The ultimate guide to exfoliation: A beauty must

Why do you need to exfoliate?

Are you having any of these unpleasant experiences with your skin? No matter how much moisturizer you pile on, it still feels dry and looks flaky? You notice little bumps underneath it even you are not suffering from a single break out? The worst problem yet, is your foundation doesn’t go on smooth and simply vanishes on certain areas shortly after application, leaving a very unflattering patchy look!

So what is going on? You’ve done everything you know for the skin! You moisturize it ritually with a good cream; you carefully take off makeup and wash your face before bed every day; you wear sunscreen whenever natural light is in sight. What else can you do? You may start blaming your genes, or just spending more money on countless miraculous products to fix the problem (The SA can’t be lying right? Even her own skin doesn’t look that great)…..

But hang on. How much do you really know about skin? Skin; The largest organ of human body, has amazing abilities to renew itself over a 28-30 day cycle. Every second, new cells are generated in the bottom layer of the skin (the dermis), and over time, they migrate to the surface (the epidermis) and get filled with a protein called keratin, forming a protective barrier.  Cells on the surface eventually die and flake off, revealing newer cells underneath. However, many biological and environmental factors, such as changes of hormone levels, ageing, sun damage, harsh weather, medication and improper cosmetic usages can all impede this natural metabolism process, leaving excessive amount of dead cells clinging onto the skin surface. This can not only lead to a blotchy, dull complexion, but also causes a whole range of annoying conditions, including blemishes, clogged pores, dryness and loss of elasticity.

Fortunately, a procedure called exfoliation can efficiently remove the dead skin cells,boosting skin turn over and consequently giving back the baby smoothness and radiant look of you skin. On top of that, the effects of exfoliating regularly also include reducing break-outs, fading acne scars and hyper-pigmentation, and of course, fighting ageing which is every woman’s skincare enemy #1.

So if you haven’t included it in your skin care regime, you MUST check it out now!

How is exfoliation achieved?

Exfoliation is not rocket science. It can be achieve easily at home. Basically, there are two forms of exfoliation:

  1. Mechanical exfoliation.

Mechanical exfoliation involves physically sloughing off dead skin cells with an abrasive, such as nut shells (e.g the famous St’ Ives Apricot Scrub), sea salt, sugar, sponges, loofahs, microfiber cloths, micro-beads, microdermabrasion, or the recently much-hyped Clarisonic brush. This type of exfoliation is simple yet effective for normal and dry skin types without major skin problems. However, many exfoliants made with nutshells or other natural particles have sharp edges that can irritate skin and cause micro-cuts when rubbed against your face, therefore should be avoided by sensitive and inflamed skins in all instances. For skin with active breakout and infection, mechanical exfoliation could open infected pores and spread the bacteria all over the face, therefore is a big NO NO! That’s why many anti-acne face scrubs quite often exacerbate rather than help breakout (imagine the consequence of massaging all the acne-causing bacteria deep into your pores!).


 Clarisonic is the current hot shot for mechanical exfoliation.

    2.    Chemical exfoliation.

Also is referred to as chemical peel. Chemical exfoliation loosens the sticky bonds between dead skin cells and helps them to peel off through chemical actions delivered by various types of acids, which contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) or/and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). This can also be achieved by enzymes extracted from fruits such as papaya and pineapple, but the efficiency is less potent. Other ingredients like retinol/retin-A/retinoic acid, resorcinol (all these are vitamin A derivatives) are also used, as they can promote cell turn-over while it flakes off dead cells.

Compared to mechanical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation is more versatile, as it’s suitable for most skin types and its peeling strength can be well controlled by adjusting the concentration of effective acids in a product and the amount of time it stays on the skin. There are a wide range of chemical exfoliants available on the market. The most common ones include lactic acid, glycolic acid and salicylic acid. Most over the counter products have relatively low concentration and has mild effects, while those with clinical strength are used strictly by licensed professionals.

 Despite its effectiveness, there are drawbacks with chemical exfoliants too. Skin sensitivity can be a general issue for beginners, but can be overcome by starting from a low concentration with less frequent use and gradually increasing it to let the skin build up resistance. Allergic reactions can occur , but fortunately people who are allergic to AHA may not be sensitive to BHA, and vice versa. Last but not least, increased sun sensitivity is inevitable after chemical exfoliation, which makes the usage of sunscreen a must.

There are also products containing both mechanical and chemical exfoliants available on the market, e.g a topical scrub with AHA. I personally dislike them as they may be way too harsh and cancel out the benefits of exfoliation.


So what type of exfoliant should you choose?

You may already be confused. The key is to choose the right type of exfoliant for your skin. I will break this down to make it simpler for you:

Normal and dry skin without any particular problems:Most exfoliants will do the job! However the extra benefits from AHAs, PHAs and vitamin A derivatives including increased collagen production, faster overall cell turnover, as well as reduced skin discoloration are something you don’t want to miss.


Oily or blemish-prone skin with/out breakout:As discussed above, mechanical exfoliants are not suitable for skin with active breakout and blemishes. BHA is preferred here over AHA because it is better at cutting through the oil inside the pore, and penetrating the pore is necessary to exfoliate the pore lining.  For people who are allergic to BHAs (if you are allergic to aspirin), AHA and retinol are the next options to consider. But using them sparingly and always start with a low concentration, as they are more sensitizing than BHA.


Mature skin with wrinkles and sun damage:Mechanical exfoliation is not ideal for mature skin as they are generally harsh on the already thinned skin and may cause broken capillaries. Chemical exfoliants including AHA, BHA and vitamin A derivatives are what you should consider. These exfoliants will not only even out skin tone, but also improve skin texture significantly. AHAs in high concentration are particularly effective at reducing deep wrinkles, but you’d better leave the application to professionals, rather than taking the risk of chemical burn. Retinol is also excellent for smoothing out skin while preventing damage caused by free radicals; however, some peoples’ skin just can’t tolerant it.


Skin with inflammatory conditions, such as dermatitis, eczema and cystic acnes:Please consult your dermatologist, as inflammation can be worsened by improper use of any exfoliants.


How often should you exfoliate?

Now you find your missing BFF. But should you two stick together all the time? The answer is NO. Moderation is the rule for everything, no matter how good it makes you feel. Excessive vitamin pills can increase cancer incidence, over exfoliation can damage your skin undoubtedly too. Some skins may benefit from daily exfoliation, while once per week could be too much for dry and sensitive skins. The rule of thumb? Listen to your skin! If your skin shows signs of irritation, such as excessive dryness, flakiness and redness, then you are overdoing it.Also remember to always start with a mild exfoliant and increase the potency gradually, and your skin will thank you for regular breaks from exfoliation too.


Product recommendation for chemical exfoliantion:

There are countless chemical exfoliants on the market yet many of them are either ineffective (mainly due to incorrect pH) or containing potential irritants. It’s literally impossible to try all of them out, but there here are some of my favourite yet inexpensive products:

John Plunkett Essentials Glyco Peel. This is an excellent AHA product with 25% glycolic acid. It also contains lacktokine which can stimulate cell regeneration and protect skin from inflammatory reactions. Available from most Australian chemists or buy it online from

glyco pee;
glyco pee;

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. One of the rare effective BHA products that work wonderfully on a wide range of skin types.( Unfortunately most BHA products on the market are not effective due to the wrong pH value). Ideal for skin prone to blemishes as it does unclog and diminish enlarged pores effectively. It is also claimed to be gentle enough to use on skin with rosacea. Ever since I started using it, I got much less blackheads and rarely had any breakouts (My skin is very oily and blemish prone). Can be purchased online from


Avene Eluage Cream. A rich facial cream which contains an effective amount of retinol without irritating skin. Although claimed to be an anti-aging product for women over 45, I found it has excellent ability to exfoliate skin and clear breakouts. What’s more, it’s formulated to be safe for sensitive skin (but please do test it before use if you have sensitive skin). This is the go-to product for me when my skin is down. Quite often one use is enough to give noticeable result.  But if this is not strong enough for you, see your dermatologist and get a prescription of a clinical strength retinol product. DO NOT use any products with vitamin A derivatives if you are pregnant or are preparing for pregnancy. Can be purchased from most chemists. 

avene eulage
avene eulage

Important note: When you decide to include a chemical exfoliant into your skin care regime, always follow the instruction or consult professionals. Always conduct a sensitivity test for new products. Most products should be used directly on cleaned face at night before moisturizing. Using exfoliants during the day or under your makeup is NEVER a great idea, not only because it makes your skin more susceptible to sun light and other environmental changes, but also the acidity from the product will oxidize and ruin your makeup. Last but not least, always wear a sunscreen with at least SPF15! 


Your friendly makeup artist,


Copyright © 2013 Mary Li Makeup artist, Canberra, ACT, Australia

Nothing within this post, including text or images may be reproduced without my expressed permission.