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The Dos and Don'ts of Exfoliation: How to Avoid Damaging Your Skin Barrier

One of the main skincare trends of recent years is the use of chemical exfoliants. The Ordinary’s red, vibrant AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution made waves on social media and paved the way for acid exfoliation to become “the thing”.

But, as the saying goes, “A little of what you like does you good. But you can have too much of a good thing.”

This fixation with AHAs, BHAs and chemical exfoliators has resulted in compromised skin barriers.

So, here’s everything you need to know about exfoliation.

Why Do I Need To Exfoliate?

The skin we see is, typically, old, a bit crusty and dead. It is the outermost layer of the skin, also known as the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum is the skin barrier. It is composed of dead skin cells, lipids, and natural moisturising factors (NMFs) that work together to protect the skin from external factors such as pollution, UV radiation, and other environmental stressors.

The skin barrier also helps to regulate water loss from the skin, keeping it hydrated and preventing dryness and flakiness. It also acts as a barrier against bacteria, viruses, and other nasties that can cause skin infections.

Maintaining a healthy skin barrier is essential, not only for healthy skin, but for your overall health and wellbeing. A tailored skincare routine, appropriate to your skin type and goals, including cleansers, exfoliators, reparative products, hydration and sun protection will help maintain and strengthen the skin barrier. Exfoliation improves skin cell turnover, helping ensure your skin is continually creating new, fresh skin cells and sloughing off old, damaged skin cells.

When used appropriately, exfoliators will help remove dead skin cells from the epidermis, revealing brighter, smoother, clearer skin.

When overused, the skin barrier can become compromised, leading to a number of skin issues such as dryness, irritation, redness, and even infection.

St. Ives Scrub At The Ready. Let’s GO!

Hold on.

Here are some tips for the best way to exfoliate skin:

  1. Choose the right exfoliator. There are two types of exfoliators: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators contain tiny beads or particles that physically scrub away dead skin cells. The problem with some physical exfoliators (I’m looking at you, St. Ives) is that they contain sharp, ground-up materials which can cause microscopic cuts in the skin…this isn’t great. If you do wish to use a physical exfoliant, choose one that has smooth beads/particles. Chemical exfoliators use acids or enzymes to dissolve dead skin cells in a more controlled way.
  2. Don't overdo it. Over-exfoliating can lead to redness, irritation, and can damage the skin barrier. It's generally recommended to exfoliate no more than two to three times per week. Those with sensitive or reactive skins may reduce this down to once a week. As always, start LOW and SLOW and listen to your skin. The adage “no pain, no gain” DOES NOT apply here.
  3. Prep your skin. Before exfoliating, cleanse your skin thoroughly to remove any makeup, dirt, or oil. This will help ensure that the exfoliator can work its magic more effectively.
  4. Be gentle. When using a physical exfoliator, don't apply too much pressure or scrub too hard. Instead, use gentle, circular motions to avoid irritating the skin. When using a chemical exfoliator, follow the instructions closely. If it says “Rinse off after 1 minute”. DO IT!
  5. Moisturise afterwards. Exfoliating can leave your skin feeling a little dry and tight, so it's important to moisturise after you exfoliate to help keep your skin hydrated and healthy. Choose a hydrating, fragrance-free moisturiser, as your skin may be a little more sensitive following exfoliation.

Esentially, the best way to exfoliate your skin will depend on your skin type, concerns & preference. A Glowday skin pro can advise you on the best exfoliating options for your skin.

As you may be able to tell, we're biased towards chemical exfoliators here at Glowday.

Pick A Chemical Exfoliator Carefully

Each has their own unique characteristics and benefits. Here are some of the most popular types of chemical exfoliators:

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): AHAs, such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid, are water-soluble acids that work by breaking down the glue that holds dead skin cells together. They are effective at reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots, and can also help improve skin texture and tone.

Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs): BHAs, such as salicylic acid, are oil-soluble acids that are ideal for oily or acne-prone skin. They can penetrate deep into pores to unclog them and help reduce the appearance of blackheads and whiteheads.

Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs): PHAs, such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, are gentler than AHAs and BHAs, making them a good choice for sensitive skin. They help exfoliate the skin while also hydrating and strengthening the skin barrier.

Enzymes: Enzymes, such as papain and bromelain, work by breaking down the proteins that hold dead skin cells together. They are gentle and effective, making them a great choice for sensitive skin types.

Avoid Ballsing Up Your Barrier

When choosing a chemical exfoliator, it's important to consider your skin type and concerns. It's also important to start LOW & SLOW. Begin with a lower concentration and gradually increase the strength as your skin becomes accustomed to the exfoliant. Always follow the instructions on the product label and chat to your skincare pro if you have any questions or queries.

Over-exfoliation is REALLY not a good idea. It can compromise your skin barrier that can lead to all sorts of issues that take an age to undo.

Here how you can tell if your skin barrier is kaput:

  1. Dryness: when your skin barrier is compromised, the skin loses more water, resulting in dry, flaky, or rough skin.
  2. Redness and irritation: a compromised skin barrier can become more susceptible to irritation, resulting in redness, inflammation, even itching or burning sensations.
  3. Sensitivity: if your previously well-behaved skin has become more sensitive to external factors such as sun exposure, wind, and pollution, you’ve possibly got an impaired skin barrier.
  4. Breakouts: A weakened skin barrier can make your skin more prone to breakouts, as bacteria and other impurities can more easily penetrate the skin and cause havoc.
  5. Patchy, uneven skin texture: A compromised skin barrier can also lead to an uneven skin texture, with areas of roughness or unevenness on the surface of the skin.

You've Already Ballsed Up Your Barrier? Help Is At Hand!

If it seems like your barrier is in a bad way, it's important to take steps to repair it and improve its overall health and appearance.

Here’s how:

Avoid harsh skincare products that can further damage the skin barrier. Particularly, avoid products that contain alcohol, fragrances and other ingredients that feel “spicy” as soon as they touch your skin. You might also want to lay off any “active” skincare, like retinol-containing products, until your skin it back to normal.

Moisturise regularly to ensure your skin is hydrated. Look for unscented moisturisers that contain ingredients like ceramides, hyaluronic acid, or glycerin. These can help repair and strengthen the skin barrier.

Use gentle cleansers. A gentle, non-foaming cleanser, that won't strip your skin of its natural oils is ideal. Look out for cleansers that are pH-balanced and free from sulphates and other harsh ingredients. Cream, oil or balm cleansers are good options to support skin barrier repair.

Add barrier-supporting ingredients in your routine. There are certain ingredients that can help to repair and strengthen the skin barrier, including niacinamide, panthenol, peptides and allantoin. Look for serums and moisturisers that contain these ingredients and don't be stingy when applying them.

Lay off the exfoliating. Really. That's what got you in this mess in the first place. Over-exfoliating can further damage the skin barrier, so hold off exfoliating products until your skin feels happy.

Protect your skin from environmental stressors like UV radiation, pollution and wind as they can further damage your skin barrier.

Have patience. Repairing a compromised skin barrier takes time, so be patient and consistent with your skincare routine. If your skin doesn't show any improvement after several weeks, consider consulting with a skincare pro to help you out.

Exfoliation is an important part of a great skincare routine

Not only does it slough off the dead and dull outer layer of the epidermis revealing the lovely, fresh, bright smooth skin beneath, it also encourages the skin to keep renewing itself - which is an anti-ageing WIN!

Regardless of HOW you choose to exfoliate (physical or chemical), be sure to start LOW & SLOW. Overdoing exfoliation can lead to an impaired skin barrier that can take a while to mend AND results in dryness, redness, sensitivity, breakouts and uneven texture.

If you're not sure where to begin with skin, why not book a Prescription Skincare Consultation with a Glowday pro?

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