What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Written by Lyn Ross, L.M.E.

There are two categories of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Chemical exfoliators are acids applied to the skin to assist in the shedding of dead skin cells. In this article, we will focus on physical exfoliation methods designed for that purpose. Physical exfoliation ingredients and devices are not new. In fact, ingredients such as sugar, salt, grains, shells, and even baking soda have been used for centuries to lighten, tighten, and smooth the skin making it more radiant. Not all ingredients are created equally. Micro-tears in the skin and a resulting uneven exfoliation can be created by exfoliating agents that are too sharp or jagged. Therefore, it is important to be gentle when using topical scrubs to exfoliate your skin regardless of which medium you choose.
Since the days of Cleopatra, many advances have occurred in the area of physical exfoliation. One of the greatest phenomena in my time as an aesthetician was the introduction of crystal microdermabrasion. Prior to this form of microdermabrasion I used a mechanical brush machine and a gummy, papain enzyme exfoliator to remove dead skin cells before performing deep pore cleansing extractions.
When I saw my first microdermabrasion demonstration I was amazed by the results and purchased the machine for $25,000 that same day. While the price of a microdermabrasion machine has certainly changed one thing has not - the benefits and results of physical exfoliation. Let us look at the advances in mechanical exfoliation from those early brush machine days to today.
Crystal microdermabrasion was first introduced in Europe in 1986 and then to the United States. in 1996 for the treatment of skin irregularities. It is classified by the FDA as a class one medical device.
Crystal microdermabrasion is designed to deliver a stream of aluminum oxide crystals forced by motorized suction through a hand piece opening, which creates a mild ablation to the skin’s surface. This “ablative” process blasts off approximately 15 to 25 microns of tissue, that is about .00079th of an inch depending on the number of passes and variable pressure settings on the device. Complete skin cell renewal can take up to two to three weeks, which is why the treatment is recommended no more than twice a month for optimal results.
Crystal-free microdermabrasion was introduced in 1999 and offered an alternative to the use of loose crystals, creating a much more controlled abrasion procedure to exfoliate the skin. Think of the “abrasion” process as scratching or grating against the skin’s surface, essentially “sanding” away debris from the skin. A variety of diamond-tipped wands, designed to be used with mild suction, glide over the skin causing cell renewal for the face and body.
Dermafile dermabrasion is a hand polishing tool made of medical grade 316 stainless steel. The fine, medium, or coarse dermafile sizes are chosen based on skin type. The file is brushed lightly over the skin’s surface to gently remove the top layer of dead skin cells revealing the new fresh skin cells below. An issue with this method of physical exfoliation is proper cleaning and sterilization of the device.
Dermaplaning is a very popular form of physical exfoliation that uses a sterile, stainless, surgical steel blade to gently shave the skin’s surface. This procedure removes the top layer of dead skin cells along with the fine vellus hair of the face. Dermaplaning is generally only recommended for the face. Some clients are hesitant about this treatment because of a myth that as a woman, if you shave your face, the hair will grow back darker and coarser. The truth is there are two types of hair that grow on the face, vellus hair (fine peach fuzz) and thicker terminal hair (eyebrows, lip, and chin). The vellus hair is what is removed during a dermaplaning procedure and will not grow back thicker or darker. However, dermaplaning is not suitable for those with excessive facial hair or oily and acneic skin as the hair helps to eliminate excess oil from the pores. Dermaplaning is usually performed monthly and can be performed on all skin types, even sensitive skin.
In conclusion, these skin rejuvenation processes are beneficial for creating a more youthful radiant complexion by stimulating collagen production, removing photo damaged skin cells, and softening fine lines and wrinkles. Ideally, consumers will use a physical exfoliation product based on a professional skin analysis and recommendation. Licensed professionals must administer physical exfoliation procedures based on their individual state regulations and be certified in the exfoliation procedure they are performing to ensure safety first with clients.

Lyn Ross 2019Master aesthetician, Lyn Ross founded Institut’ DERMed Spa, one of the most respected names in the skin care industry, in 1989. The Institut’ DERMed Spa is a 3,000-square-foot facility located in Atlanta, Georgia., with 11 treatment rooms offering the latest medical clinical aesthetic technologies to assure quality solutions that provide the ultimate in relaxation and results for skin health and beauty. Ross was an originator of the cosmeceutical product and treatment concept Institut’ DERMed Clinical Skincare, which is now widely dispensed in prestigious salon spas, medical spas, and physician's offices. Ross founded the Institut’ DERMed college of Advanced Aesthetics in 1995, after years of providing patient support for the medical community to teach aestheticians, nurses, and physicians the specialized skin care and makeup techniques she developed working side by side with doctors to help patients recover after surgery.

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