Skin cells are a lively, scrappy bunch, constantly renewing and replenishing themselves as they scamper about below the skin’s surface.
Every three weeks, more or less, new cells move from the lowest layer of the epidermis and make their way toward the skin’s outer layer. What happens to them along the journey—how they are fed and watered, so to speak—has a great effect on the overall appearance of the skin. Once they reach the surface, at the end of their trek, the cells can dry up and flatten, and at that point they generally shed. But sometimes, bound together by oil and dirt, they stick around longer than they are welcome.
That’s where exfoliation comes in. It helps sweep away dead skin and make way for the fresher, smoother, younger skin cells below. Exfoliants include physical scrubs, chemical exfoliants (alpha-, beta-, lactic-, mandelic-, asiatic- and polyhydroxy acids), enzyme masks (pumpkin, pineapple, citrus, papaya), peels and tools such as ultrasonic brushes, washcloths and mechanical devices. What you use is a matter of personal choice, as long as it is in sync with your skin. It is always a good idea to consult with a skincare professional to learn about your best options.
“Exfoliating the face, neck and décolleté—please consider your neck and décolleté as an extension of your face—removes dry, dead skin cells and promotes new cell generation while reducing the appearance of pigmentation, fine lines and sun damage, keeping us all fresh, radiant and younger-looking,” says Carrie Sotebeer, director of spa, Montage Healdsburg.
Exfoliation also makes it easier for the skin to absorb moisture, because you are removing what is, quite literally, a physical block to penetration. Moisturizers, oils, creams, serums will not be as effective if the skin is not properly exfoliated.
According to Julia March, founder, Julia March Skin Care in New York and Colorado, “When done correctly, exfoliation keeps our skin healthy, soft and radiant. By exfoliating we remove debris, extra oil and some dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin. It also allows for a better penetration of important ingredients into the deeper layers of the epidermis.” When done gently and appropriately, says March, the surface of the skin will reflect light better and appear to glow, fine lines become less noticeable and the improved absorption of peptides, hyaluronic acid and other nourishing ingredients will make the skin appear smoother and more refined.
But it’s important not to overdo it. If you use a physical scrub, press—don’t rub—into moistened skin. If you are rough, over time, you can introduce tiny tears into the texture of the skin, and it won’t be pretty. If you rely on a chemical exfoliant, max out at two or three times per week, any more than that can literally thin your skin. March recommends a powder mask, which “doesn’t need a preservative and lasts for a long time.” Mix with a bit of water, and apply to the skin. Let it sit for two to three minutes, then work it in with wet hands with gentle circular movements and rinse off. Don’t keep the mask on until it starts cracking as it may dehydrate the skin, she advises.
Enzyme masks “‘eat up’ naturally shedding layers of dead skin cells revealing beautifully glowing, fresh skin underneath,” says March. They are recommended once a week or less. During the summer, says Sotebeer, “The sun can wreak havoc on our skin, so don’t forget your sunscreen. Do, however, exfoliate regularly to maintain clear, glowing skin. During the warmer weather, we sweat more, produce more oil and have faster cell production. Staying on top of your skincare will balance all of that. When the weather shifts and starts to cool down, don’t be afraid to shift your products as well.”
Aside from healthy skincare, face masks also provide a moment for “me” time. “I like using masks because they give me a reason to stop and take time for myself,” says March. “I can reflect or meditate while the mask is on and that in turn makes me feel more content and beautiful,” she continues. “It can be a good excuse for us to designate time for ourselves, because we truly do matter!”