“Is all the stuff that rolls off with a peeling gel really my skin?“
This is a question I come across a lot! In case you’ve forgotten, a peeling gel is a popular type of cleanser in Asia. You start off with a watery gel like this, which you spread over your face (the one picture here is Laneige Strawberry Yoghurt Peeling Gel):
Then you massage the gel into your face and you get this:
First of all, as you can see, there is a LOT of stuff here, and it’s light pink, which is not my skin colour! But this is a beauty science blog after all, so let’s do some experimenting…
Here are two peeling gels I ordered off eBay when my skin was freaking out here in Europe: The Face Shop White Jewel Peeling Gel and Tony Moly Floria Peeling Gel(when I haul skincare, I haul in multiples).
To check if the fibres were skin, product, or a mixture of both, I wore a nitrile surgical glove on my left hand, and the finger of another glove on my right hand (so I could make sure I had a dry button-pressing finger for photos). I started with a blob of Tony Moly Floria Active Peeling Gel, about the amount I would use for my entire face:
I then massaged it with my gloved finger for a good thirty seconds to get this:
A few fibres! So the product is definitely causing some of the balling. But on the skin it takes about 5 seconds before you get lots of balled up fibres. On the other hand, 30 seconds without skin contact gave me only a tiny amount. I tried waiting and blowing off some of the water, in case the extra water was preventing the product from bunching up properly, but to no avail (some of the water will normally be absorbed by the skin). This confused me for a minute – until I remembered that the gel has a massively high water content. What is there in skin that might not play well with water and cause weird textures? Oil!
I prepared a fresh glove and blob of Floria gel, and added a couple of drops of Jurlique Skin Balancing Face Oil (I’m sure ordinary cooking oil would have done fine, but I had this close by).
Rub rub rub… hey presto! Clumps!
I checked with The Face Shop White Jewel Peeling Gel as well. The original dispensed product:
After rubbing with a gloved finger – a tiny bit of clumping:
Added a drop of oil:
Rubbed again – lots of clumping!
Here’s a similar sized amount rubbed on the back of my hand:
As you can see from the amount produced, most of the stuff coming off is product, and some skin oils are combining with it to form the clumps. But notice how the product on the glove is entirely white, but there’s some grey discolouration in the fibres on my hand? That’s dirty skin, and if you’ve ever used a peeling gel on a flaky bit of your face, you’ll know that it’s incredibly efficient at removing dead skin (though not efficient enough to rub off as much skin as you’d think from seeing it bunch up).
So what’s happening? Peeling gels frequently claim to “peel” dead skin with fruit enzymes, but there’s no way they can act within 10 seconds without burning your face off. This means peeling gels are actually a very gentle physical scrub – the scrubbing bits are the soft, bunched up fibres, which are usually made of bunched up acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer* (sometimes listed as “carbomer” in the ingredients list). Some gels also contain a lot of cellulose, which adds to the bunching effect (this is usually in the opaque ones, like Laneige Strawberry Yoghurt Peeling Gel and The Face Shop White Jewel Peeling Gel).
(Check out the video for this post – it has a bit of extra microscoping as well!)
According to Colin’s Beauty Pages, the biodegradable, water-soluble acrylate polymer is usually used to thicken a product, but if there’s too much used the polymer will ball up on the skin, which is usually considered a problem. In this case, it’s being used as the main feature of the product! If you’re looking for a more environmentally friendly alternative to microbead scrubs, these might be up your alley.
Conclusion: Peeling gels aren’t chemical exfoliants – they’re gentle physical exfoliants (scrubs). The fibres form from ingredients that are in the gel to begin with, balling up from the rubbing motion with some help from oils on your skin. There will be a small amount of dead skin in there too.
* I’ve only ever used peeling gels with this as the bunching ingredient – it’s quite possible that there are peeling gels that use another ingredient.
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