Exfoliation can be one of the best things you do for your skin, but it can also be one of the trickiest. You can over-exfoliate, choose the wrong type or even use it at the wrong time of the day. In this article, we give you the facts about 13 common but false myths about exfoliating your face.
Exfoliation is one of the most fundamental steps in any skincare regimen. But why is exfoliating so beneficial? The primary goal of exfoliation is to slough off dead epidermal cells on the skin’s outer surface (stratum corneum), revealing fresh skin cells and resulting in a smooth, bright, and revitalised skin texture. Exfoliation also helps prevent clogged pores, which means fewer breakouts; it also stimulates new skin cell production, which slows as we age; and it improves the effectiveness of topical skincare products by enhancing absorption. Long-term exfoliating might boost collagen production. Collagen is essential for healthy, bright skin. The protein also improves skin elasticity, reducing the appearance of fine wrinkles and sagging.
As beneficial as exfoliating is for the skin, it is slightly more complicated than simply picking up the first exfoliant you see in a store and throwing it on your face. In this article, we debunk some common exfoliation myths to help you master the basics of exfoliation. Here you will find the Do’s and Don’ts of using exfoliators.
Myth #1: Only granular exfoliators count as exfoliators
False: There are two main methods to exfoliate the skin: physical and chemical. In short, chemical exfoliants work to break down the cellular bonds of dead skin cells rather than physically buffering away the top layer of dead skin.
Physical exfoliants use a physical element to remove dead skin cells. Physical exfoliants can come in the form of exfoliating scrubs containing sugar, plastic microbeads, grains, seeds, or groundnut shells to dislodge dead skin cells. Also worth noting, items such as a washcloth or a silicone brush, such as Truth Treatment System’s Ultrasonic Cleansing Brush, are considered physical exfoliants.
On the downside, physical exfoliants might be too harsh for some skin types. Some exfoliating scrubs can have large grains or beads, which may irritate the skin and cause redness. They may even cause micro-tears on the surface of your skin. These tears allow for bacteria to enter the skin, potentially causing inflammation, clogged pores, broken capillaries, and scarring. For this reason, many experts prefer chemical exfoliants, which they feel are often overall safer and more controlled.
Chemical exfoliators use acids and enzymes to loosen and remove dead skin cells without any scrubbing. They are often more gentle for sensitive skin. There are two main types of chemical exfoliators, AHAs and BHAs. AHAs work by melting the glue, which attaches the dead skin cells to the outer layer of the skin, whilst BHAs are oil-soluble ingredients that go deeper into the skin and pores for a thorough cleanse. Chemical exfoliation not only reduces the risk of over-scrubbing but can penetrate the skin deeper than a physical exfoliant for more permanent and long-lasting results. Whilst you will not get as much instant gratification, you will notice the difference after a month or two of regular use.
So should you use a physical or chemical exfoliator? Well, it depends on what your skin needs are. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer here because our individual skin types are so different and varied. It is a matter of preference and needs. If you are looking for simple exfoliation, then a physical exfoliator may be best for you. Although they do not produce the most instant results, chemical exfoliation is regarded to be more gentle and safe. While not as fast-acting as their physical counterparts, they penetrate deeper into the skin and break apart the bonds that hold the dead skin cells together
Myth #2: Physical exfoliants are not good for your skin
False: there is this idea that physical exfoliants are basically the devil, and you should only use chemical exfoliants. This is just not true. Physical exfoliation in the right hands works really well, but they tend to be misused.
The issue is that some physical exfoliants are really easy to overuse. Over-exfoliation will make your skin more prone to infections because your barrier has been compromised, resulting in skin sensitization, broken capillaries, dryness/dehydration, and accelerated ageing. And most people do not use physical exfoliants correctly. Many use them for too long, too often, and usually press too hard, potentially causing adverse effects.
There is one significant advantage that physical exfoliants have over chemical exfoliants – because they work straight away, it is much easier to tell if you have over-exfoliated so you can stop, instead of finding out a day later when you wake up with a raw face.
Physical exfoliants can have a place in your skincare routine. They just need to be used carefully.
Myth #3: Exfoliating with acids is scary
False: If you are new to skincare, liquid chemical exfoliation could seem a little intimidating. That is not the case. When used at the right concentrations, acids are some of the most beneficial ingredients available in skincare.
While a physical exfoliant relies on a grainy texture and manual massaging or ‘scrubbing’ action to dislodge dead skin cells, acid exfoliants penetrate more deeply and may remove more dead skin cells without irritating. The chemicals in question are exfoliating acids – namely Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta-Hydroxy Acids (BHAs). Typically, AHAs are recommended for normal, dry, and sun-damaged skin because they also act as a hydrator, while BHAs are particularly good for those with acne-prone and oily complexions as they can clean out pores and remove bacteria.
Each acid acts on the skin differently, mostly dependent upon the molecular size and/or solubility in water or oils.
AHAs are great for:
- Reducing fine lines
- Fading pigmentation and age spots
- Improve hydration
- Reducing the appearance of enlarged pores
Glycolic Acid (AHAs): Glycolic Acid is the most common type of AHA, also known as Alpha-Hydroxy Acids, which are water-soluble acids made from sugary fruits. The goal is to peel away the surface of your skin so that new pigmented skin cells can generate. This results in a smooth and glowy finish.
Lactic Acid (AHAs): Lactic Acid is also part of the AHA family, yet it is gentler and great for sensitive skin. Using Lactic Acid regularly may also help with anti-ageing, firming up sagging skin, fine lines and wrinkles by promoting collagen growth.
PHAs (AHAs): Also known as Poly-Hydroxy Acids, these are also part of the AHA family. PHAs have bigger molecules than Glycolic/Lactic Acid, so they do not penetrate as deeply, ensuring a lower risk of skin irritation. They are also great for sensitive skin, especially for those suffering from rosacea and eczema and who find it difficult to tolerate AHAs and BHAs.
Mandelic Acid (AHAs): An AHA that comes from bitter almonds and is known for its gentleness and antibacterial properties. It not only exfoliates the surface of the skin but also helps to fight acne as well as post-acne marks.
BHAs are great for:
- Acne-prone skin
- Getting deeper into the pores to remove excess sebum
- Improving texture of sun-damaged skin
- Unclog pores and reduce inflammation
- All skin types
- Can clear pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads
- Fading dark spots
Salicylic Acid (BHAs): Salicylic Acid is a very well-known oil-soluble acid that is the gold standard in treating blackheads and enlarged pores. It works inside the pores to clear out dead skin cells that clog them.
Myth #4: Stronger exfoliants are better
False: When you start using chemical exfoliants, it is tempting to go for the strongest exfoliant you can find. Do not think that applying double the recommended amount of acid onto your skin will get you results doubly as fast. This is a sure way to over-exfoliation; an impairment of your skin’s barrier that may lead to dehydration, sensitivity, redness and tightness, breakouts and irritations and potentially blemishes.
Product efficacy is not based solely on the percentage of the acid in the product, although, of course, this does have some bearing. Product pH and individual acid strength will determine the potency of the product. The overall formula and additional ingredients included will also affect efficacy. To work most effectively at home, an acid must fall within a pH range of 3-4 and be at a concentration of 2%-20%.
In general, how strong you need to go in terms of acid strength depends on your skin type. Make sure to pick a product that declares its percentage of exfoliating acid transparently. Starting low and going slow is always good advice when dealing with acids. Over-exfoliation is very common and can cause an impaired skin barrier, leading to dehydration, irritation, and blemishes. Never start on the highest percentage you can find with your acids; begin with a lower percentage product and slowly increase the strength.
If your skin starts showing any signs of over-exfoliation, back off and use a weaker product, or even no product at all, until your skin recovers. Just listen to your skin, and do not overdo it.
Myth #5: You should exfoliate every day
False: Exfoliating is a great way to increase radiance, improve skin tone, and minimise congestion and fine lines. However, more is not always more – and you can easily overdo it.
Over-exfoliation can disrupt the skin’s microbiome. Remove too much good bacteria and natural oils, and the skin’s barrier function is compromised. That can result in irritation such as flakiness, dryness, redness or inflammation, as well as loss of natural elasticity. How often you should exfoliate your face depends on your skin type, your individual tolerance level, and which exfoliation method you choose. Generally, the more aggressive the exfoliation, the less often it needs to be done. Aggressive is defined by particle size for physical exfoliants (bigger being more) and the percentage of active ingredients for chemical ones (higher being more).
For most skin types, a gentle chemical exfoliant can be used nearly every day (below 10% for AHAs or below 2%for BHAs). Higher-strength chemical exfoliants and physical exfoliants are best reserved for a once or twice a week treatment — think of them as masks. As a rule of thumb, most experts advise that you exfoliate once to three times per week – as long as your skin can handle it. But above all, listen to your skin.
Exfoliants should never be used seven days a week, 365 days a year. Too much daily exfoliation is causing severe harm to your skin even if you cannot see it. The underlying cause of premature skin ageing is inflammation, and frequent exfoliation is one of the many culprits.
Myth #6: You cannot use chemical exfoliants in the morning
False: We often hear that chemical exfoliants cannot be used in the morning. This myth stems from the fact that Glycolic Acid – and most likely other AHAs such as Lactic Acid – makes the skin photosensitive and requires less sunlight for burns and sunburns.
However, the way AHAs cause photosensitivity is not due to their interaction with sunlight. It is because the acid will alter the structure of your skin, so it is more sensitive to sunlight. It does not matter if the acid is still on the skin or has been washed off, as this effect will last for up to a week after you have used an exfoliant.
So the bottom line is: You can use chemical exfoliants any time you like – but you should always use sunscreen if you have used a chemical exfoliant in the past week. In any case, you should always be using SPF – every single day, 365 days a year.
Myth #7: Sensitive skin does not need exfoliation
False: Enhancing skin cell turnover and increasing the penetration of your skincare products, exfoliation can be beneficial for all skin types. Even sensitive skin may benefit from gentle exfoliation, although for skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea, you should seek the advice of your dermatologist.
You can – and should – exfoliate sensitive skin. But, when exfoliating sensitive skin, it is essential to proceed with caution and care. Lactic Acid is an AHA that is especially good for people with sensitive skin as it tends to be the most gentle of chemical exfoliators. Lactic Acid is the most hydrating of all the acids, so often, it is used for sensitive skin that has a more delicate skin barrier and therefore needs more hydration in the skin.
You certainly would not want to over-exfoliate if you have sensitive skin, but exfoliating gently once a week can actually bring your skin the soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients from your treatment products/moisturiser to a deeper level (rather than just sitting on the surface).
Myth #8: You should not exfoliate at all if you have problematic skin
False: Problem skin does not need a more aggressive exfoliation approach. A harsh manual exfoliating scrub can create micro-tears in the skin, and scrubbing at acne-prone skin will only cause further inflammation and spread bacteria. Which means? More breakouts, more redness and more scarring.
Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, is ideal for acne-prone skin. For oily or acne-prone skin, experts typically suggest using a BHA chemical exfoliator that contains Salicylic Acid. As well as removing dead skin cells from the skin’s surface, oil-soluble Salicylic Acid penetrates the skin to exfoliate pores from within. By unclogging pores and helping to reduce sebum production, it can help heal current blemishes while also reducing the likelihood of future breakouts.
If you have active acne – it is best to play it safe with less aggressive enzyme and AHA options initially and work your way up to stronger active ingredients.
Myth #9: Exfoliation removes the skin’s natural moisture levels
False: Regular use of safely formulated AHAs/BHAs should not compromise the skin’s barrier, thin the dermis, or accelerate the signs of ageing.
As long as the exfoliator is formulated intelligently and used correctly, it will not strip your skin of moisture and natural oils. However, it is important to note that acids are strong ingredients and can damage the skin if misused. Anytime you consistently use products with a pH that is too low or too high, you do risk disrupting your skin’s acid mantle (or moisture barrier). When you have compromised the skin’s acid mantle, you can experience redness, irritation, dryness and sensitivity.
Exfoliating every day can strip the skin of its natural oils, which can cause breakouts. It can also cause irritation because you remove the top layer of skin before it can heal. Plus, the skin is an intelligent organ and sheds dead skin cells on its own; if we exfoliate too often, it can actually slow cell turnover.
If you are experiencing constant dryness or tightness, you may be over-exfoliating, so give your skin more time between sessions or find a hydrating exfoliator that works to pull moisture back into the skin.
Myth #10: Vitamin C cannot be used with AHAs/BHAs
False: Acids can enhance the potency of vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid). That “acids destabilize Vitamin C” appears to be one of these things that is repeated all the time but is not entirely true. There does not seem to be any evidence that layering two pH-compatible products would render either one unsuccessful – in actuality, quite the opposite. Employing an acid right before your Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) could actually enhance your results.
If your skin can tolerate them, it is possible to use acids at the same time as Vitamin C. As both vitamin C, and AHA formulas tend to have a relatively acidic pH, they may irritate sensitive skins.
Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids are naturally more acidic than the skin and can therefore contribute to lowering the skin’s pH. According to studies, the active form of Vitamin C, L-Ascorbic Acid, has been found to soak up best at a very low pH. Put simply, an acid may create the perfect conditions for the Vitamin C to be effective. And using both ingredients in the same routine can help achieve a more even skin tone and texture.
The catch? You need to be familiar with the pH of your products.
Myth #11: You cannot use retinol with an AHA or BHA exfoliant
False: No research anywhere demonstrates or concludes that you cannot use chemical exfoliants at the same time as retinol. They will not cancel each other out or react with each other dangerously when used in the same skincare routine.
The claim that retinol is not working with AHA or BHA exfoliants seems to originate from a misunderstanding from a study from 1999 about how skincare ingredients work together and how each affects the skin’s structure. The confusion about using retinol with AHA or BHA products has to do with concern over the exfoliants’ acidity lowering the skin’s pH, thus (as the claim goes) disrupting the retinol’s ability to work its anti-ageing, skin-smoothing magic.
Several studies show that you can use AHAs/BHA together with Retinoids, for example:
- A 2008 study tested the efficacy of Glycolic Acid, Retinol and Lactose on photoaged skin and found out the combo helped treat some of the sun damage.
- A 2015 study tested a skincare regime made up of AHAs, BHA, Retinoids and sunscreen and discovered it is safe and effective for treating moderate-to-severe photodamage.
- A 2015 study tested the combination of Retinoic Acid and Glycolic Acid for treating acne scars and claims it is an effective alternative to more invasive procedures.
Technology in skincare has progressed considerably and now allows us to use AHAs/BHA together with Retinoids without compromising their effectiveness.
A lot of it depends on the formula. Retinol converts to its active all-trans Retinoic Acid form once it has already penetrated the skin, and therefore the pH is more physiologic when the reaction occurs. In today’s formulations with newer delivery systems, which make for more efficient products without the need to irritate the outer layer, it should be fine to use both. If you are worried, you can wait up to 30 minutes between them.
There is a potential issue, though: there is more risk of irritation when you are using two strong exfoliators simultaneously. It is, therefore, possible that your skin cannot handle both at the same time without getting irritated and angry and over-exfoliated. So it is a good idea to start slowly with gentle products and add one at a time, and monitor your skin carefully while using them. If your skin is delicate, you may want to keep using them separately to avoid the risk of irritation.
Myth #12: People with dark skin cannot use Glycolic Acid exfoliants
False: Whilst there have been a lot of myths and misconceptions over the years, chemical exfoliations are generally considered safe for dark skin. They should, however, be used with caution.
Using AHAs and BHA can have hyperpigmentation as a side effect as people with darker skin are more prone to hyperpigmentation. Since AHA penetrates so deeply into the skin, it activates the melanocytes in Black and Brown skin. What does that mean? When melanocytes are triggered, what happens is that they start to overproduce melanin, which results in hyperpigmentation.
Glycolic Acid is a small molecule, so that it can get deeper into your skin. That means that the risk of side effects is higher than with Lactic Acid or Mandelic Acid, if everything else in the product is the same. But there are many other things in an AHA product that will change its strength – the most important ones are percentage and pH.
So start low and slow with any active ingredients such as Hydroxyl Acids (AHA’s, BHA’s & PHA’s). Always patch test and listen to your skin. Finally, it is important to always use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above after using any exfoliants in your skincare routine.
Myth #13: All chemical exfoliants increase sun sensitivity
False: One key difference between AHAs vs BHAs is how they affect the skin’s photosensitivity. Neither BHA nor PHAs increase sun sensitivity; only AHAs – especially Glycolic Acid – do.
Photosensitivity refers to the skin’s ability to tolerate UV radiation, and plenty of skincare ingredients, as well as some medications, can affect this. Skincare ingredients can be photosensitising, meaning that they decrease the skin’s tolerance to UV radiation, or photoprotective, which increases the skin’s tolerance to UV radiation.
Generally speaking, BHAs have some photoprotective effects, whereas AHAs are photosensitising – although this appears to be the case for Glycolic Acid mainly. However, this key difference between AHA and BHA should not matter since we should all be wearing sunscreen every day (even indoors) to prevent sun damage in the first place.
Best chemical exfoliants BHAs and AHAs
Some of THE GREAT ADDRESS’ favourite AHAs and BHAs exfoliants are:
Geek & Gorgeous – 4% PHA+BHA Acids: A super-gentle, sensitive skin focused exfoliant with 4% PHA+BHA Acids that works to give you a healthy glow while soothing, protecting, and hydrating the skin. This gentle, soothing exfoliating solution is designed for sensitive, redness-prone skin types. PHA Acid is a gentle sister to the better-known AHAs that similarly remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface, but without the potential irritation associated with high levels of AHA. PHAs are also excellent for moisturising the skin and giving it additional antioxidant protection. BHA or Salicylic Acid is also a gentle exfoliant known for its anti-inflammatory qualities.
Geek & Gorgeous – 6% Mandelic Acid + BHA: A medium-strong, combination skin focused exfoliant with 6% Mandelic Acid + BHA that works both on the skin’s surface and inside the pores to clear and balance the complexion. This lightweight, fast-absorbing exfoliating liquid is designed to treat combination skin gently but effectively. The duo of Mandelic and Salicylic Acid exfoliates both the surface of the skin as well as inside the pores; it is both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. The formula also includes Sarcosine, an amino-acid derivative that further helps to tighten up enlarged pores and balance oil production. With regular use, this exfoliant fights several typical problems of combination skin, including enlarged pores, extra oil production, blackheads, acne, and post-acne marks. Non-irritating and non-drying, this Geek & Gorgeous exfoliant is the best friend for combination and/or problem-prone skin.
Geek & Gorgeous – 12% AHA + soothing Nopal Cactus: This is Geek & Gorgeous’ strongest anti-ageing focused exfoliant with 12% AHA + soothing Nopal Cactus. It reveals fresh gorgeous skin overnight and gives you healthier, younger-looking skin with regular use. The exfoliant has been formulated to give your skin a clinically proven collagen-boosting amount of AHAs and, at the same time, to be as gentle as possible. The 12% Glycolic and Lactic Acid combination removes the dead skin cells gently but effectively from the surface of the skin and gives you a healthy glow overnight. With ongoing use, it boosts the skin’s own collagen production, smooths fine lines, fades hyperpigmentation and boosts the effectiveness of treatments and moisturisers used afterwards.
Truth Treatment Systems – AHA Energizing Mineral Exfoliator: Energise and stimulate skin with this low pH, Alpha-Hydroxy Acid exfoliant. It effectively removes pore-clogging impurities and dead skin cells. Also, it helps fade dark spots and reveal brighter, firmer skin along with improved texture and tone. It is made with an intelligent blend of Fruit Acids for the greatest number of skin-glowing benefits. AHAs stimulate the skin to produce collagen, elastin, and natural moisture factors. Polyelectrolytes have also been included for their ability to soothe the skin, making this the best AHA exfoliant for sensitive skin types. Polyelectrolytes provide important cellular energy to boost the skin’s glow. This chemical exfoliant from Truth Treatment Systems is ideal for all skin types.
One of THE GREAT ADDRESS’ physical exfoliants is:
Truth Treatment Systems – Lavender Salicylic Pumice Scrub: Your skin will sparkle when you brighten and exfoliate with Truth Treatment Systems’ Lavender Salicylic Pumice Scrub. Experience professional-strength scrubbing action and skin stimulation with Pure Volcanic Pumice and Salicylic Acid. Amino Acid Surfactant gently cleanses while natural lipid and sugar emollients soften, leaving skin rejuvenated and retexturized with a glowing, healthier, youthful look. It is ideal for all skin types
Exfoliants are an incredibly important part of anyone’s skincare routine – whether you are looking to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, decrease hyperpigmentation, or prevent early signs of ageing, exfoliants are essential to achieving brighter, more even skin.
THE GREAT ADDRESS and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. The information and products presented on this site are not intended for medical use nor do they make any medical claims and does not substitute for medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a pre-existing medical condition, if you are pregnant and/or are breastfeeding, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs.