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Skin-deep – exploring exfoliation

by Louisa Crook

Exfoliation is a vast subject in skincare, not least because of the many and varied products out there for the purpose. Nevertheless, it is a subject that needs careful discussion considering just how much trouble you can get into if you’re not careful about it. So let’s go over the basics.

Do you need to exfoliate

Do you need to? No. Your skin exfoliates by itself naturally.

So…then why do it…unnaturally? Well, left to its own devices, your skin takes its sweet time to slough off the old stuff, and that can mean that your complexion gets a bit of a dull look to it. All those old dead skin cells hanging on for dear life can obscure what could be a more glowing visage. So, many choose to help the process along. Further to this, there is evidence to say that long-term exfoliation, primarily chemical exfoliation, assists in the production of collagen. And who doesn’t love helping that lovely collagen do its thing?

But wait, there’s more! Exfoliation clears a path for your products to absorb more easily into your skin. That old dead flaky, dry layer of skin cells that have passed their best before date are no longer causing an obstruction. So, you get your money’s worth out of your moisturisers and serums with firmer, plumper-looking skin.

Last, but certainly not least, chemical exfoliants, especially BHAs, have been shown to have fantastic results in the treatment of acne.

Physical or chemical

One consideration when looking at exfoliation is whether you go for a physical exfoliator, that is, a product containing granules, or a “scrub” if you will. Or whether you opt for a chemical exfoliator, that uses a completely different mechanism for sloughing off those old dead skin cells. Well, like pretty much everything in skincare, it’s often down to trial and error. Some people know that they won’t be using physical scrubs because they can just feel the micro-tears with every rub. Others love that reassuring “getting the grime off” feeling. For those in the former camp, there are, of course, chemical exfoliants. These we’ll delve into in a bit more detail because, well, they are a bit more detailed.


Hydroxy acids are chemical exfoliants. This means they aren’t gritty and bitty like physical exfoliants are. Put simply, they work by breaking the bonds between old and new skin cells at various superficial levels. The depth of that superficial level depends on which hydroxy acid you use. But it’s not that simple. There are a range of different forms of AHAs, BHAs and PHAs. We will be covering this in more detail in an upcoming post so check back and watch out for it. For now, here’s an overview:

Alpha Hydroxy Acids

AHAs are often deemed the most effective chemical exfoliants money can buy. Part of this is due to the molecule size, which allows products with this ingredient to penetrate deeper into the skin. Glycolic is often hailed as the holy grail of AHAs, and, it kind of is. However, the fact that it is able to penetrate further into the skin than other AHA derivatives means it also has the potential to cause the most irritation. Glycolic acid is one skincare addition that you need to be careful with. It can do wonders, or it can very quickly destroy your moisture barrier. If you’re one of those people who finds it difficult to get along with glycolic acid, try lactic acid instead. It’s a larger molecule so it doesn’t penetrate quite as deeply as glycolic, so is therefore, a bit more gentle. You still get all the benefits of an AHA treatment – it’ll just take a bit more time.

Beta Hydroxy Acids

Salicylic acid is a product most have heard of. It’s the most common BHA in normal use and a frequent feature in an acne-sufferer’s skincare regime. One of the aspects that differentiates BHAs from AHAs, is the oil solubility of it. AHAs are water soluble, so for oily, acne-prone people, they tend not to get to the root of the problem the way BHAs so, with their ability to penetrate through that problematic oil and sebum. Again, go slowly and use with care but if you are someone who suffers with blemish-prone skin, it’s worth a try if you’ve not already added it to your skincare treasure trove.

Polyhydroxy Acids

Most people have heard of AHAs and BHAs, but the elusive cousin of the two front-runners is less well-known. The most gentle of the bunch, with the largest molecular size of the three, PHAs, are great for those who struggle with irritation care of the AHAs or BHAs they’re using. If you have super sensitive skin, go for a PHA rather than persist with an AHA or BHA.

We say it every time, and we always will. When it comes to adding any new actives into your skincare routine, go slow, be consistent and listen to what your skin is telling you! That said, what kind of exfoliation do you go for?

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