Exfoliation can be tricky territory. We’ve all heard that it’s an important step in any routine, but there is a commonly held myth about exfoliation that could be thwarting you. You might be under the impression that the only way to properly get rid of dead skin is applying harsh scrubs, also known as physical exfoliants. However, this is not the only method of exfoliation — in fact, it may be damaging your skin more than helping it.
Exfoliants come in many different forms, and not all are created equal. Physical (or mechanical) exfoliation can be done by applying a scrub containing tiny particles, but you can also use tools like brushes, sponges, or even a washcloth to slough away dead skin. Skincare specialists also offer in-office treatments such as dermaplaning (where a small blade is used to remove dead skin) and microdermabrasion (where an abrasive surface is used to exfoliate) for a deeper, more invasive form of exfoliation (via Harper’s Bazaar). While these methods may be suitable in some scenarios, they’re certainly not always the best way to exfoliate, especially if you have dry or sensitive skin.
Harsh scrubs can be damaging to the skin — but there are alternatives
Those with sensitive skin will want to be extra careful when it comes to exfoliation. Cosmopolitan beauty director Julee Wilson states in an article that for these folks, physical exfoliation is likely not the way to go. “If you’ve got sensitive skin, you probably don’t want to be using harsh scrubs to exfoliate,” Wilson says. She notes that the small particles in physical exfoliants can cause tiny tears to occur in the skin, which will weaken your skin’s barrier over time. In some cases, these tears can even lead to infection.
The moisture loss that often results from using harsh scrubs can also disrupt the skin’s barrier, which is crucial to maintaining your skin’s overall health. “This increased skin sensitivity increases skin irritation and redness,” dermatologist Jeannette Graf, MD told Cosmo.
This doesn’t mean that those with dry or sensitive skin can’t enjoy the benefits of exfoliation. Chemical exfoliants utilize acids to help break down and get rid of dead skin — without the irritation that comes with a scrub. There are different varieties of chemical exfoliants at different concentrations; the most commonly used acids are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and poly hydroxy acids (PHAs), according to Healthline. These exfoliators are much less abrasive, but should still be used cautiously. Too much exfoliation of any kind can lead to irritation and disruption of the skin’s barrier.
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