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Exfoliation 101 - from Brushing to Retinol

Reviewed by Marta April 15, 2014 15 Comments

There is no doubt that regular exfoliation helps the skin’s appearance. However, there is a spectrum of different approaches from gentle to harsh.  It can be very confusing, especially when trying to figure what and when is enough. So I thought it would be a good idea to short the scrubs from the rubs, the faux peels from the real deals.


What is it and why: Dry brushing is part of Cindy Crawford’s daily regimen (as well as that of our own lovely Kim).  Brushes help remove dead skin cells, dirt and keep pores unclogged. Not just limited to the face, brushing is great for all over the body to keep skin soft and body breakouts at bay.

How it exfoliates: Removes dead skin cells on the surface. The powered, so called “sonic”, brushes work more effectively than a normal brush as the head rotates and oscillates.

How much is enough: As much as daily (or alternate with other techniques below).

Recommended? Highly — skin looks and feels better and responds well to cleansers and serums afterward.

What to use: For body a natural (boar) brush, or  Clarisonic Plus (with the large brush head); for face Clarisonic or Truth In Aging's exclusive Ultra Clear Facial Cleansing System. In the same vein, but not as gentle are Korean cloths.


What is it and why: Facial or body scrubs are turbo charged cleansers that help remove dead cells, excess oil and improve circulation. Depending on the ingredients in a particular product, they may also deliver some nutrients and can be used as a mask before rinsing off.

How it exfoliates: Scrubs usually contain some (gentle) abrasive ingredient such as jojoba beads, sugar, salt grains, ground nut shells and the like.

Earlier this year, the addition of microbeads in scrubs came under public scrutiny. It turns out that microbeads come from particles of plastic that rinse down the drain and eventually show up in lakes and oceans, polluting our environment and posing a threat to wildlife. As of February 2014, there are over 200 estimated cosmetic and personal care products with microbeads, and manufacturers have until December 2015 to phase the microbeads out. We can all do our part by boycotting products with microbeads and looking for safe scrub alternatives like salt, sugar, walnut pieces, jojoba spheres or other natural substances.

How much is enough: About twice a week. I skip brushing when I decide to use a scrub. Why scrub rather than brush? Scrubs are effective at removing excess oil and so are useful when your skin is especially oily (think summer months) or on the verge of misbehaving.

Recommended? Yes, unless you have very dry skin.

What to use: Try Your Best Face Prep Microdermabrasion ($80 in the shop), Skinfinite Micro Derma Scrub ($35) and Sciote Antioxidant Scrub & Masque ($50 in the shop).

AHAs and glycolics

What is it and why: Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) naturally found in sugar cane. As the AHA with the smallest molecule and the greatest penetration, glycolic acid deeply exfoliates to remove skin that is dry, coarse, or dead. Other AHAs include mandelic acid, made from bitter almonds, citric acid, malic acid (from apples) and lactic acid. Read more on AHA and glycolic.

How it exfoliates: Alpha hydroxy acids are clinically proven to loosen the glue-like substances that hold skin cells together, shedding the top layer of dull, damaged skin. Thus it achieves a deeper exfoliation than scrubbing or brushing.

How much is enough: If you are trying to repair dull and age damaged skin then you can use a glycolic based product two or three times a week. Or even every day for a short period of time. It is important to start to decrease as your skin looks better and ultimately get to the point where a once a week glycolic mask is enough.

Recommended? Highly — it will help a lot to improve the appearance of dull and/or age damaged skin. But do not over do it and decrease use as outlined above.

What to use: Be careful as AHAs and glycolics are often in products with a low pH and can be drying. Try Lumavera Glycolic Night Cream ($80), La Vie Celeste Restorative Exfoliating Gel Mask ($60 in the shop) and Sevani's Ageless Radiance Refining AHA Cleanser ($39 in the shop).


What is it and why: Retinol is Vitamin A in its whole molecule form, which can be broken down into thousands of smaller components, including Retinoic Acid (or Tretinoin, the active ingredient in Renova and Retin-A).

How it exfoliates: Vitamin A itself does not have a direct effect on skin, but is only effective after specialized enzymes in the skin cells convert vitamin A into retinoic acid (tretinoin). Retinoic acid facilitates communication between cells, encouraging aging cells to continue their renewal process. Retinol is considered a thorough exfoliator and this repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer forces the skin to produce new cells.

How much is enough: There are several reasons to go slow (if at all) on retinol. The repeated shedding of the upper dermal layer will make the skin thin and dry over time (sensitive types will find the process irritating as well). The forced production of new cells may speed up the Hayflick Limit (cells can only renew themselves a finite number of times). Users should be aware that this is a controversial ingredient. Retinol has been shown to produces excess reactive oxygen species that can interfere with cellular signaling, cause mutations, lead to cell death, and it may be implicated in cardiovascular disease. Read more on retinol here.

Recommended? Yes. Over the last few years I have moved from being relatively neutral (or even negative) to believing in retinol's effectiveness for rejuvenating skin. That said, as someone with sensitive skin, I am intent on finding retinol formulations that are kind as well as effective. I am also a big believer in rounding out retinol with antioxidants and collagen-boosting peptides.

What to use: Gentler retinol serums to try include Skinfinite Platinum PM Cream 1% Retinol ($79 in the shop), M.A.D Skincare Youth Transformation Retinol Complex Serum 1% ($79), BRAD Biophotonic Sublime Youth Creator Gel-Cream ($245) and Eslor Brightening Activator Serum ($110).

  • March 19, 2015

    by Sarah Louise

    DermalMD Glowing Serum is the most amazing product that I have ever used. Just gently rub it on your face and neck area and it instantly removes dead skin. It is extremely gentle and nonabrasive. No smell, redness, etc and leaves my face feeling so silky smooth. Highly recommend.

  • November 30, 2012

    by Tiffany

    I like to use my clarisonic (with the sensitive brush head) every day, and the Juice Beauty Apple Peel once a week. On the day I use my peel, should I skip washing my face with my brush and just use my fingers or go ahead and use the Clarisonic as well as the peel? Thanks :)

  • September 11, 2011

    by Pam

    I've been using the Asian washcloths for years. They are fantastic, although they don't look particularly elegant.... You can buy them in Asian grocery stores for anywhere from $1.50 - $3.00 in various colors. Most are long (24 - 36") and are great for getting your back with the side to side motion when bathing. I cut them in half for the ones I use on my face. They wash well and last years. They do get softer after several washings, but they stay effective. Great facial and whole body exfoliator. Can use with soap or with exfoliating scrubs. I found out about these from my ex - a rough, tough guy older guy in the military. His skin was soft as a baby's behind. I have used them ever since.

  • September 11, 2011

    by Agata

    Just ordered Korean Italy Cloth from ebay. I use JANE IREDALE MAGIC MITT and it works wonders on my acne prone skin. Let's see how that Korean cloth will do!

  • August 8, 2011

    by gertrude

    wondering where liquid exfoliators fit in this picture?

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