliating, impairing their skin barrier and for some, even getting chemical burns.
I’ve been a bit wary of exfoliation since then, keeping it to once a month. With daily mask-wearing and my excessive face sweating, my face was angry enough as it is. I didn’t need to add glycolic acid to the mix.
When I visited celebrity dermatologist Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta’s clinic, ISAAC Luxe, I was excited to speak to experts like her and Dr Stefan Lipp, who’s on the medical advisory board of cult-favourite brand Biologique Recherche (BR). Who better to speak to about exfoliation than a rep from the lab that created the OG exfoliant, Lotion P50?
Before I sat down to get my skin assessment as part of BR’s Cabin treatment, I squeezed in some time with Gupta and Lipp. Heed their words of wisdom so you can reap the benefits of exfoliation while avoiding burning off your skin like I had the misfortune of doing.
Why do we need to exfoliate?
Our skin has a natural turnover of cells. This means that we do naturally exfoliate with healthier cells migrating from the deeper layers of our skin up top.
Gupta explains that skin has a cell-turnover cycle and with age, that cycle tends to get prolonged. “When you’re younger, your skin will change on its own, say, within 28 days. As you get older, it may take 60 days. That’s when the old skin, that is dead skin, keeps sitting on your face. That makes your skin look more sallow, tired or aged. That’s where we use exfoliants to remove this layer of dead cells and increase cell turnover.”
Lipp adds that the body then notices that “oh, the dead cells are gone. I have to quickly produce new cells. So new cells are produced and they’re of better quality. Over time, your skin will develop a glow, because of exfoliation.” Exfoliation can also help regulate skin sebum. And removing this top layer of dead skin cells means that your skin can better receive the benefits of all the other goodies in your skincare routine.
Manual vs chemical exfoliation
Some people swear by their glycolic acid toner, others refuse to use anything on their face other than their homemade honey, lemon and sugar scrub. Two factions have been created in the skincare community. One is anti-physical or manual exfoliation and advocates gentle chemical exfoliation. The other sect condemns the increase in ‘chemicals’ in our products and swears by ‘natural’ ingredients.
When it comes down to the formulation, the answer isn’t so simple. “There are chemicals in everything. The oxygen we breathe, the H20 we drink for survival, our clothes, our food. Everything is a chemical. What is ‘natural’ also has a chemical composition, and many of these ‘chemical’ exfoliants are derived from natural sources, like sugarcane and willow bark. We need to mentally bridge this gap,” says Gupta.
Our old-school scrubs had large jagged particles that could cause some skin damage if the pressure applied is too much. Gupta says if you’re adamant about using a physical exfoliant, then pick a product that has small exfoliating particles. Though this can be hard to determine while examining it from the outside.
What chemical exfoliant should I be using?
Gupta groups chemical exfoliants into two popular forms AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) – though now we also have polyhydroxy acid (PHAs) and lipo hydroxy acids (LHAs) which are believed to be even more gentle on the skin. The most popular AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. “These are better for people with dry and normal skin types since they don’t get absorbed into oil/sebum”. For acne-prone skin and sebum control, BHAs work better, namely salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid can be used in the treatment of acne and is available primarily in a concentration of up to 2%. When it comes to AHAs, there are a lot of variations and combinations, so it can be a bit confusing to know where to start. We’d recommend starting with a mandelic or lactic acid which doesn’t penetrate as deep into the layers of our skin compared to glycolic acid, making them better options for beginners and those with sensitive skin. Though, Gupta says the best thing would be to get a skin assessment done to decide which one you should use (and at what percentage) based on your skin type.
Now with the basics out of the way let’s jump into the best ways to exfoliate along with some of our favourite products.
A guide to exfoliation from head to toe
Yup, you read that correctly. Your scalp needs exfoliating to get rid of the build-up left by dry shampoo, hair oil, styling gel, hair spray (and more), which clogs our hair follicles and leads to lifeless hair, an oilier scalp and itchy, flaky skin. Trichologist Vincent De Marco tells Byrdie that once every 7-10 washes is a good idea.
A clean scalp means a healthy scalp – the gateway to our dreams of having shampoo advertisement-esque luscious locks.
Experts recommend you start at a low percentage once a week and work your way up (if need be). “The face skin is very fragile, so I would keep physical exfoliation for the body where the skin is more resilient. Start slow, then always follow it up with a moisturiser and sunscreen during the day,” says Gupta.
If you want to stick to a physical scrub, be mindful and ensure you’re applying the gentlest of pressure to your skin. Alternatively, if you’re trying to transition to chemical exfoliation, try a gommage style peeling exfoliant. The product tends to ball up on the skin the more you rub it in, giving you the illusion of the physical scrub that you’re used to.
The skin on our lips is very delicate. If you have dry and chapped lips, exfoliating is a good idea to remove dead skin. This also means that the hydrating and moisturising lip balm you apply afterwards seeps in better. A smoother surface also means that your makeup application goes on smoother – especially important if you’re using matte liquid lipsticks. Keep exfoliation of your lips to a maximum of once every other week or so. While it’s the easiest to mix up some honey and sugar at home and rub that across your lips for a DIY lip scrub, Dr Kristina Collins says it can be more damaging than helpful.
“It can be super tempting to want to scrub the dry skin off when lips are chapped but it’s usually better to help hydrate the skin rather than create further cracks in the skin or trauma to the skin’s protective barrier,” she tells Ipsy. She recommends non-abrasive chemical exfoliation using products with mild AHAs or fruit enzymes. Always hydrate your lips once you wipe away the exfoliating product and use sunscreen to protect your lips if you’re out in the sun.
“Our body needs exfoliation too. The skin on your body is thicker than your face, making it less prone to negative reactions. Exfoliation can help remove the dead cells, clear your pores and minimise the appearance of keratosis pilaris (KP) and prevent ingrown hair. Always moisturise and use sun protection afterwards,” says dermatologist Dr Medha Gatkare.
There’s a high likelihood for Indians to have knees, elbows and underarm areas that are a different colour from the rest of our bodies. Bumpy chicken-like skin, pigmentation and marks from ingrown hair.
While most of it is perfectly normal, constant sun exposure, lack of moisture and friction can make these areas appear discoloured, scaly and ashy.
Some light exfoliation, hydration and moisture can help resurface your skin (including the acne marks on your bum) to get rid of any roughness and sun-damaged hyperpigmentation. You can do that manually with a loofah or body brush, or try chemical exfoliants on the body as well.
Our rough callused feet carry the weight of the world (and our bodies) all day long. The least we can do is give them some TLC. With the constant pressure on the feet’s skin from staying upright, running, and walking (and the tight shoes we refuse to give up), our skin can get hardened and thickened.
Calluses form as a protection technique, according to Dr Joshua Zeichner, and we don’t want to completely remove them. “The goal should be to have enough of a callus to protect your feet, but not too much that it leaves you with uncomfortable and unpleasant thick skin.”
If you opt for a foot peeling mask, he advises using it not more than once a month (if not two months). Keep the use of a jhaama or pumice stone to once a week, that also gently. Regular exfoliation and moisturising will keep your feet looking healthy and the need for a pedicure away.
A personal favourite is the peeling masks for feet. You put on little booties, pour in a mix of exfoliating ingredients and wrap up your feet. This method requires some patience (not only because you have to keep this on for a minimum of 45 minutes) because it will take about 10-14 days before you start seeing any dry skin coming off. Don’t expect a ‘peel’ in the literal sense. This will cause the dry skin on your feet to slow shed.