Here’s an in-depth piece that we stand behind, by renown skincare expert Rene
Rouleau. It offers insight from Patricia and Rene as to what exfoliants to use,
how to use them and why.
Acids, Enzymes and Scrubs: Which Exfoliant Should You Use And How
Exfoliant: a cosmetic product with ingredients intended to remove dead cells from the skin’s
surface. This then reveals a clearer, smoother and more even-toned complexion. Whether it’s
an acid, enzyme or granular bead, these are commonly found in skincare products because
they’ve become a staple in home regimens. They offer incredible immediate and long-term
visible improvement for so many common issues: from unclogging trapped pores and bumps
that lead to blemishes, fading acne discoloration and sun spots or simply lessening dryness.
However, with so many different types of exfoliants and the various forms in which they come,
it’s hard to determine what’s best for your skin type. And how much exfoliation is TOO much?
Here’s the ultimate guide to getting the best results from exfoliants—without over-doing it. Yes,
over-exfoliation is a common problem. Over-exfoliation leads to less-than- healthy skin, so you
really have to be careful.
Here’s the breakdown on the perfect amount of exfoliation, what works and which is not too
much and not too little.
How they work: When applied to the skin, AHA’s (Alpha Hydroxy Acids) and BHA’s (Beta
Hydroxy Acids) create a chemical reaction that lowers pH that then dissolves and digests the
“glue” that holds dry, expired cells together. AHA’s are water soluble, so they don’t penetrate as
much into the pores (unlike BHA’s). However, they are incredibly effective for removing
pigmented cells from the sun or breakouts and giving an overall smoothness to the skin. The
most commonly used exfoliating AHA’s are lactic, glycolic, malic, mandelic and tartaric. (Citric
acid is not technically an exfoliant but instead a pH adjuster.)
Note: If you’re pregnant, your doctor may suggest to hold off using BHA’s so be sure to consult
with him or her.
To work most effectively at home, an acid must fall within a pH range of 3-4 and be at a
concentration of 5%-20%. What I love about acid exfoliators is that they do the work for you.
Meaning, you don’t have to rub and tug at the skin manually. They are also much safer, as long
as you use a formula with a proper pH and percentage that is appropriate for your skin type.
You put them on and let them work their magic. No fuss.
Who acids are best for: These are best for anyone with clogged pores, blemishes, blackheads,
dryness, flakiness, fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, dullness, discoloration and/or a rough
texture. They are perfect for anyone seeking an overall healthier and smoother look for his/her
skin. Of course, you’ll want to use one that is formulated for your skin type and follow usage
directions carefully. However, anyone can safely use acids—even those with rosacea.
NOTE: A tingling sensation may or may not occur when you apply an acid. This is not an
indicator of product effectiveness. Rather, a tingling sensation is a result of how your skin’s
protective barrier is acting at the time that you use the product. It can indicate that the barrier
function of your skin is compromised. It’s very common that people will feel the tingling
sensation when they first start using it and then it dissipates after a month or so. People tell me
“I don’t feel like it’s working as well anymore because I can’t feel it sting like I did when I first
started using it.” The truth is acids, when not overused, can actually repair your skin’s moisture
barrier so your skin will actually get healthier and be less reactive with continued use. You don’t
always need the pain to get the gain!
ACIDS CAN BE FOUND IN EXFOLIATORS
Cleansers Acids can make a great addition to gel or lotion-based cleansers and when
massaged over the skin can quickly dissolve dry cells. Since cleansers are rinsed off fairly
quickly, though, you won’t get a lot of exfoliation from them. You’ll want to be sure to also
exfoliate using a leave-on product for maximum effectiveness.
Toners These are becoming more popular and provide a quick hit of light exfoliation. However,
I believe these do not replace the need for a true leave-on formula with a thicker viscosity
(thickness), like a serum or cream. This is because water-based products evaporate too quickly
and won’t penetrate very deep—even if you feel an immediate tingling sensation. Plus, many
acid-based toners only use a small percentage of acids so they can be fairly weak. (Of course,
all formulas are not equal so I’m generalizing here.)
NOTE: In an effort to not over-do any exfoliation efforts, I do NOT recommend using an acid
toner followed by an acid serum or acid cream. The combination is simply too strong. However,
for retinol users who don’t have sensitive skin, using an acid toner before applying a retinol
product can help the active ingredients penetrate deeper into the skin.
Serums Unlike creams, serums have the smallest molecules, so they penetrate the skin’s
surface most effectively. They are my absolute favorite way to thoroughly saturate cells to get
the best results. Serums enter the dermis when applied to the skin and followed with a
moisturizer. Due to their viscosity, they can work for a longer period of time than acid-based
cleansers and toners do.
Creams While moisturizers have larger molecules, AHA’s formulated within a cream texture
can still be effective for surface exfoliation. However, when it comes to BHA’s, where they have
better capabilities to get in the pores, creams with salicylic acid will not be very effective. I see
fewer and fewer acid-based face creams these days since serums are much more efficient.
Masks/Peels Exfoliating masks are great for that quick hit. Like serums and creams, they hug
onto the skin due to their thicker viscosity. Masks typically only stay on the skin for 5-15
minutes. Therefore, their formulations are stronger since they have to work more quickly. This is
a good thing when you want quick results.
Body products A few specialized scrubs, serums and lotions on the market contain AHAs to
help manage the skin condition called keratosis pilaris (KP). This is a condition in which small
tiny bumps appear, causing a rough, red texture. Regardless of whether or not you are
someone with KP, using these types of exfoliating body products will dramatically smooth the
skin and manage dryness that comes with age.
How they work: Dead cells are what comprise the top layer of skin. These dead cells contain a
keratin protein that makes the skin feel rough to the touch. When you apply an enzyme product
to the face, it dissolves and digests the proteins into smaller particles to reveal smoother skin.
Enzymes are fruit-derived and are absent of acids or grains. This means they can offer a
gentler, no-sting, no scrub exfoliating action for sensitive skin types. Pineapple, pumpkin,
pomegranate, and papaya are the most common fruit enzymes used in skin care products.
While both acids and enzymes will dissolve dry skin cells, there are a few main differences in
how they work. Enzymes work more on the surface, while acids slip deeper into the skin’s
barrier. Water activates enzyme peels, and they work more slowly to digest cellular buildup.
Therefore, they should be applied to damp skin and left on for 15-20 mins. Acids, on the other
hand, can be applied to dry skin. When used in a peel, they can work in as little as 5 minutes.
Who benefits most from enzymes: while exfoliation will always improve skin conditions like
clogged pores, blemishes, blackheads, dryness, flakiness, fine lines, wrinkles, large pores,
dullness and discoloration, enzymes are a good option for those who have already tried acids
and found their skin could not tolerate them.
EXFOLIATING SCRUBS AND OTHER PHYSICAL EXFOLIATORS
How they work: Facial scrubs are cream or gel-based products that contain small particles or
beads. When massaged across the skin, they help smooth it by lifting off dry, dead skin cells.
These are also known as physical or manual exfoliators. Other types of these exfoliants include
sonic cleansing brushes (Clarisonic), razors and washcloths. When maneuvered over the face,
the bristles, blades and woven fibers also lift off expired cells.
Physical exfoliators make a great complement to acids and enzymes. Acids and enzymes
dissolve and loosen dead cells, but it’s the lifting action that you can get from a physical
exfoliator that actually takes them off the skin. I suggest using them 1-2 times per week for most
skin types, whether that’s a scrub, Clarisonic-type brush(which we carry), razor or a washcloth
rubbed firmly over the skin. If you’re not using any other exfoliants, you can up this to five times
Who benefits most from physical exfoliants:for all skin types, even sensitive skin. The key with
facial scrubs and other physical exfoliators is to use a very light pressure. Let the beads gently
glide over the skin. People often make the mistake of pushing too hard, which can result in the
skin feeling irritated and looking red.
PRO TIP: Facial scrubs also work very well to keep the skin on the neck smooth. When
exfoliating the neck area, make sure to look upwards so the skin on the neck is nice and taut.
This makes for easier use. Exfoliate the area three times a week at night and be sure to follow
with a neck cream to nourish those fresh, newly-revealed cells.
WHAT DOES TOO MUCH EXFOLIATION DO TO YOUR SKIN?
• A stripped moisture (lipid) barrier layer, resulting in dehydration, flaking, redness, and
• Dryness (moisture will seep out of the cells)
• Advanced aging due to chronic and prolonged inflammation
• Destruction of healthy cells
• Stimulation of melanin activity, possibly resulting in an increase of hyperpigmentation (brown
spots and patches)
• Stinging and irritation (due to a stripped barrier function)
Your skin needs a certain number of protective layers to keep the skin in a healthy state and
retain its natural moisture. With the rise of consumer access to products that can truly create a
visible change in the skin, exfoliating too often with rotating brushes, acids, enzymes and scrubs
may be harming and inflaming the skin, more than you realize.
How often should you exfoliate? For most skin types, I do not recommend using a leave-on
exfoliator or a facial scrub on a daily basis. Sometimes those with thicker, oilier and acne-prone
skin can withstand daily exfoliation for a while until things clear up. Regardless, you’ll never get
the best results by giving your skin the same thing day in and day out. Your skin’s integrity
thrives off of a variety of performance ingredients.
GENERAL RULES WHEN IT COMES TO EXFOLIATION
Use an exfoliant no more than five times a week. When it comes to making recommendations
for the skin, it’s always hard to generalize for all skin types but for most, 4-5 times a week is
plenty. Whether that’s in the form of a facial scrub, serum, mask or whatever, you’ll want to stay
within this range.
So there you have it. I think you get the idea that using exfoliators is super beneficial! If you’re
not using one, get on it right away. If you think you’re using them way too much, then back off a
bit. Again, five times a week is plenty.
Here’s what NOT to do: The one thing I see and hear that literally makes me cringe is those
who use a Clarisonic brush (along with a cleanser), then follow it with an acid-based toner
MORNING AND NIGHT. You’re getting exfoliation from the brush then also from the toner twice
a day. That adds up to exfoliating fourteen times a week. Way. Too. Much. Even if you feel like
that improves the look of your skin, I’m here to tell you that the skin needs those protective
layers to be healthy. This over-exfoliation creates way too much inflammation within the
skin—even if not visible. And inflammation is the underlying cause of skin aging. Your skin’s
protective barrier MUST stay intact in order for the skin to stay in a healthy place. Go easy, my
One final thought. Retinol or prescription retinoids are technically not exfoliants, though many
people think they are. When used for long periods of time (months and months), they can reveal
a smaller-pored, less-lined texture. However, they don’t offer the quick smoothing results that
acids, scrubs, and enzymes do because they work in a much different way. I recommend retinol
and retinoids all the time as they are a great complement to exfoliants.
Need expert advice from a licensed esthetician? Schedule a consultation with Patricia. She’ll
access your skin care needs and put you on the right exfoliator path to healthy, shiny, radiant