The ugly face of exfoliation
Updated: Mar 25
Exfoliators, whether physical or chemical, have become something of a staple cosmetic product in the recent decade or so. Many now include exfoliation as part of their usual weekly or sometimes even daily routine. Wherever you look, cosmetic companies are singing praises of exfoliation: glowing skin, younger appearance, even skin tone, to name a few. But is it all so rosy as they make us believe? Can it be, that hidden behind all these short-term benefits are some really nasty long-term side effects?
What actually happens when you exfoliate?
Our outermost layer of the skin – the epidermis – is made up of many layers of flattened skin cells, which are continually pushed upwards towards the surface. The further out the cell gets the “deader” it becomes as it is deprived of oxygen and nutrients. Eventually the cell reaches “the horizon” and sheds. Meanwhile, inside the epidermis a new layer of flattened cells starts its journey to the top. This is what a completely normal, healthy process looks like. Around every 28 days all the cells within the epidermis are turned over, leaving you with a new set of cells at the surface.
When you hear “dead skin cells”, you probably don’t get very excited, but you should. It is thanks to these kamikaze cells, that we are able to fend off infections and avoid cell damage in the deeper layers of the skin as well as generally in our bodies. I cannot stress this enough, this layer of dead cells is crucial to maintaining a well-functioning skin barrier and therefore a healthy skin and body.
When you exfoliate or use a chemical peel, you rob your skin of that outermost layer of the dead skin cells. The skin beneath “lays bare”, exposed to the elements. That post exfoliation glow and clean feeling is due to the fact, that what you’re seeing in the mirror is now a deeper layer of the skin cells.
The true long-term cost to exfoliation
1) Accelerated aging
This isn’t a logical point to start with, but it is so important, that if you were to only read one point, I would like it to be it. Remember, we talked about the skin cells being replaced with new ones every 28 days? The new cells don’t simply appear from nowhere. They are a product of division of previously existing cells. The problem is, that the cells can divide somewhere between 50-70 times in their lifetime, after which they start aging and die. By getting rid of the top layers of the skin you accelerate cell division, because the skin needs to replace what it lost. So that wrinkle saved today can in fact result in many more in the future. Think about it! Not to mention, that aging skin cells mean not only a worsened skin appearance but also age related health problems.
2) Increased probability of environmental and sun damage
Stripping your skin of its protective barrier means, that your skin succumbs more easily to the damage caused by the environment. This also includes sun damage, which is one of the leading causes of skin aging. Yikes, again!
Both the sun damage mentioned in the point above and the skin inflammation resulting from irritation caused by exfoliating are the causes of hyperpigmentation. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, all you’re doing is getting a short lived skin tone improvement at the expense of hyperpigmentation risk further down the line. Is it really worth it?
4) Unbalanced skin function
Exfoliation is being advertised as a panacea to almost every skin ailment. Oily skin? Scrub away and get that fresh feel. Dry skin? No problem! Just get rid of those lingering dead skin cells for a smooth to touch skin. But show me a single person, for whom these effects would last longer than a weak. On top of that, what follows after the initial improvement, is often a sudden and much stronger reappearance of the previous symptoms. Let’s take oily skin as an example. After you removed the oil and the outermost layer of skin with a scrub, your skin starts to panic. Not only has it lost a moisturising layer of lipids, it is also now left with a damaged skin barrier, allowing even more moisture to escape. The only way for the skin to avoid drying out is to produce extra sebum, resulting in a shiny complexion. Completely defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
So why the hype around exfoliation?
Number one. Simply put, it is another product to sell. And how best to sell something, other than by convincing us that we need it. Number two. Sacrificing long-term health of your skin at the expense of short lived gains is exactly what plays to the hand of the cosmetic industry. It is only when your skin becomes dry, that you become interested in that moisturising cream. And it is only when we start aging prematurely, when we look to the anti-aging treatments on offer. Believe me, our skin already has all the tools to look its best, but that’s not what makes the cosmetic companies their billions.
So how do I get that freshly exfoliated look without exfoliating?
1) Support the natural skin renewal
It can be hard not to succumb to the temptation of peeling that dry, rough skin away. However, those scaly patches are caused by your skin inability to shed the dead cells properly. When the skin is dry the bonds between the skin cells are harder to break, so the dead cells are as hart to get rid of as that last guest at the party… What makes it easier? Tackle the dryness first and you’ll restore the skin’s healthy cell renewal. Glycerine has been proven to greatly increase skin’s hydration, therefore loosening the bonds between the cells. Organic vegetable glycerine is the main ingredient in both of our Hydratones. Keeping the moisture locked in the skin is equally important. Here the plant oils do a magnificent job. Try any of the Face Oils, specifically designed for your complexion type.
2) Healthy skin is glowing too
It isn’t that last layer of the dead skin cells, which is making your skin appearance dull. More likely it’s bad diet and insufficient moisture within the skin. Stripping your skin of its defence mechanism isn’t helping the cause. You’ll get much better, long-lasting results when you feed your skin from within and keep it well hydrated. That’s what gives the skin its true glow! One that lasts longer than a couple of days. The real challenge is giving yourself enough time for the results to be visible. Restoring healthy moisture balance and repairing a previously damaged skin barrier can take a while, but you’ll thank yourself afterwards.
3) Bring your skin back to balance
This also takes time, because you need to break that oily-to dry-to oily cycle. I mentioned above, that producing sebum is your skin’s defense mechanism against drying. By tackling the cause of our skin employing this defense mechanism, we can tackle its effects. Keep your skin well hydrated and support the skin’s impaired ability to retain moisture by locking it in. Don’t give your skin a reason to go into sebum overdrive! This was my particular problem, but I broke the cycle within a couple of weeks by using a combination of a Hydratone and a Face Oil. How you clean your face also plays a part, because soap strips your skin of its lipid layer, perpetuating dryness. Switch to the Oil Cleansing Method instead (you can read all about it here). Now, a year after changing my routine, my skin barrier is so strong, that it is able to almost entirely regulate itself, with only a small help from the outside.
The special case of ingrown hair
I heard many times that exfoliation is the best solution for ingrown hair. You may not be surprised to hear, that I think, that it may actually do more harm than good. For one, there are all the negative exfoliation effects mentioned above. More importantly, however, exfoliation exposes the hair shaft, making it vulnerable to infection and inflammation. On top of that, just that little too vigorous of a scrub can leave the skin damaged, forming a micro scab and therefore defeating the purpose of exfoliation all together.
What you really want to do, is keep the skin very well hydrated and moisturised following a wax or a shave. You also want to keep the skin’s barrier strong to avoid any secondary infections and inflammation of the hair shaft. For that reason you want to heal the damaged skin fast. Lastly, you want to fight the microbes on the surface of the skin, which might be responsible for infecting the hair shafts. Tamanu oil has been scientifically proven to heal the skin, reduce irritation and keep the skin moisturised. You can read about all of its benefits in my other post here. In our Aftershave and Wax Oil we combined the benefits of the tamanu oil with other ingredients, like the hydrating organic vegetable glycerine and the anti-microbial grape seed oil. For best results apply a few drops of the oil over a freshly waxed or shaved, wet skin – including the face.