Can’t decide between exfoliation options? Let the experts sort it out for you.

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Topical Breakdown

Exfoliants are charged with the task of removing dull, dead cells on the skin’s outermost surface. There are two general categories of exfoliation treatments: topical and mechanical. The exfoliation action of topical treatments may be considered “physical,” as when abrasive action is applied to create friction to slough off the dead cells; or “chemical,” as when the natural exfoliating properties of the topical product alone get the job done. “Chemical exfoliants dissolve and loosen dead skin cells and encourage them off the skin,” explains Lisa M. Crary, CEO and owner of Sanítas Skincare. “Once the dead skin cells are removed, new, healthy skin cells are revealed, creating a more youthful, vibrant complexion.”

Physical exfoliation has a long history of popularity thanks to its simplicity, reliability and versatility. Sonia Boghosian, president of Bio Jouvance, cites two kinds of physical exfoliants: Gommage applications, also known as “sloughing creams,” best used on young, oily skin and rubbed into the skin using massage-like movements; and scrub applications, which usually feature grain-like ingredients and come in a wide range of abrasion levels, from super-gentle formulas featuring tiny jojoba beads that roll over the skin, to more vigorous options featuring sugar or salt crystals.

Crushed walnut, almond or apricot shells are often used for dry to normal, as well as mature, skin. There are also coral-based and bamboo-based exfoliants, in which the strength of the exfoliant can be adjusted by the way it’s used. And, notes Candace Noonan, a licensed esthetician and master trainer for Dermaconcepts (distributors of the Environ Skin Care line), kaolin, a clay, offers “not only a micro-fine exfoliation of just the dead and dying skin cells ready to slough, but absorption of excess oils, too.”

Lisa Polley, director of education & business development at Jurlique, describes chemical exfoliation as “the application of a liquid or gel solution that contains an alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) or beta hydroxyl acid (BHA).” AHAs may include glycolic, lactic, citric, malic and tartaric acids; the most commonly used BHA in skin care is salicylic acid. Proteolytic fruit enzymes such as pumpkin, papain (from papaya) or bromelain (from pineapple) also fit into this category. “Enzymes functionally work to ‘digest’ dead skin cells after they have been brought to the surface,” points out Elaine Linker, director of corporate relations and education at Christina USA. They’re used on sensitive skin, often in conjunction with peel treatments. Even some peptides have exfoliating properties.

“The skin cells are like layers of bricks,” says Polley, “held together by a glue-like substance. AHAs dissolve the glue that holds the cells together, which allows them to fall off. BHAs, on the other hand, digest protein, dissolving the actual skin cell.” Because the skin has an acid mantle to protect itself, a chemical exfoliant needs to have a specific pH to work. The skin’s pH range is 4.5 to 5.5; so to penetrate the protective mantle, the product pH must be lower—but not too low, cautions Five Star Formulators CEO Bella Schneider:”I’m wary of acids under a pH of 2 because exfoliation takes place early on in a facial, and a low pH can irritate the skin, thereby forcing a shorter treatment. I recommend staying above 2.5.”

Some new chemical exfoliation agents have also recently hit the market. Crary is a fan of polyhydroxyl acids (PHAs), which are similar to AHAs but contain larger molecules, allowing them to penetrate the skin at a slower rate. That gradual exfoliation “decreases the risk of irritation and discomfort,” Crary reports. PHAs, which include lactobionic acid, galactose and gluconic acids, are strong candidates for clients with rosacea, atopic dermatitis and eczema. Also available are new biotechnologically formulated enzymes that offer effective exfoliation, “but are gentle enough to use around the eyes,” notes Karen Asquith, national director of training, North America, at GM Collin.

Ah, There’s the Scrub

To ensure an effective result and a pleasant client experience, be sure you choose the right topical exfoliant for the job at hand. “Facial exfoliants should be easy to use, effective, non-irritating and suitable for the majority of skin types and conditions,” says Asquith. The desired result, says Kimberlee Geng, national education and training manager at Sothys, is “skin that feels soft and supple without sensitivity or irritation.” Dr. Mark Lees, president of Mark Lees Skin Care Inc., adds that, “Depending on the skin type being treated, the most important factor is to remove enough dead cells to make a difference without compromising the barrier function, which can lead to dehydration, inflammation, irritation and reactivity.”

“The goal,” says Debbie Fitzpatrick, co-owner and vice president of marketing at Botanical Science Technologies, “is to take off surface debris that can clog pores and to prepare the skin for the next step, which would be a toner, a special serum or a moisturizer.” But not all skin types should be treated equally. “Clients with thin, delicate skin need a very small exfoliating bead—or a creamy enzyme mask can be an excellent alternative, as both remove dead skin cells gently without abrading,” notes Fitzpatrick. “Normal skin types, which tend to range from a combination of dry and oily to very oily, can benefit from a gel-based exfoliating cleanser that rinses well and cleans to eliminate large pores.” In any situation, the particle needs to be soft and round so the exfoliation process does not tear the surface tissue.

Sensitive skin types are well served by exfoliants made with rounded and polished natural beads, comments Melissa Morris, corporate educator, Pevonia. Morris is also a fan of enzymes for these clients. “Mild enough for even the most sensitive skin types, a properly performed enzyme peel will exfoliate without the risk of over-exfoliation or drying out the skin,” she says, adding, “Over-the-counter scrubs and strong acids should not be used. New ingredients, including combinations of fruit acids, are good agents to work with, offering mild and progressive exfoliation for best results. Lactic acid exfoliants are also highly recommended for their additional hydrating features.”

For oily skin types, glycolic may be the way to go. Kristina Kannada, a licensed esthetician and national education coordinator for HydroPeptide, says glycolic acid is “the most popular active found in facial exfoliants because of its multifunctional approach to the skin, in particular its effectiveness in controlling sebum production.” Lactic acid is the second-most-common AHA, she adds, because, “in addition to being a gentler alternative to glycolic acid, it increases hydration, inhibits pigment and facilitates a balanced pH.” Of those ingredients, she prefers peptides. “Hexanoyl dipeptide-3 norleucine acetate is currently the only exfoliating peptide of its kind that reactivates the natural desquamation process of the skin,” Kannada says. Similar to an AHA, it “competes with the bonds between dead cells at the surface of the skin, contributing to skin renewal, hydration and smoothness.”

Acneic skin must be exfoliated with care so as not to cause microscopic tears that may allow oil and bacteria to penetrate, notes Crary. And mature skin will respond well to lactic acid but not its cousins, glycolic and salicylic, warns Linker. “When doing treatments, think of sterility and cleanliness and using acids that are compatible with oxygen so you can work with it at the end of the application in an appropriate environment,”suggests Five Star Formulators’ Schneider.

Strictly Mechanical

Mechanical exfoliation relies on machines or tools to safely remove dead skin, generally bringing one particular modality to mind: microdermabrasion, the device-driven exfoliation process that traditionally used corundum crystals combined with pressurized suction to remove the uppermost layer of dead skin cells from the face, chest or hands. Today, crystal-free machines are also available.
“Microdermabrasion is still king,” declares Roger Machson, owner of Onyx Medical Inc. “And in addition to exfoliating, it has value as a pretreatment for other treatment technologies, for driving product into the skin.” Sabrina Herry, a Miami-based trainer for Silhouet-Tone, refers to microderm as being “among the top three most requested preventive and corrective antiaging treatments.”

Some professionals, including Bio Jouvance’s Boghosian, cite concerns over potential inhalation of crystals, an issue that has increased the popularity of crystal-free options. But many remain loyal to the traditional version. “Natural corundum crystals, grains of natural alumina crystal, have been used manually by estheticians without the addition of a machine, providing an effective yet gentle exfoliation with great results,” points out Sothys’ Geng. And Herry has a caveat: “The use of medical-grade crystals plays an important role in the quality of abrasion. The goal is not to scrub the skin with perfectly rounded crystals, but to use uneven-shaped crystals to abrase the skin.”

Microderm isn’t the only game in town, however. One alternative is ultrasonic exfoliation, which Boghosian describes as “reliable and safe due to its advanced technology.” She’s also a fan of “the new hydro-microdermabrasion that combines water infused with a serum chosen according to skin type. I like the system because it gives back the moisture [that conventional microdermabrasion can deplete], plus minerals and vitamins, as it exfoliates.”

Inventor Lesley Lind came up with her own exfoliation device. “The Dermafile was the result of my frustration with microdermabrasion,” she explains. “I felt it was unreliable and not suited for all skin types.” Lind’s device delivers manual exfoliation via a stainless steel tool that has a crushed diamond-plated file. It comes in different grit sizes from fine to coarse. The skincare professional “is able to have complete and total control over the whole process and be as gentle or as aggressive as necessary,” Lind adds. “There are no chemicals to cause any burning or reaction and you are able to control the depth of the exfoliation.”

Another popular device-based method is dermaplaning, in which a small surgical blade is used to gently and painlessly remove the top layer of skin. The method is useful for evening skin tone, reducing the appearance of scars and even removing vellus hair, or “peach fuzz.” “Dermaplaning can be a more aggressive exfoliation treatment than microdermabrasion,” says Crary, “but it also requires more precision and skill by the professional.”

Mechanical exfoliation methods aren’t for everyone. In the end, “the reliability of the mechanical device depends on the condition and skin type of the client,” says Sharla Herarn, educational advisor at DermaQuest. DermAware’s Zone advises estheticians to “avoid using microdermabrasion on sensitive skin, such as surfaces with rosacea or open acne lesions or thin, mature skin.” Dermaconcepts’ Noonan describes the ideal candidate as having “thick, rough or photodamaged skin. But skin that is healthy and well-nourished on vitamins A and C, peptides and growth factors will have a healthy cellular turnover and will not need the extra exfoliation.” HydroPeptide’s Kannada reminds that, “Care should be taken to ensure inflammation is minimized, and a good at-home regimen that rejuvenates and replenishes should be prescribed.”

The bottom line in choosing a facial exfoliation product or method is to go slow. “Manage your clients’ expectations,” reminds Crary. “It is often necessary to begin a skincare program with a mild exfoliant and increase the intensity as the skin becomes more accustomed to active, results-oriented skin care.”

Russell A. Jackson is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

To Layer or Not to Layer?

Should you layer exfoliation methods? First, “Make sure you know your state’s regulations, as some restrict the layering of exfoliation methods,” points out Sanítas’ CEO and owner, Lisa Crary. Even if you have the green light, many experts tend toward avoiding the practice:

“Combining exfoliation methods, especially too closely in time, can inflame the skin and impair the barrier function of the skin.”—Dr. Mark Lees, Mark Lees Skin Care

“It can lead to unnecessary irritation for particular skin types, inflammation and other potential complications.” —Melissa Morris, corporate educator, Pevonia

“It isn’t a good idea unless you have taken a training class from the vendor; every product formulation has its own directions as to how to layer and how long to leave on the skin.” —Elaine Linker, director of corporate relations and education, Christina USA

“If the correct treatment and products are chosen for the skin type and condition, layering should not be necessary.” —Karen Asquith, national director of training, North America, GM Collin

“A general rule of thumb is to never layer before you use each individual exfoliation method individually on that specific client.”—Gül Zone, Dermaware

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