When I discuss exfoliants I find it best to first to take a step back and understand what an exfoliant actually is to better understand the different types and the role they can play in your skin care routine.
Our skin is dynamic- it is constantly renewing itself. During this renewal process, ‘dead skin cells’, sebum or oil, and keratin, a protein from our skin, are accumulating at the surface. These naturally will shed or exfoliate on their own. However, it has been shown that sometimes they will linger and sometimes accumulate in our pores or on the surface of our skin. This can result in the potential for acne or just a ‘dull’ overall appearance of the skin.
Exfoliants are meant to help remove the accumulation of superficial skin cells, keratin and sebum from the skin to treat and prevent acne and give the skin a ‘glow’ by revealing the skin hiding behind this layer.
There are two types of exfoliants : physical or chemical.
Physical exfoliants are products that work by manually removing the excess by the abrasive or gritty quality. This can be through the addition of granules, sugar, seeds or nutshells to a cleanser or devices such as loofahs or brushes. The goal is to help shed or remove the buildup on our skin directly.
Chemical exfoliants are products that use ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or enzymes to dissolve the fats or lipids in the superficial layers of skin to help shed these cells and the by-products of these cells such as keratin and sebum or oil.
If you have oily or dull appearing skin then manual exfoliation may be a better way to go. I realize there are a lot of devices and loofahs and skin brushes on the market I’m not a fan of tools. The amount of bacteria that has been shown to build up in loofah sponges alone in studies is enough proof that these may not be a great idea- unless you are meticulous about constantly cleaning these in a bleach solution. I have had cases where patients have been so aggressive with facial scrubbing brushes and mechanical devices where they actually developed impetigo (an infection with staph bacteria) as a result. To get a simple wash, just use your hands. After all, once you have soap and water on them- they are clean! If you would like to use a gentle exfoliative then stick with ones that wash down the drain and are not reused. Sugar scrubs, apricot scrubs, etc. all work well for this purpose.
What about just soap and water? There is nothing wrong with just using soap and water on a daily basis to wash our skin. The detergent action of soap will also break down the oil and sebum that builds up on our skin. However, it likely will not alone remove any accumulated keratin and oil aggressively. These will naturally exfoliate over time. Think of an exfoliant as a way to get a bit more of a glow or shed some of this excess keratin faster.