Exfoliate your acne skin to reduce breakouts; why it’s important and how to choose a suitable exfoliant
“Regularly exfoliate to the top layer of dead skin cells for a clearer and fresher skin.”
Exfoliation is not commonly included as part of one’s skincare routine but it is no less important as a daily step, especially for acne skin. Just as our body’s surface collects daily dirt and dust that requires cleansing, our skin also builds up layers of dead cells that require removal. In acne-prone skin, the skin’s natural process of shedding goes awry. Instead of the regular monthly shedding process, dead cells can remain stuck on the skin for longer, causing clogged pores and signifying potential breeding grounds for the p.acnes bacteria. While the build up of skin cells may not be visible to the naked eye, a quick brush with your fingers can reveal the uneven texture of unexfoliated skin. Clogged pores are an ever present issue for acne skin that can be easily addressed with consistent exfoliation. Regular exfoliation not just removes space for breeding bacteria, it rejuvenates the skin and increases cell renewal that can help heal acne scars too.
Simple understanding our skin
Our skin is a dynamic organ that protects us by adapting to changes in our environment. To maintain its resilience and flexibility, our skin undergoes a natural renewal process called desquamation, where the old cells get replaced by new cells every 20 - 40days, depending on age and lifestyle. A consistent cell renewal turnover produces new cells for soft, glowing and healthy skin, helping us meet daily environmental exposure with ease and confidence.
To roughly estimate what your skin’s renewal process is, use your age as a simple rule of thumb. So if you are 20 years old, your average cell renewal rate is likely 20 days. If you are 40 years old, your renewal rate is 40 days per cycle, so on and so forth.
Cell renewal in acne-prone skin
Unlike in a normal-functioning skin, the cell renewal process is impaired in acne-prone skin. Instead of being sloughed off regularly every month or so, the dead skin cells remain stuck to the skin, creating clogged pores and forming the perfect breeding ground for the p.acnes bacteria (1). This process known as hyperkeratinisation may be due to inflammation, increased oil production and possibly a deficiency in essential fatty acid (1).
Improve acne by increasing cell renewal
One of the key steps to healing acne, is to assist the skin to shed cells regularly. Skincare products can help acne skin by speeding up the cell renewal process. Helping our skin gently exfoliate--the way it used to when we were younger--clears the blockages and reveals beautiful and soft skin underneath. Regular exfoliation can prepare the skin to meet the daily challenges of the day by resetting it to its naturally healthy, fresh and flexible state.
Instead of remaining stuck on the skin as a thicken build up of cells, chemical exfoliants help to gently loosen the “glue” that holds the dead skin together. Once the bonds are slowly broken, the cells will naturally shed over the course of your day. The shedding is not visible, however, you will soon feel and see younger, clearer and smoother skin.
How to choose a suitable exfoliant for acne skin?
Including hydroxy acids as a part of one’s daily acne routine can bring consistency and teach our skin to renew itself in a calm and consistent manner. It can also reduce the appearance of large pores and even out skin tone for an overall healthy skin texture. The most common exfoliants that you can buy over the counter are AHAs and BHAs. As acne skin is inflamed and red, exfoliating may seem counter-intuitive. However, the key is to use hydroxy acids that gently dissolve the tough layers of skin cells, rather than the physical scrubs like beads or rice husks. This helps to improve cell renewal without aggravating the already inflamed skin.
Use chemical exfoliants such as AHAs or BHAs
Beta hydroxy acids are oil soluble and work on both the surface as well as deep within the pore. For this reason, BHAs, in particular salicylic acids, are highly recommended for acne, oily and normal skin prone to clogs, bumps, enlarged pores. Salicylic acid is able to dissolve the sebum deep within the skin as well as slough off the top layer of dead skins cells, while also being gentle and calming, making it effective for acne skin.
Alpha hydroxy acids, such as lactic and glycolic acids, are water soluble and only work on the skin’s surface. They peel away the old skin and help new cells to grow. AHAs are mostly suitable for improving fine lines, skin tone and tightening or enlarged pores.
Between AHAs and BHAs, studies have shown that salicylic acid has sustained effectiveness and better tolerated than glycolic acids (3).
Avoid physical exfoliants such as grains, rice, husks or beads
Grains, rice, husks and beads are really effective at smoothing out the roughness on the skin but as the name suggests, physical exfoliants mechanically polish and rub off the dead skin cells. While they may be suitable for skin without blemishes, the physical action of rubbing rice husks may agitate acne and cause abrasive scarring.
Using BHAs in your routine
How often should you apply them?
Most acne products containing 1% - 2% salicylic acid are designed for daily usage twice a day and are well tolerated. However if you find it too drying, reduce it to once a night. Always apply sunblock, especially if you are using it during the day, to prevent pigmentation. You also wish to try a higher strength AHA or BHA and treat yourself to an “at-home-peel” once a week for a deeper exfoliation and more dramatic results.
What percentage should you use?
Salicylic acid is the most common BHA (2). Apply a low percentage salicylic acid so that our skin adapts and adjusts comfortably to the increase in exfoliation. Using too high a percentage may be too drying, causing the skin to overreact by producing more oils.
Concentrations range from 0.5% to 2% with 2% being the most common in products, including leave-on serums. BHAs are gentle and are easily tolerated by most people. If you are new to them, test it on a small patch of your skin before applying it to a larger area for a smoother introduction.
A gentle process of daily exfoliation for a healthier you
Regular and gentle exfoliation helps to bring hyperkeratinised skin back to its natural healthy state. With acne, many of us have the mindset that we need to be doing more to reduce oiliness, control outbreaks and so on. However sometimes, as in this case, a consistent, gentle process of letting go and removing what we don’t need may be all it takes for a healthier you. Using a light 2% leave-on salicylic acid exfoliant such as Dermalogica’s AGE Bright Clearing Serum may be what your skin needs to return to a natural cell renewal turnover.