Image: Smooth exfoliator: a konjac sponge.
Just mentioniong the word “exfoliation” may send those with acne sprinting away from the sink in fear of flare-ups and increased irritation. But fear not! When done right, a little exfoliation can play a valuable part in keeping your complexion happy without added breakouts.
Everyone understands the importance of a proper cleanse, but radiant skin also requires exfoliation, or simply put, the process of removing dead skin cells from the skin’s topmost layer.
When left to its own devices, the body naturally exfoliates through the process of desquamation, or cell turnover: a new skin cell is born in the deepest layer of the epidermis and during its life span, migrates to the uppermost layer of skin.
By the time it arrives at the top, the skin cell is basically dead and when the younger, perkier cells come up from below, the older guys are given the boot. The entire cycle, from birth to slough, takes about 28 days, depending on your age.
"As you age, the rate of cell turnover slows, causing flakiness and dullness—unpretty signs that you need to step up your exfoliation routine," Annet King, director of global education for Dermalogica and The International Dermal Institute, told Women’s Health Magazine.
While most dead skin cells leave home and turn into dust, some decide to linger—these are the troublemakers that cause pigmentation inconsistencies, a duller complexion, and blocked, irritated pores that can become blemishes.
Unfortunately those suffering from acne are already dealing with a skin turnover process that's a little slower than ideal. The presence of acne produces more dead skin cells than typical, but retention hyperkeratosis, or reduced, disproportionate shedding, means the skin has even more zombie cells to fend off. Time to exfoliate.
The market is lush with products that promise to help keep your cells in proper rotation but it’s crucial to find one sensitive to your skin’s specific needs. Most exfoliation products come in two camps: physical or chemical.
As the name would suggest, physical exfoliation requires a little manual labor either by scrubbing the face with abrasive pads or brushes, or products that contain abrasive ingredients like ground fruit seeds. These harsher products are not the best choice for those with acne—the friction may result in increased inflammation to already grouchy skin.
"Scrubs were developed after it was found that exfoliating produced smoother skin," stated dermatologist Zoe D. Draelos, M.D., clinical associate professor for the department of dermatology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.
"The challenge with abrasive scrubs is that the scrubbing granules can cause irritation, redness or slight wounds on the face."
A gentler option for sensitive skin is chemical exfoliation, which dissolves or loosens the bonds that hold dead skin cells on the skin’s surface with like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, like glycolic), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs, like salicylic), and retinoids. When incorporated into masks, gels, and toners, no abrasive agents are needed and many of these products are gentle enough for daily use.
Aim for products that target those with sensitive skin, such as Origins Modern Friction and Neutrogena’s Natural Purifying Pore Scrub. Many skincare brands carry exfoliants specifically for acne-prone skin: SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense, Murad Exfoliating Acne Treatment Gel, and Kate Somerville’s Exfolikate Acne Clearning Exfoliating Treatment.
Perhaps the best exfoliator for acne-prone skin is the konjaku (or konjac) sponge.
Dr. Jessica Wu, a Los Angeles dermatologist, told Refinery 29, "Konjac sponges are made from a natural fiber that absorbs a lot of water, so it has a very unique texture, kind of like a thick piece of rubbery felt,"
"Dr. Wu says she recommends konjac cleansing for anyone with acne or clogged pores because the fibers help unclog those plugged pores in a way that a washcloth or just your hands can't."
Of course, be mindful when adding a new exfoliating step into your skincare routine and err on the shy side, perhaps using a new product only once or twice a week to start.