What Is an Exfoliant?

Cleanse your skin: 3 different methods

Exfoliation, the process of removing dead cells from the outer surface of the skin, has been around since Cleopatra decided she needed smooth, even skin to hold onto Marc Antony. As is the case with most technology and convenient inventions we are so proud of here in the modern world, Egyptians were the first to be on the scene of exfoliation. An exfoliant is a substance that removes dead skin, as defined by the Encarta English Word Dictionary, but since the ancient times of the Pharaohs, there have been advances made in this type of skin care, and there are now many different techniques to choose from, along with modern knowledge about which is best for you and your skin.

What an exfoliant does

An exfoliant is used to slough away the dead skin cells that have accumulated on the surface of your skin in order to maintain youthful, healthy-looking skin that glows and remains free of blemishes. This can be done with facial exfoliants or body scrubs. Exfoliants are also a big aid in keeping skin free of wrinkles. Paul Cain, Ph.D., of Babor Cosmetics affirms that dead skin cells, left on the surface of the skin, slow down healthy cell renewal and increase the depth of wrinkles.

Types of exfoliants

There are three main types of exfoliation: mechanical, chemical and enzyme. Mechanical exfoliation involves physically sloughing off dead skin cells with the use of a scrub that may contain sugar, coffee beans or apricot seeds, or a loofah. Chemical exfoliation consists of using gels, lotions and creams that are applied after the skin has been washed and dried. Types of enzyme exfoliation include powders, masks and cleansers that are gentle and can be used daily.

How each type of exfoliant works

  • Mechanical exfoliants: Mechanical scrubs can range from very fine, natural exfoliants, which are best for sensitive or dry skin, to the extremely abrasive microdermabrasion crystals, which can feel as rough as sandpaper. If you have extremely oily skin, a scrub with more pronounced grains may work best. These exfoliants are mostly at-home methods that are quick and easy and can be done one to three times a week.

  • Chemical exfoliants: This type of exfoliation can be harsh; it’s like using chemicals to strip paint off a piece of furniture. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) found in some of these exfoliants can cause sensitivity to the sun, redness, burning and itching. The Gale Encyclopedia of Internal Medicine recommends doing a patch test on a section of skin to determine your sensitivity to AHA before applying the exfoliant all over your face. Chemical exfoliants can also contain Beta Hydroxy Acids, which are typically used for blemishes and acne, and generally come in the form of salicylic acid.

  • Enzyme exfoliation: These types of exfoliants usually use enzymes taken from plants and fruits, such as papaya and pineapple, and are designed for sensitive skin. Daily Beauty Magazine explains that the enzymes dissolve dead skin cells without friction, leaving the healthy skin behind undamaged.

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