In our recent post about supporting your skin’s barrier function, Marie and I expressed some highly opinionated thoughts on exfoliation. (We called it a “disaster that disrupts your skin’s natural processes.”) We stand by those words! But it’s complicated, so we wanted to give a bit more context.
In general, we do not promote heavy exfoliation or peeling of the skin; instead of looking at the short term results of exfoliation, which can have a brightening effect, we focus on nourishing and promoting a strong barrier layer. As we’ve written about many times before, your barrier layer works hard to keep you healthy, so it is important not to compromise it.
However, we do not operate in a vacuum: the beauty industry is first and foremost a business, which means its main priority is to sell products. Techniques like exfoliation that promote quick results are highly marketed and often linked to claims that they will help improve skin concerns or conditions.
This has led to a common but unfortunate misconception: that exfoliation is a method of achieving better skin. And furthermore, that you must exfoliate regularly in order to have healthy skin. Also not true.
In fact, I see many clients with deficient, inflamed skin that is the result of aggressive use of exfoliants, which can result in breakouts and/or raised texture. But instead of noticing the current state of their skin and providing it what it needs to function optimally, they think they need additional exfoliation and end up with even more compromised and vulnerable skin.
In theory exfoliation isn't a terrible idea – it does have a place in the world of aesthetics as it alters the immediate appearance of skin, texture, etc. Everyone wants a little instant gratification sometimes! But the issue is that if you are going to strip the skin, you must also understand how to support its recovery. Most people don't know how to do that, so they end up with a full range of unwanted symptoms. (Read more here for guidance on building your skin’s barrier layer.)
Additionally, because we are constantly bombarded with external irritants such as UV, pollution, chemicals, and so on, keeping up a strong protective layer is very important for our protection against unwanted inflammation. (Inflammation is directly connected to aging – hence the buzzword “inflammaging,” which we’ll write about in a future blog post.)
While exfoliation can be effective for some skin types/conditions, you really don’t want to remove skin cells faster than your body can manufacture new ones. The skin is continuously renewing itself via a process called skin cell turnover; it takes about 30 days for the current skin cells on your face to shed and another 30 days for new cells to grow. This is the death and renewal of your skin cells, and you can consider it a natural exfoliation function that rarely needs your interference.
The speed of your skin’s renewal cycle depends on your age. When you are younger your skin renews itself at a faster rate, so if you take away cells they come back quickly. When you are older, the process takes a little longer. So for example, some people under 35 with thick, oily skin might be able to get away with exfoliating weekly (depending on type of product + ingredients), and those older than that should be OK with exfoliating every other week, depending on their skin's thickness and sensitivity. However, for those under 35 who already have slightly compromised or vulnerable skin, exfoliating once a week may be too much for them as their skin is already renewing itself at a fast rate.
In all likelihood, your cellular turnover is functioning pretty well. So why not benefit from holding onto your barrier lipids and bacteria instead of constantly stripping them away?
So let’s talk about how you can exfoliate without compromising skin health. We make four products that are formulated strategically to have mild exfoliation properties, while also incorporating ingredients that immediately compensate and support the skin. They contain ingredients which are often included in other exfoliation products (but not usually with the same end result in mind).
Our logic in carrying these products is to give clients a "healthy" option when suggesting they move away from other branded exfoliation products and start promoting healthy barrier function.
Here’s the breakdown of our four products with exfoliating properties and how to safely and effectively use them:
We advise this mask to be used once a week as a skin refresher for those with healthy, stable skin. This mask is intended to soften the skin and provide a healthy glow. Great to apply before a rich hydrating mask for enhanced penetration. (We recommend our Micronutrient + Hydro Mask.)
We advise using this as a spot treatment by applying to the desired/inflamed area once a day to help alleviate congestion in the pores and reduce inflammation, allowing the skin to heal at a faster rate. For those who produce a healthy amount of oil, and potentially more inflammatory based oil (thick, viscous sebum) you may use this as an all over treatment once a week to send signals to the skin to balance oil production and also provide a gentle refining at skin surface so that other products may penetrate through the lipid layer with more efficiency.
We advise only using this cleanser if you have "true" acne – meaning the dominating factors of your breakouts are excessive oil supply, inflammatory type oil, and bacteria imbalance. If that is the case and you have persistent breakouts, this cleanser will help decongest your pores while, most importantly, continuing to maintain a healthy ecosystem for bacterial balance and decreased inflammation (the primary factor in adult acne cases).
We advise that you use this product if you are someone with thick oily skin, or with aging skin in that your epidermal layer has begun to thicken. This can prevent penetration of products properly and also result in deep layer dehydration and deficiency. By using this cleanser you are working to improve barrier function by compensating for aging factors and bringing skin back into healthy balance. If your skin does not fall into the category of thick/oily, this cleanser should be used no more than once weekly.