How to Exfoliate 1: All About Physical Exfoliants

exfoliation-tools

Are you confused about how to choose the right exfoliation method for your skincare routine? This three-part series rounds up all the types of exfoliants for your face, with examples of products and their pros and cons!

This post covers all the physical exfoliation options. Part 2 will be on chemical exfoliation, and Part 3 will be a guide on how to choose the one(s) that will work for you. For a more barebones overview, check out this exfoliation basics post.

What is exfoliation?

Your skin consists of living skin (the epidermis), covered in a 15-20 layers of dead cells (the stratum corneum). The dead cells in the stratum corneum have an important role in protecting your living tissue from the outside environment. They’re completely replaced around every 2 weeks – the cells at the surface are constantly shedding. However, the shedding isn’t always regular, and sometimes it happens slower than it should. This leads to your skin being covered by too thick a layer of dead cells, which looks dull, uneven, scaly and flaky. Exfoliation helps the shedding along, ideally without compromising the ability of the stratum corneum to act as a barrier.

There are 2 main categories of exfoliation: physical and chemical. I’m including exfoliation tools under the banner of physical exfoliation, and enzymes in the chemical group.

What Is Physical Exfoliation?

Dead cells are buffed away mechanically using grainy products or tools. It’s a lot like sandpapering a block of wood or scrubbing tiles – the friction from rubbing an object back and forth over the skin lifts stuck cells.

Much like sandpapering wood, the harshness of physical exfoliation depends on a few factors:

  • what the exfoliating objects are like (how large, how hard, how smooth)
  • how you move them over your skin (how hard you press, what direction you go in, how long you rub it in for)

I personally find that rubbing lightly in small circles for a minute or two is more effective and less irritating than rubbing hard for a short period, with any physical exfoliation method.

Physical exfoliation has a reputation for being harsh, but I think it’s unfair – it can be very gentle, but most people use physical exfoliants way too frequently, and feel like it’s not working if they don’t feel raw and tingly afterwards. Don’t fall into this trap! It’ll make your skin worse in the long run, reducing the ability of the stratum corneum to act as a barrier against the outside world and prevent moisture from leaving (its barrier function).

Product categories

Click on each heading to jump to that section.

Plastic microbeads

These round beads are made of plastic and come in every imaginable colour. They used to be in tons of products because they’re really cheap and smoothly shaped, so they were budget-friendly and gentle on the skin.

However, it turned out that microbeads were an environmental pollutant – they made their way through the sewage system and into waterways, where environmental toxins (actual toxins) like pesticides latched onto them. When aquatic animals ate them, they would release the toxins. Nasty! (You can read more on microbead pollution on this post.)

Plastic microbeads were banned in a handful of US states after research showed that the beads were turning up everywhere. The Netherlands are in the process of phasing them out. Other Western countries are moving in this direction, so plastic microbeads are found in less products these days.

You’ll see them listed on the ingredients list as:

  • polyethylene
  • polypropylene
  • nylon-6
  • nylon-11
  • polymethyl methacrylate

You can find lists of microbead-containing and microbead-free products in your country on Beat the Microbead.

How to use

These are the standard scrub products – squeeze some into your hand, slap it on your clean face and rub around, then rinse.

Examples

plastic-microbead

It’s actually been quite difficult to locate plastic microbeads in my skincare collection – I only managed to find an old tube of Nivea Pure Effect All-in-1 Multi Action Cleanser, and a couple of Asian products (Muji Scrub Face Soap and Missha Cacao & Cream Facial Scrub).

There are lots of replacements for plastic microbeads available now, so you can still get your scrub on without as much guilt.

Jojoba Beads

One of the most popular replacements for plastic microbeads are jojoba beads. They’re made of chemically processed jojoba oil (the same process used to make solid margarine from liquid vegetable oil), and are usually listed as “hydrogenated jojoba oil” or “jojoba esters” in the ingredients list. These beads are translucent white, and they’re usually found in products as very fine grains.

How to use

Just like microbeads, these are straightforward scrubs. Rub them onto clean damp skin, rinse away afterwards.

Examples

jojoba-scrubs

These are particularly popular in products marketed as natural – they show up in Jurlique, Moreish and Neutrogena Naturals scrubs, as well as a Guinot Gentle Face Exfoliating Cream, a scrub/peeling gel hybrid. They’re popular but I’m personally not that fond of how they feel on my skin, so I don’t reach for these that often.

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