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Everything You Need to Know About Exfoliation

It's the best way to get glowy skin.
The radiant Julia Hafstrom backstage at Lanvin. Photo: Imaxtree

The radiant Julia Hafstrom backstage at Lanvin. Photo: Imaxtree

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns. Here, we tackle the topic of exfoliation.

If you talk to anyone with an intense skin-care regimen, chances are, the topic of exfoliation will come up. For some people, the idea conjures images of post-chemical peel, red-faced Samantha from "Sex & the City." But in reality, exfoliation shouldn't be feared. In fact, it's the best way to keep skin looking bright, evenly toned, smooth and healthy. We chatted with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Doris Day about what to do, what not to do and what products to reach for.

What exactly is exfoliation?

Exfoliation is the process of *gently* (that part's important) refining the outermost layer of the epidermis, or the "stratum corneum." As skin cells rejuvenate — a process that typically takes a full 30 days for cells from the basal layer to surface — the dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin can sometimes linger, creating a dull complexion and preventing the penetration of skin-care products and water into the skin. "Exfoliation is really about helping to appropriately remove dead skin cells that are ready to slough off, but not over-do it, which can leave the skin exposed," explains Day. The cell turnover process happens naturally. "But as you get older, or depending on the time of the year or the climate you live in, the skin cells may or may not slough off as they're supposed to and they might need some help," says Day. Exfoliation is the best way to help it along. The goal is to even out the flattened cells of the stratum corneum, not remove or damage it. "Some people like to use products with microbeads or nut shells, which just leave skin abraded," says Dr. Day. (Definitely not ideal, not to mention the fact that microbeads have been outlawed because they're damaging to the environment.)

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What to do (and what not to do)

There are two different methods of exfoliation: physical (face brushes and scrubs fall into this category) and chemical (which relies on ingredients like glycolic, salicylic or lactic acid to dissolve the dead skin cells). It's important to take note of your skin type before incorporating an exfoliant into your skin-care routine or booking an in-office peel. If you've got sensitive skin, Day suggests looking for scrubs with ultra-fine particles, or products containing phytic acid, such as Kate Somerville's Clarifying Treatment Toner, which is a milder alternative to glycolic and salicylic acids.

However, even if you don't have sensitive skin, make sure to limit exfoliation to a couple of days a week, and hold off if you have a sunburn or any active infections, like a breakout or cold sore. If you're introducing an exfoliant to your skin-care routine, play it safe with a gentle product that'll still get the job done, like Caudalie's Glycolic Peel (which is formulated with papaya enzymes and grape-seed oil), or a gentle scrub like this one by Laura Mercier. 

For a more intense at-home treatment, Day recommends the Olay Pro-X Microdermabrasion Cleansing System, which uses aluminum oxide and baking soda crystals to cleanse and re-texturize skin. "Clarisonic also has a sensitive brush head, which I like too," says Day. However, if you're looking for something more intense, talk to your derm about in-office microdermabrasion or laser treatments, such as the Clear + Brilliant laser, which helps to improve tone and texture to give skin a radiant glow and minimize the appearance of pores. Retinol can also help even out skin's texture and tone, but Day is quick to note that retinols don't actually work by exfoliating, but rather affect how the skin cells mature and build up. So if you're already using a retinol product, you may not have to exfoliate as much or as often. Most importantly, make sure to take care of your skin post-exfoliation by using a moisturizer and sunscreen, as some products can increase skin sensitivity to UV rays. And there you have it, readers! Exfoliation: explained.

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