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I think this is probably a little controversial but today I'm sharing an opinion I have, which is that the emphasis on exfoliation as absolutely essential for everyone and the idea that we should be doing it daily is pretty misguided. Most people are actually over-exfoliating and under-utilising other ingredients in their routine, in my personal experience, so let's get into it...
The upper layer of your skin is made of dead skin cells and that's totally healthy and actually pretty fundamental! Naturally, our skin turns itself over and sheds these cells when it's time for them to go, however as we age, this process slows down which can lead to the skin looking and feeling drier and duller. Therefore exfoliation can help things along a little so your skin stays looking fresh and glowing. AHAs work by breaking down the bonds that hold together these older skin cells so they can be removed. For younger skin, if you're prone to breakouts or if you have acne into adulthood, a BHA can actually get into the pore to clear out spot-causing debris, so exfoliation can be useful for this too. Additionally, exfoliation can promote an even skin tone, though it's really doing this from a surface level, unlike some of the other ingredients we'll go on to discuss.
The cynic in me says that a lot of this is down to marketing. Even some of my favourite leave-on exfoliants are sold as for daily use, and I personally just don't agree with that. If you're very acne-prone: a daily salicylic acid (BHA) cleanser could be beneficial, but that's short-contact therapy (because you're washing it off) so it's a little different. The other element to this is that exfoliation gives instant gratification. Can you remember the first time you ever used a glycolic acid toner? It was probably the most dramatic and immediate result you've seen from a cosmetic skincare product you can buy in the shop and use at home. It's also a quick fix for a lot of skin issues like uneven skin tone and blemish scarring. Of course, when you see results like that you're going to want to use it more often or even find a stronger formula because when you first get into skincare, that seems like the 'logical' thing to do.
However, you certainly can have too much of a good thing when it comes to exfoliating acids. Overdoing it can lead to dry, red, itchy skin, a waxy look and feel and actually worsening of issues like hyperpigmentation, plus if your skin barrier becomes compromised, you can actually end up breaking out more. You really don't want to mess up your skin with your skincare products - it's so counter-intuitive! Exfoliation can be beneficial for a lot of people but it's not necessary for everyone and this hyperfocus on it has led to a lot of skin issues for a lot of people.
I always encourage you to consider why you want to do something with your skin and how a particular product or ingredient helps you reach your skin goals. For me, an even skin tone and a natural radiance are right up there as priorities but in the long run, using other ingredients actually helps a lot with these issues. Vitamin C as part of my morning routine is great, so is using a retinoid in my evening routine. Ingredients like azelaic acid, niacinamide and tranexamic acid can also play a supporting role in this. They also work in different ways to exfoliating acids; rather than removing skin cells affected by discolouration, tyrosinase-inhibitors stop the over-production of melanin that causes this issue. Niacinamide actually prevents the transfer of pigmentation so your dark marks don't end up bigger than the original spot. I think these ingredients can actually lead to better long-term results. It seems obvious to mention but of course sunscreen is vital and as you incorporate it into your daily routine, you’ll notice you’re preventing a lot of the issues exfoliation aims to resolve.
This is kind of how I see exfoliation these days: it supports the work of my two main actives, and I use it sparingly. I either opt for a gentle toner maybe 3 times a week with a lower concentration of lactic acid, PHAs or mandelic acid. There are so many less-harsh options if you want a toner to use semi-regularly these days. Even cleansers can be great as short-contact therapy, which I've been enjoying lately (they're particularly great if you prioritise other actives in your routine and want ways of combining them with exfoliation). Alternatively, I'll use a proper peel (either wash-off or leave-on) once a week with no other actives on that night. This boosts my essentials and acts as a quick fix when my skin is dull and lacklustre, but the key takeaway is that my skincare routine no longer revolves around exfoliation, and I think if you can nail down everything else; you'll be less reliant on it and actually see better results from it!
How much do you rely on exfoliation within your routine?