5 Ways to Exfoliate Skin

Written by Cole Patterson

Exfoliation is an important process for maintaining healthy skin. Regularly using exfoliants removes dead skin cells from the epidermis. Exfoliation encourages rapid cell renewal, allowing for better product absorption into the skin. There are two major factors for choosing the right exfoliation treatment: texture of the skin – meaning firmness, thickness, or maturity of the skin – and skin type. A client’s skin determines how often one should exfoliate. Determining what form of exfoliant product is most beneficial to the client’s skin depends on the client’s goals, skin type, and texture.


Physical exfoliant products gently slough away dead skin cells and unclog pores over time. Although scrubs are deemed to be safer than liquid exfoliants, rubbing too hard can break the skin and over-exfoliation can cause extreme dryness. For minimal side effects, suggest a gentle exfoliating product weekly with jojoba microbeads or lightly textured natural substances, like almonds, salts, and sugars. Incorporating exfoliating products into one’s skin care regimen will brighten the skin’s complexion and keep it healthy. In addition to using exfoliants at home, recommend monthly facials that use more advanced chemical exfoliants to maintain flawless skin.

Scrubs are a great option for all skin types, but it is not always the best option. Unlike scrubs, the benefits of chemical exfoliants are immediately noticeable. Although exfoliants serve the same purpose, the process with chemical exfoliants vary because of the active compounds. Alpha hydroxy acids have a dermal effect that reaches deeper levels of the stratum corneum to influence collagen production and allow the skin to become firmer, reducing signs of aging. Alpha hydroxy acids are humectants, holding moisture in the skin for a smoother, softer, and even complexion. There are several types of chemical exfoliants grouped under the alpha hydroxy acid umbrella, including glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids.

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecule chain, making it the easiest to penetrate into the skin. It is most widely used among professionals because it is the most effective treatment within the group of alpha hydroxy acids for treating fine lines, acne, blackheads, dullness, wrinkles, and aging. Professional chemical peels range between a concentration of 20 to 70 percent with a low pH. Products containing glycolic acid are usually about a 10 percent concentrate, which can be neutralized and washed away with water. Anything with a pH of 4 to 7 will be more neutralizing than those with a lower pH. With a lower pH, alpha hydroxy acid increases product efficacy. To be safe, professionals should consider starting with a milder chemical exfoliant to test a client’s skin before using more aggressive treatments like lactic acid or mandelic acid, instead of glycolic.

Compared to glycolic acid, lactic acid is considered the more gentler alpha hydroxy acid, making it the best option for sensitive skin. Because of its larger molecular size, it is safer than glycolic; it will not penetrate the skin as quickly, but it is just as effective. To minimize skin irritation, it is wise to use lactic or mandelic acids for those who have never had a chemical peel. Lactic acid is a great option for dry skin because it helps maintain the pH level to improve hydration for drier skin types.

Mandelic acid is one of the lesser alpha hydroxy acids, so it is a great option for first-time users of chemical exfoliants. Its molecular structure is larger than glycolic, but it is the most versatile chemical exfoliant. Mandelic acid penetrates the skin slower than glycolic and lactic acids, but it offers the same benefits and has limited-to-no side effects.

Unlike alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids do not possess humectant qualities. Beta hydroxy acid, known as salicylic acid, is an oil-soluble acid that liquefies oil. Salicylic acid can be mixed with alpha hydroxy acids to expand its benefits for problematic skin, such as cystic acne. Salicylic acid is not recommended for use on dry or sensitive skin. Although beta hydroxy acid functions as a chemical exfoliant, offering similar benefits as alpha hydroxy acids, they are indifferent in many ways. Both acids help to improve the skin’s texture, remove dead skin cells, and improve the overall appearance of the skin. Unlike alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acid has a kerotolyic compound that softens the outer layer of the skin and the infectious skin, making it thinner. Salicylic acid is an invaluable ingredient to the skin care industry because of its versatility as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and denaturant. Salicylic acid is most effective in skin care moisturizers concentrated at about a two percent with a pH level of 3 because it takes time for the skin to absorb the ingredient.

Although chemical exfoliants are great and the most effective exfoliants being used, they can leave the skin vulnerable to ultraviolet rays, which can lead to sunburn or premature aging. The visual results from using chemical exfoliants are amazing and long-lasting, however, there are some risks. Professionals should take proper precaution and educate clients about side effects and post-treatment options. Using a neutralizer is required when using hydroxy acids over 10 percent. To minimize skin irritation clients should limit sun exposure for 48 hours after a chemical peel. When it comes to exfoliant scrubs, consumers have a variety of choices, as well as chemical exfoliants with lesser percentages. Licensed professionals have a range of treatments to offer clients to deliver the best results.


Cole Patterson has been a licensed aesthetician for over 20 years. She has extensive knowledge in medical dermatology and makeup artistry specializing in men’s skin care and grooming. She has graced the faces of some of Hollywood’s most famous actors, entertainers, and professional athletes. Patterson works in the film and television industry behind the scenes as creative director and makeup artist. She is the owner of Cole Skincare for Men in Los Angeles, California.


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