As our skin ages, the speed at which our cells shed and renew slows down. It is this cell turnover that enables the body to naturally exfoliate and the slowing down of this process causes a build-up of dead skin cells on the surface that gives the skin a dull appearance and a rough texture.
The science is this; the outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, is composed of tightly-packed, stratified cells. The most superficial portion of this outer layer contains dead skin cells that are continually being shed by the thousand every day to expose new cells beneath. As these new cells move towards the surface, they flatten and develop protective qualities that allow them to provide an effective two-way barrier that keeps germs, toxins and other contaminants out and seals moisture in to keep skin healthy, flexible and supple.
Any method that helps remove dead skin cells from the surface of our skin is known as exfoliation. There are various forms, including chemical exfoliation (eg. fruit acids and enzymes) and physical exfoliation (eg. scrubs and brushes). Depending upon the aggressiveness of the procedure (people frequently have a tendency to over-use exfoliants or scrub too vigorously), exfoliation can remove more than just the dead skin cells that are ready to be shed and can end up exposing skin cells that are not ready to be exposed.
Overaggressive exfoliation with acids contained within moisturisers, harsh abrasives or chemical peels can expose fragile new cells before they have sufficiently matured and, as a result, provokeirritation, dermatitis, breakouts, dryness, sun sensitivity and inflammation.
In order to avoid over-exfoliating the skin, it is important to be aware of how many exfoliants you are employing. Check to see whether your day and night moisturisers contain exfoliating enzymes and/or acids, such as AHA or BHA. Are you using these alongside a toner or a serum with similar exfoliating agents? Does your daily cleanser contain these acids and/or a scrub agent (micro-beads, apricot kernel, etc.)?
Are you using an abrasive sponge, brush or handheld electric device to cleanse your skin? Do you regularly have peels or microdermabrasion? If you are using more than one of the exfoliants listed above, more than two or three times a week, you will certainly be over-exfoliating and, especially in the case of sensitive and ageing skin, this will damage your skin.
Over-exfoliating accelerates ageing of the skin. It is experienced as an aggression by the skin, so the skin has to use resources and energy to step up healing; resources and energy which would otherwise be used to repair normal on-going wear-and-tear, to keep skin young and healthy.
Rather than potentially destroying healthy cells while stripping and weakening the skin’s protective barrier, our focus instead should be on correctly nourishing the skin from within and from without.
Cleansing the skin every day with water and a gentle cleanser removes dead skin cells, dirt, pollutants and pore-clogging oil so that it can remain blemish-free and absorb the active ingredients of any skincare products more effectively. A soft muslin cloth when cleansing the face daily can aid this process without stripping the skin of living skin cells or essential, protective layers.
Avoiding petroleum and silicone oils used in moisturisers can improve the natural exfoliation of dead skin cells. Petroleum and silicone oils form a plastic-like barrier that sits on the surface of the skin. The intention is to seal in moisture, but it also traps everything under it, including bacteria, sebum and impurities, and prevents the skin from naturally shedding dead skin cells.
Certain plant oils with naturally high ceramide, plant sterol and fatty acid content, such as flaxseed oil, taken internally and/or applied topically, excel at replenishing the flexible adhesive matrix that holds the outer skin cells in place to maintain healthy, youthful and supple skin. This matrix is depleted as we age, leading to thinning and weakening of the skin’s outer layer, a marked reduction in its moisture-retention ability and eventually to sagging skin and wrinkles. In this depleted state, skin cells flake off more easily and exfoliation exacerbates the issue.
Gentle cleansing, minimum exfoliation and nourishing skincare – including a targeted anti-ageing supplement – are the answer.
In summary, do not be over-zealous with exfoliation and, if you are experiencing redness, breakouts or dryness, cut out exfoliation altogether from your skincare routine until your skin heals and then, especially if you have sensitive or ageing skin, restrict exfoliation to no more than once a week.