What is exfoliation?

Exfoliating removes dead skin cells from the skin's outermost layer.

Exfoliating removes dead skin cells from the skin’s outermost layer.

©iStockphoto.com/Luis Albuquerque

Your skin, which is the body’s largest organ, has a pretty intense workload. Essentially, it acts as a protective wrapper, keeping everything underneath it safe from daily threats such as the harsh effects of the sun, wind, pollution and germ-filled grime. In the line of duty, the skin on your face and body takes quite a beating, which can leave it dry and flaky. But you don’t have to walk around with a dull complexion and ashen skin. There’s an easy way to rejuvenate your skin — you can exfoliate it.

Exfoliation is a process that removes dead skin cells from the upper layer of the skin, revealing the healthy skin underneath. Regular exfoliation, which can be beneficial to many areas of your body, including your face, arms, legs and feet, can help keep skin looking fresh, removing any dry patches or flakiness. There are different approaches necessary for each area of your body — you wouldn’t want to use the same methods, tools or products on your face as you would on your feet, for example. Furthermore, certain exfoliation techniques work best with certain skin types. So it’s a good idea to know whether you have oily, dry, combination or sensitive skin before embarking on an exfoliation regimen.

There are many choices — from cleansers and body washes to scrubs and loofahs — that aid in the exfoliation process, so the task may seem a bit daunting at first. But once you sort through all of the available exfoliants, you can begin your own exfoliation routine and look forward to bright, glowing skin.

To learn how you could benefit from the addition of exfoliation to your regular skin care regimen, keep reading.

Benefits of Exfoliation

While regular skin cleansing is clearly beneficial, exfoliating on a regular basis — once or twice a week for mild exfoliation, once or twice a month for more intense treatments — can improve the results of your skin care routine and help rejuvenate your skin. Whether you have dry, normal, oily or sensitive skin, exfoliation can bring new life to your complexion.

If you’ve had a pedicure, then you’re familiar with the benefits of exfoliation. Foot calluses can develop due to daily pressure from workouts, walking and wearing those truly fashionable, but less-than-comfortable shoes that you adore. But after a little apricot scrub and a session with a pumice stone, your feet can feel soft, smooth and sandal-ready. While you wouldn’t employ the exact same methods on your face, or even your arms and legs, the rest of your body certainly can benefit from a little exfoliating.

The process of exfoliation rids the body of any dry, dull skin by removing dead skin cells from the surface of the epidermis. By removing these dead cells, exfoliation can help keep pores from becoming clogged and leave skin with a refreshed and clean feeling. What’s the benefit to clean and clear pores? Clogged pores can result in blackheads and acne. Furthermore, when pores are clogged, they appear larger. So, if you’re worried about the size of your pores, although you can’t reduce their actual size (genetics is the biggest factor in pore size), you can help diminish their appearance by keeping them clog-free.

In addition to the immediate visual benefits of exfoliation, the removal of dead skin cells speeds up the skin renewal process, allowing smoother, healthier skin cells to take their place [source: Crawford]. Not only will this help with fine lines and wrinkles, but it will help to ease discoloration as well.

Now that you know that routine exfoliation can lead to visibly brighter and healthier-looking skin, you need to know what tools are best for achieving these results. Read on for tips on which exfoliation tools to keep on hand.

Maintaining a Summer Glow

Just about every dermatologist will recommend sunless tanner over actual sun exposure for that bright summer glow. Exfoliating before you apply sunless tanner can help the product go on more smoothly, which will keep your tan from looking streaky or splotchy. In mere minutes, you can achieve the natural tanned look of a week on the beach without the sun damage [source: Mann].

Exfoliation Products and Tools

Before you exfoliate, you must arm yourself with the necessary tools for the area of skin you want to treat. What you use to exfoliate your body or feet will not be what you would use to exfoliate the more delicate skin of your face. Before you can decide on a product or method, it’s important to understand that there are two basic types of exfoliants: physical exfoliants and chemical exfoliants.

Physical exfoliants are likely most familiar to you — such as a body wash infused with scrubbing beads, a washcloth or a loofah. Physical exfoliants work to remove dead skin cells via friction. So there’s a combined effort between the product you choose and a little elbow grease — your scrubbing action.

For the torso, arms and legs, a body scrub with synthetic beads or tiny grains of sugar provides the gentlest exfoliation, while a loofah, textured or mesh sponge, or washcloth can be used in tandem with one of these products to intensify the exfoliation process [source: Bruno]. Many skin experts suggest that it’s best to use a circular motion when exfoliating [source: Mann]. Be sure to use a washcloth or just your hands in tandem with a mild exfoliating cleanser on sensitive areas, like your face, as this is the gentlest method.

Chemical exfoliants are different from physical exfoliants in that it is a chemical substance, not friction, that handles the job at hand. Most chemical exfoliants found in facial and body cleansers are mild acids, such as salicylic acid, that work to gently remove dead skin cells. They do this by essentially dissolving the "glue" that is binding the dead skin cells to the other skin cells. Glycolic acid and lactic acid scrubs and cleansers accomplish this while also moisturizing the skin. A salicylic acid scrub works in a similar way, though it more specifically targets skin with acne or other conditions. By removing dead skin cells, a salicylic acid scrub unclogs pores, thus treating and preventing breakouts [source: Patz].

You may need a combination of these products and styles of exfoliation to complete your skin care routine. See the links on the next page for further information.

What Your Dermatologist Can Do

If you are interested in a more intensive form of exfoliation, there are professional options available. You can speak to your dermatologist about chemical peels, microdermabrasion or laser resurfacing — all of which can have a dramatic effect on your skin’s texture. Keep in mind that these are more expensive than home treatments, and they will likely require regular maintenance as well [source: Crawford].

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Top 5 Exfoliants for the Body
  • Top 5 Exfoliants for the Face
  • Top 5 Natural Exfoliants
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  • Begoun, Paula. "The Complete Beauty Bible." 2004. (Accessed 9/7/09)http://books.google.com/books?id=bII_4h77GI0C&pg=PA95&dq=skin+exfoliation#v=onepage&q=skin%20exfoliation&f=false
  • Bruno, Karen. "Women’s Skin Care for a Soft Body." WebMD. August 6, 2006. (Accessed 9/7/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/moisturizer-toning-cream
  • Crawford, Holly. "Your Skin: Are You Doing Too Much or Too Little?" WebMD.http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/your-skin-are-you-doing-too-much-or-too-little
  • "Exfoliants." Consumer Guide to Plastic Surgery. (Accessed 9/30/09)http://www.yourplasticsurgeryguide.com/facial-rejuvenation/exfoliants.htm
  • Hertzing, Alyssa Kolsky. "Summer Beauty Tips." Seattle Post Intelligencer. August 3, 2009. (Accessed 9/30/09)http://www.seattlepi.com/health/408599_goodhouse337325.html
  • Mann, Denise. "Summer Skin Makeover." WebMD. July 2, 2008. (Accessed 9/7/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/summer-skin-makeover
  • Patz, Aviva. "Instant Skin Fixes." WebMD. May 1, 2008. (Accessed 9/7/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/skin-fixes
  • "SKIN WRINKLES AND BLEMISHES." Skin Wrinkles. August 06, 2005:1. Accessed via MasterFILE Premier (Accessed 9/30/09)
  • Yarosh, Daniel. "The New Science of Perfect Skin." 2008. (Accessed 9/7/09)http://books.google.com/books?id=GguwESFKbHIC&pg=PA188&dq=skin+exfoliation#v=onepage&q=skin%20exfoliation&f=false

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