How to Exfoliate Without Damaging Your Skin

The nitty-gritty on dealing with flaky skin
woman with facial mask holding cucumber slices on her eyes and sticking out her tongue
© Can Stock Photo / evgenyatamanenko

For many, those winter months of cold dry air, turning up our furnaces, and indulging in long hot baths finds us battling with one of the less charming aspects of seasonal change: dry, flaky skin.

When those pesky flakies arrive I’m often asked, “What do you use for an exfoliant?”

This always makes me pause because there are definite misconceptions about the best frequency, methods, and ingredients for exfoliation. If you add to it the scary factor of long-term skin damage, as evidenced in 2016 when a prominent apricot scrub was excoriated in a class action complaint brought against the distributor, you could get into a real lather about it.

So what’s a dry skin-sufferin’ gal to do?

Peeling back the facts

Exfoliation is the process of removing old dead cells from the outer layer of the skin to uncover new ones. When old skin cells remain on the skin, they trap toxins, dirt, and oils, contributing to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne. Further, as skin ages, cells don’t shed as quickly, which leaves a build-up of dead skin cells that are thought to leave the skin looking dull, rough, and dry. Exfoliation damages the old cells, forcing the skin to create new ones, with the hopes of achieving a more radiant glow, while helping to reduce hyperpigmentation and wrinkles.

Mechanical exfoliation

This works the surface of the skin with an abrasive scrub. In Egypt, pumice stones and alabaster were common exfoliants, while dried corncobs, sand, and crushed sea shells were used by both the North American Indigenous and Polynesian peoples. Ouch!

Chemical exfoliation

This method unglues dead cells to help them slough off the skin, rather than physically rubbing as with a mechanical exfoliant. This type of exfoliation is associated with more intense treatments using hydroxy acids (lactic, salicylic, glycolic) and natural enzymes.

Chemical balance

Just because it’s called chemical exfoliation doesn’t necessarily mean that the ingredients are harmful! Though it might seem scary to see acid as an active ingredient on something you’re about to put on your face, research has shown that both alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) can be beneficial to skin health. AHAs work on the surface of the skin, gently dissolving dead skin and oil, increasing cell turnover rate, allowing healthier skin to emerge. BHAs get right inside those pores, cleaning them out, and with their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, they help the skin repair itself.

AHAs and BHAs are often derived from food products such as sugar, milk, apples, wine, and citrus fruits, which means you can definitely find a product you love with an ingredient list you can feel good about. Plus, people have been using hydroxy acids for years (even before it was trendy to go for a peel!). Cleopatra is famously remembered for her baths in sour milk (a lactic acid) and beauty products laced with honey (a gluconic acid which pulls debris from pores). Old wine was an exfoliant staple during the Middle Ages due to its tartaric acid content and was used right up until the 1800s (pfft, like anyone has old wine kicking around anymore!).

Going off-grit!

So many of us believe that the very definition of a product that’s rejuvenating the skin is one that leaves it red, raw, and burning. In truth, this is your skin’s way of communicating with you that it’s being injured! If you ignore the signals, you may be weakening the protective barrier that exists between your skin and the environment, ultimately reducing your skin’s ability to fight infection and maintain long-term elasticity.

In the case of our apricot scrub defendant, the abrasive shells are simply too harsh for the skin. Even though they’re finely ground, the shell particles are jagged and uneven and cause microscopic tears in the top layer of the skin, leading to increased redness and inflammation, and allowing surface bacteria to enter deeper layers of the skin, causing breakouts. The swelling of the pores temporarily gives the skin a plump look, but does not lead to long-term reduction in fine lines or an increase in collagen. A dermatologist quoted in the complaint against the apricot scrub agreed the ongoing inflammation and irritation triggered by scrubs can actually accelerate the aging process, stating that harsh scrubs are like washing your face with sandpaper, and noting that the scratches created on a sanded surface are, in fact, the same thing the scrub is doing to your skin.

Why not give fruit enzymes a try? Exfoliants with fruit enzymes promote a natural glow by digesting dead surface protein without traumatizing the skin. Look for ingredients like papain, a proteolytic enzyme derived from the latex of the green papaya fruit, or bromolain, taken from the sweet pineapple.

Think of it like this: our skin is very much like the skin of that autumn apple. When it’s intact, the juicy flesh underneath stays plump and hydrated; If the skin becomes damaged, all that beautiful flesh underneath begins to suffer and the whole apple shrivels. Would you polish an apple with sandpaper? Of course not!

A caveat about acids

While several studies have shown positive results using AHAs for wrinkles and skin texture, there is some growing concern about its long-term usage. Specifically, some studies have shown that glycolic acid is a contributor to UV vulnerability and subsequent sun damage in skin.

And if you are pregnant, steer clear of salicylic acid, both orally or topically. Even when used externally, it penetrates deep into the pores and subcutaneous fat which can reach the foetus by way of the circulatory system. Congenital malformations, chronic diseases, and complications at childbirth have all been correlated with salicylic acid use.

Scrub me tender

Cleopatra, the queen of beauty, couldn’t have been wrong! But she died at 39, so we shall never know!

Just because those rough, sandpapery exfoliants are a no-go for tender facial skin, doesn’t mean that all exfoliating scrubs should be rebuffed! Mechanical exfoliation can still be beneficial, but the ingredients, frequency of use, and your skin’s response should be observed carefully. Generally speaking, if you are younger or your skin tends to be oily, you can probably exfoliate three times a week. If your skin is more mature, dry, or sensitive, exfoliate once a week at the most. Look for formulas with softer and smaller grains that turn to paste with water, like powdered oatmeal, as they are less likely to irritate. Stay away from anything with microbeads, simply for the sake of our environment. Marine life is feeding on micro-plastics because they can’t tell the difference between these little plastic balls and food. Just don’t do it!

As always, balance and common sense are the best ingredients! Pay attention to the messages your skin is sending you, and if in doubt, seek advice from a dermatologist.

Try this favourite DIY scrub

Over the years I have tried everything! And I’ve been happiest with a simple DIY I use twice a month and before special events. This gentle exfoliating paste has an excellent blend of anti-inflammatory, cleansing, and tightening properties.

Oatmeal-Honey Face Saver

  • 1 Tbsp oatmeal

  • 1 Tbsp unpasteurized honey

  • 1 tsp witch hazel

Grind oatmeal in a coffee grinder or high-powered blender until a powder-consistency is achieved.

In a small bowl, mix ingredients together to form a paste.

Smooth onto face with upward circles, using fingertips.

If time permits, leave on for 10-15 minutes; otherwise, rinse off with warm water after 2-5 minutes.

Gently pat dry after rinsing and immediately apply an oil-based moisturizer to lock moisture in and create a protective barrier.

Outstanding oil! 

Oil on your face? Yes.
Really? Yes.
Even if I have oily skin? Still yes!

Oil cleansing isn’t going anywhere, friends. In fact, it’s gaining popularity and with good reason: it works! Based on the theory that like attracts like, oil cleansing with a specially-formulated oil cleanser helps sop up dirt, debris, and pollutants from the day without stripping all those natural emollients from your beautiful face. An oil cleanser, followed by an oil-based moisturizer, followed by an oil-based balm is indulgent, sumptuous, and totally uh-mazing! The result is soft, radiant, and decidedly ungreasy skin. And all that gentle massage is fantastic for encouraging blood flow to your skin, bringing regeneration and healing. Settle into fall with a new skincare routine. Pamper your face and of course, exfoliate!

Now all you have to do is find your fave fuzzy PJs and a comfy corner to snuggle into for those long winter nights filled with fantastic flicks free of the flakies!