Most of us already know about the importance and general benefits of exfoliation, including, a obtaining a softer, smoother, less aged appearance. But how much does the average skin-savvy consumer really know about what is going on beneath the top layers of the skin? Let’s take a look at some of the different ways exfoliation can be utilized in your life, and what you should be aware of when you “take it off.”
The history of exfoliation can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times when abrasive masks, minerals and alabaster particles were used for this purpose. Since then, a variety of substances have been used to peel, exfoliate, and rejuvenate the skin. These include the use of acids, poultices of minerals and plants, and direct irritants such as fire and sand-paper like materials.
Does exfoliation (desquamation) occur naturally? Desquamation is the shedding of the outer layers of the skin. For example, after the rash of measles fades, there is desquamation. This word comes from the Latin, “desquamare”, meaning to scrape the scales off a fish!
As we age, the glue–like intercellular cement holding the cells together becomes thicker. This results in a build up in the layers of skin cells. The skin sloughing process then becomes more difficult to accomplish and the skin has a thicker, less-toned appearance. This process can be influenced by the environment, hormones (estrogens, androgens, and epidermal growth factor), and vitamin deficiencies (A and D). With the impact of all these factors on the desquamation process, the importance of skin exfoliation is clear. By eliminating the build up of dead and deranged skin cells (stratum corneum), regeneration of new skin cells is stimulated, resulting in an improved appearance, tone, and feel of the skin.
The two methods of exfoliation are chemical, and physical. Chemical exfoliation can vary in degree of abrasion and cost, from mild toners all the way up to dermatological peels that could cost thousands of dollars. Chemical exfoliation employs agents such as enzymes (i.e. papain, bromelain, and protease enzymes from bacillus microbes) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHA; i.e. lactic acid, glycolic acids, malic acids), beta hydroxy acids (BHA; i.e. salicylic acid) and Retinol (i.e. Vitamin A). While the exact mechanism of action is still being argued, some believe that AHA’s do not exfoliate in the same conventional way that mechanical exfoliants or BHA’s do. It is thought that alpha hydroxy acids primarily affect the skin while normalizing cell turn over in the epidermis; this would stimulate the formation of healthy skin, which includes sloughing, decreased formation of dry scales on the skin’s surface and stimulation of the cell cycle.
Common chemical exfoliants include AHA’s; glycolic acid is the most widely used and well known out of this group. This substance is usually made from sugar cane. The use of lactic acid, derived primarily from milk, is believed to go back to Cleopatra, who reportedly used soured milk on her skin. Lactic acid is milder and less irritating than most glycolic acid. Both glycolic acid and lactic acid stimulate collagen synthesis. However, Lactic acid has additional unique benefits: increased glycosaminoglycans (relating to connective tissue), natural moisturizers, and an increase in ceramides (an epidermal barrier lipid).
In the BHA category is salicylic acid, primarily a keratolytic agent, which dissolves the stratum corneum layer by layer from the outside in, and has been shown to have some effect on hyperpigmentation at very high levels of concentration (50%).
In recent years, retinol (vitamin A) has been included in exfoliation formulas because the skin converts retinol to retinoic acid, a potent skin exfoliation, and anti-aging agent. When used on a daily basis, studies show that retinol improves the signs of photo-aging as well as normal chronological aging. One study showed that retinol mimicked the activity of retinoic acid by stimulating the thickening of the epidermis without the irritation sometimes seen with the use of retinoic acid. Other studies also showed that retinol slowed down the degradation of collagen in the skin with sun exposure, by inhibiting the action of collagenase, the enzyme responsible for this degradation.
Mechanical or physical exfoliation utilizes either a tool (i.e. a brush, sponge) or a substance (i.e. salt, sugars, corncob meal, rice bran, oatmeal). These are the most common forms, and are usually found in facial and body scrubs. Micodermabrasion is the most forceful of the mechanical methods. It loosens and reduces the outer layer of cells when friction and abrasion are applied. The outcome varies depending on the amount of friction applied and the abrasive used. It is important to note that excessive abrasion can result in skin irritation. Therefore the International Dermal Institute does not recommend the use of crushed fruit pits, shells, or similar substrates.
Other considerations: If you are using Retin-A, Renova or any other exfoliating product, you should discontinue for at least two weeks before trying another form. If you are taking Accutane (a powerful acne medicine with several side effects and contraindications), or have taken Accutane within the last six months, you should not receive or perform (on yourself) any kind of exfoliation treatments. Do not perform or receive any type of exfoliation on burned or irritated skin, or skin that has been waxed within the past 24 hours. In addition, the dead outer layer of the skin acts as a sun shield; with less of the layer you are more susceptible to sun damage. It then becomes more important to use a daily sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 after an exfoliation treatment.
Whether you choose a mechanical or chemical means of exfoliation, each can be of benefit and provide enhancement for your skin. Consistentexfoliation prevents clogged pores, acne, ingrown hairs, and certain types of infection. It can also prevent scarring blemishes and help to reduce the appearance of existing scars. Exfoliation can also increase circulation and help to make the other steps in your facial regimen (i.e. toners, cleansers, and moisturizers) more effective by unblocking the pores for better absorption. It is worth the time to find the right exfoliation agent for your specific skin type and needs. And of course, always use caution and heed the warnings associated with the exfoliation process of your choice.
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